Soho for The Curious
The second in our series of London walks, we saunter round Soho where one of my earliest memories was seeing men in fishnet stockings and lederhosen spilling out on to the pavements of the Polar Bear pub near Leicester Square. The memory has stayed and so has a certain fascination. Our walk starts at the South East of Soho and ends at Carnaby Street in the North West. Tips on where to eat are at the end.
Soho became a well-to-do district around 1630, when the second Earl of Leicester built his mansion in Leicester Square, but when Greek, French and later Polish immigrants started to settle in the latter part of the century, the wealthier moved out and Soho’s present day character is in large part due to this abandonment. With cheap rents and a vibrant multi-ethnic population, it acquired a name for it’s exciting night life and sex industry.
Today it’s also an area of smart boutiques and restaurants and Leicester Square itself is dominated by large expensive cinemas. But if you visited 30 years ago you would have found ‘Fester Square’ as it was known when piled high with rubbish during a refuse collection dispute in 1979.
Leave at the north side of the square through Leicester Place and pass by the beautifully simple Church of Notre Dame de France, which was rebuilt in 1955 after wartime bombing. It’s extremely well-heated owing to the fact that French churches are state run and you can spend some warm time looking at the peaceful mural by Jean Cocteau, the famous film maker and artist who came here every day in the 1960s seeking sanctuary from the press.
Leaving the church, turn right twice and you’ll find yourself in Lisle Street, home of two Michelin 2012 listed chinese restaurants, the Beijing Dumpling and Imperial China, both with reasonably priced menus and tempting aromas. The Beijing Dumpling is especially interesting as you can watch the delicious dumplings being made in the front window. A meal is around £15 a head with drinks and service.
Then to the famous Polar Bear, now KU Bar, on corner of Newport Place. It was named after the performing polar bears, a troupe of 30 animals that used to appear at the nearby Hippodrome. The Polar Bear was a gay Aussie pub and the KU-bar website still promises a varied clientele from ‘twinks to professionals, Local Boys and Tourists’ and some good looking bar staff too.
Turn left into Newport Place and then head left again down Gerrard Street, the centre of Chinatown which is open 365 days a year and is especially lively during Chinese New Year in February when the dragon parade takes place. The 24/7 needs of the Chinese community are met with supermarkets, betting shops and accountants all geared to the hardworking lifestyle. There’s even a branch of the Hong-Kong Shanghai bank which opens from 10 – 4 on a Sunday.
The poet John Dryden also lived here at No. 43 translating classics like Virgil in his later life. Unhappily married, he was happily widowed and famously wrote on his wife’s tombstone: ’Here lies my wife, here let her lie, she’s now at peace and so am I’.
Turn right at the end into Wardour Street. Opposite you will see the Kong Wei restaurant where the once unspeakably rude waiters are now reported to be purring like pussycats. Across Shaftsbury Avenue we pass the Church of St Anne on the right. It was restored after damage from a V1 during WW2 and now has an intriguing eco-hut in the front garden. It’s a toilet for groups of visiting schoolchildren and is illuminated at night for the enjoyment of all.
Now comes a delicious section of the walk peppered with old fashioned shops which are hanging on despite competition from the chains. Turn right into old Compton Street where at No. 52 the Algerian Coffee Store store offers a stand-up double expresso at the bar for £1.00 and a latte £1.20. Before that there is Jerry’s off-license which could sink a battle cruiser with its wares, and on the right a traditional Italian deli called I Camisa which has been there since 1929, a good stop if you are thinking of a picnic in Soho Square Gardens.
This area is famous for the birth of British Rock, Roll and Jazz. Just by the Italian deli you will see a plaque saying as much. Turn left into Frith Street for the Bar Italia, open for coffee day and night, 7 days a week, and Ronnie Scott’s which opened in 1959 where musician George Melly did 31 Christmas seasons.
The author and essayist William Hazlitt lived at No. 6. He is now regarded as one of the best social essayists in the English language, along with George Orwell and Samuel Johnson. Hazlitt House is now an upmarket hotel though the interior remains much as Hazlitt would have known it. He is buried in St Anne’s Churchyard where his grave can now be located, after a lengthy campaign to give him a headstone which succeeded in 2003.
Turn right into Bateman Street where you will see the Dog and Duck pub on the corner. The name Soho is derived from its rural past and hunting tradition: when dogs were sent to bring back ducks that had been shot, their masters would cry SOHO! meaning DROP THE DUCK! Other unusual bars include the Garlic and Shots where you can buy garlic and honey flavoured ice-cream and just opposite is the new and trendy Barafina tapas bar with only 26 stools at the Bar and no tables. You can’t book so you just have to get there early, and if it’s full you must sit outside with a glass of wine and wait patiently, Barcelona style.
Where Bateman street meets Greek street, look to your right for the brothel that was featured in A Day in the Life of a Soho Prostitute, where the madame does the foreign girls’ paperwork and cooks for them. Since it was made illegal, there is much less prostitution at street level, though the telephone kiosks are littered with cards.
Turning left into Greek Street and head north towards Soho Square and if you fancy a little deviation, duck right under a bridge into the side road of Manette Street where on the right is the backside of the famous Foyles bookshop. The two Foyle brothers, William and Gilbert, set it up in 1924 after failing their civil service entrance exams dismally and finding an avid market for their unwanted text books. The pretty little chapel on the left is part of St Barnabas house, a caring institution.
Just before entering Soho Square you will see one of Soho’s most famous restaurants, the Gay Hussar on the right. Serving Hungarian food it was famous after the War for its Borsch though today it’s also famous for all the famous people that have eaten here. Inside, the walls are lined with pictures of them.
Soho Square has a peaceful atmosphere and whilst passing through you can pause for a minute to admire the little tudor utility station in the middle which is now used as a too shed for the gardener. As you leave the square via Carlisle Street, you would find it easy to miss a little shop called MPL, which stands for McCartney Productions Limited, the centre of the McCartney empire. It’s rumoured that he occasionally visits to pick up his royalty cheques because he doesn’t trust the postman.
Leave the square via Carlisle Street and at the end turn left into Dean Street where you will immediately see the little newsagent that has been open since 1791. The avant-garde Soho theatre and former residence of Karl Marx is on your left. We are now in the heart of media country, where British film companies such as Laine Lea are located.
A little further down, turn right into the tiny cobbled Meard Street, where on your left you will see a nose 10 feet up on the wall of the first building. The owner wanted to put up a trellis but when denied by Westminster planning authority, decided to erect this instead and has refused to take it down since. A little further down on the left look out for the sign on the door of No. 7, the former home of artist Sebastian Horsley who died in 2010 and famously wrote of Soho: ‘The air used to be clean and the sex used to be dirty. Now it is the other way around.’
Turn around and opposite you’ll see a smart tailor’s shop where the Beatles had their outfits made for this is also the home of some up-market rag traders. At the end of Meard street, turn left into Wardour street where you then turn right into Brewer Street passing Madame Jojo’s licensed sex shop on the right and the Soho bookstore which offers a warm place to browse books upstairs and a warm welcome of a different kind downstairs.
Now turn right into a tiny alley called Greens Court Lane where you can enjoy tea at the Citygate Church Arts Centre arts centre on the right, or a visit to the British Sex shop on the left. At the end of the road turn right into Peter Street then immediately left into Berwick Street with its legendary street market, now also home to Pilgrim’s Pizzas and friendly fishmonger Antony Holmes.
At the junction with Broadwick Street, turn left and see on your left the new Richard Rogers building, right opposite the water pump without a handle. It’s a memorial to John Snow who in 1854 discovered the cause of a cholera outbreak which nearly destroyed the neighbourhood. He worked out that the sick had all drawn water from the same pump and got the authorities to remove the handle preventing further infection. It’s water was found to contain raw sewage. The re-named John Snow pub is opposite. The area was heavily bombed so don’t miss the few remaining and restored 18c townhouses on your right.
Carnaby Street is straight ahead and as you enter, above your head on your right is a mural depicting some of the characters that made Carnaby Street famous. See if you can spot the gaunt face of writer Jeffery Bernard whose notable hangovers were immortalised by the phrase ‘Jeffery Bernard is Unwell’. These four words often replaced his weekly ‘Low Life’ article in the Spectator magazine, a ‘suicide note in weekly instalments’ according to John Meades.
Carnaby Street, named after the long-gone Carnaby House, was centre of male fashion in the 1960s when John Stephen, mass market male fashion pioneer, owned no less than 15 shops here. A blue plaque describes him as ‘the founder of Carnaby Street’. But now it’s dominated by chain stores. To get an idea of its former character, visit parallel Newburgh Street with its Georgian townhouses and independently owned shops.
Rejoining Carnaby Street opposite the Shakespeare pub, you’ll find you are at the back of Liberty and this is a great place to explore. It traded in goods from the orient, and the golden ship on top of the building is a symbol of the former sea trade. Inside the memorable galleries are built with the timber from the last two man-o-war Royal Navy ships, and on the top floor their timbers are festooned with rugs like an oriental souk, exotic and beguiling even today.
Where to Eat: There are so many places! They all go in and out of fashion so we can only say what what we know right now.
Snacks: Yumchaa, 9/11 Tottenham Street, W1T 2AQ. Monday to Friday – 8:00am to 8:00pm. Saturday and Sunday – 11:00am to 6:00pm - Relaxed student atmosphere. All the teas are laid out on the counter and the staff are friendly.
Lunch / Supper:
The Beijing Dumpling, Lisle Street. Good for small parties. Full at lunchtime and some clients were actually Chinese – a good sign. Warm friendly atmosphere and you can watch them making the dumplings as you enter. £15 a head including service and drinks. Why we recommend it: We ate here and liked it. Also because it has a Michelin 2012 sticker in the window. Gets 4**** on Trip Advisor
Imperial China, 25a Lisle Street. Much bigger than it looks from the front, better suited to large groups than the others. Also gets 4 **** on Trip Advisor and has a Michelin 2012 listing. We didn’t eat here though.
Barafina, 54 Frith Street. Seriously trendy. You sit at the bar, so best for couples or singles. There are 26 bar stools and no reservations so get there early!