Back after another enforced hiatus tackling Soho for the third and final time. This visit includes some of the most famous streets that bridge the divide between Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue: Greek Street, Frith Street, Berwick Street and Wardour Street; as well as Brewer Street and Old Compton Street which intersect them. I touched upon the history of the area in the two previous posts and if you’re interested in a glimpse of Soho in in its 1950s cosmopolitan heyday this film from the BFI archives is well worth dipping into – Sunshine in Soho 1956.
For what seems like the umpteenth time I start out from Tottenham Court Road tube station only this time head south down Charing Cross Road. First site of interest on the western side is the building which up until 2011 housed St Martin’s School of Art (now to be found in Kings Cross). Aside from its famous alumni such as Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, P J Harvey and M.I.A. the building also holds the honour of being the venue for the first ever gig by the Sex Pistols on 6 November 1975.
Right next door, as you can see, is Foyles bookstore, often proclaimed as the most famous such emporium in the world. The company was founded by brothers William and Gilbert in 1903 and moved to this site just before WW1. From the end of WW2 up until the turn of the millennium (when she died) the store was effectively under the iron control of William’s daughter, the notorious Christina. This went well up until the 1970’s when (as admitted even in the in-store display) her increasingly idiosyncratic business decisions began to alienate both staff and customers. Happily, the family members who subsequently took over the reins have succeeded in revitalising the business and the store, with its five floors holding the largest stock of books in the UK, is a pleasure to wander around.
Next up is Cambridge Circus, home to the imposing Palace Theatre. This red brick monolith was commissioned by Richard D’Oyly Carte in the 1880’s and was intended primarily as a stage for English Grand Opera. Within a few years of its opening however it was sold at a loss and became a music hall theatre. The Palace Theatre name was introduced in 1911 and the first proper staging of a musical came in 1925 with No, No Nanette which ran for 665 performances. This of course pales beside the 2,385 shows racked up by The Sound of Music in the 1960’s, the 3,358 achieved by Jesus Christ Superstar in the 1970’s and the nineteen-year (1985 to 2004) residency of Les Miserables. The theatre is currently dark but is gearing up for another blockbuster when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opens in July 2016 (initial run already sold out).
Adjacent to the theatre is the Spice of Life pub (another haunt of mine in the Eighties) which is still doing its bit for the Soho jazz tradition with regular gigs in the basement.
Head past the pub down Romilly Street where on the corner with Greek Street stands the Coach and Horses perhaps the most famous of all the many Soho watering holes. This fame is largely attributable to the 62-year reign of Norman Balon as the self-proclaimed rudest landlord in London which ended in 2006. During this period the pub counted the likes of Peter O’Toole, Francis Bacon and the staff of Private Eye amongst its regulars. And then there was the journalist, Jeffrey Bernard, whose hard-drinking exploits were immortalised in the successful play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.
Moor Street takes us back to Charing X Road.
Head back into Soho along Old Compton Street then swiftly turn north up Greek Street. Up at no.48 is L’Escargot, reputedly the oldest French restaurant in London. Its founder, M. Georges Gaudin, originally owned a restaurant called Bienvenue further up Greek Street but when he moved his business to this site in 1927 it was renamed after his most famous dish. There was a snail farm in the basement and the plaster cast above the entrance depicts M. Gaudin riding a snail along with the motto “slow but sure”.
Turning left down Bateman Street brings us into Frith Street where you will find Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. This has been a Soho institution since October 1959 (it started in Gerard Street and moved to its present location in 1965) and has played host over the years to such as Miles Davis, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz and Freddie Hubbard. Ronnie himself passed away in 1996. Only got to see the illustrious Mr Scott in the flesh on one occasion – a Roy Ayers gig in the early nineties – and true to form he bestowed his full repertoire of time-worn jokes on the audience. Amongst the old chestnuts there was a surreal gag to which the punchline was “a fish”. Sadly I can’t quite recall the rest of it.
Cutting across the corner of Soho Square and nipping down Carlisle Street takes us on to another stretch of Dean Street. Here on the west side is a legacy of old Soho in the Wen Tai Sun Chinese News Agency (though sadly not for much longer it appears). Despite the name this is basically just an outlet for the sale of oriental gewgaws – so if you need a nodding gold cat you’d better get down there quick. On the opposite side we have the Soho Theatre; which offers an eclectic and extensive selection of comedy and cabaret acts. Have been to see loads of stuff here (was there just last week in fact) and most of it has been pretty good.
A little further down at no. 28 is a blue plaque marking the residency of Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) for five years in the 1850’s. Remarkably he earned a living during this time as European correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune. The building is currently occupied by the Quo Vadis restaurant – Quo Vadis ? being the phrase which Christian tradition attributes to St Peter upon meeting the risen Jesus when fleeing from Rome. A tenuous touch of irony given Marx’s staunch atheism.
Having taken in further stretches of Romilly Street and Old Compton Street we emerge out of Dean Street and onto Shaftesbury Avenue, the heart of theatreland. And turning right we reach the Queens’ Theatre where the aforementioned “World’s Longest Running Musical” has sailed merrily along since leaving the Palace Theatre 12 years ago (can it really be that long ?)
Turning right next up Wardour Street and almost immediately on the right is The Church of St Anne Soho. The design of this is attributed to Christopher Wren and/or William Talman and construction took place between 1677 and 1685. The original tower was demolished in 1800 (though the 1 ton clock bell, cast in 1691 and still in use, was retained) and a replacement completed within 3 years. Until the mid nineteenth century the churchyard was the final resting place of Soho’s inhabitants – up to 100,000 of them by some estimates. By then though the volume of burials had created such a sanitation problem that further interments were banned and in 1891 the churchyard was laid out as a public garden. The most famous post-mortem resident is the writer William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830) who died in a house on Frith Street.
There’s a final stretch of Old Compton Street before we retrace our steps up Dean Street. OCS and its several pubs are indelibly linked with London’s gay community though the best known of these, the Admiral Duncan (named after Adam Duncan who defeated the Dutch fleet in 1797) will always be associated with the heinous nail-bomb attack perpetrated in 1999.
Sandwiched in between the pub and one of a fair few remaining “adult” emporia is the Algerian Coffee Store one of the survivors from Soho’s bohemian golden age (check out the film).
Strung between Dean Street and Wardour Street are Bourchier Street, Meard Street, Richmond Buildings and St Anne’s Court. The Soho Hotel is tucked away around the penultimate of these, providing a home for this giant (and rather impudent) cat in its foyer.
On Meard Street there are indications that some visitors may have been a bit over-zealous in their search for the vestiges of Soho’s sleazier past.
On the other side of the Soho Hotel is Flaxman Court named after the sculptor, John Flaxman (1755 – 1826) who lived on Wardour Street after his marriage.
Now we’re back on that same Wardour Street which back in the day was renowned for being the centre of the British Film Industry and for its clubs and live music venues. Sadly (and I seem to be using that adverb quite a lot today) in both those regards it is a pale shadow of its former self. The Film industry connection is still evident in the names of many of the buildings – Film House at no. 142 Wardour Street was formerly the headquarters of the Associated-British Pathé film company and Hammer House at nos. 113-117 was home to the eponymous “House of Horror” production company from 1949 until the mid-eighties.
Check out the dapper gent with the plastic bag in front of Hammer House – at least someone’s making an effort to maintain the sartorial image of the area. In terms of the nightlife associations Wardour Street was in different eras home to the likes of the Flamingo Club, the Marquee and the Wag Club not to mention (as the Jam did in their A Bomb in Wardour Street) punk favourite the Vortex.
At the northern end of Wardour Street we do a quick to and fro of Sheraton Street where yet more Crossrail workers are enjoying a break.
Cross westward into D’Arblay Street where the lunchtime queue is building up outside the Breakfast Club.
Into Poland Street and I’m pleased to see that the QPark has kept these reminders of motoring days past.
Turn left onto Broadwick Street and then northward on Berwick Street. On the cul-de-sac that is Livonia Street one splendidly Afro-ed temporary denizen is single-handedly reviving the spirit of the Seventies. Although you can’t tell from the photo she (?) has got a friend with her and I think they’ve just stopped for a coffee though the suitcase maybe tells a different story.
Berwick Street itself is the location for two of the records shops I spoke of in the last post. Reckless Records and Sister Ray are now on opposite sides and both deal mainly in second-hand vinyl. The former relieves me of the largest chunk of change.
Have to retrace my steps down Broadwick Street to get to Lexington Street where I take a quick left into Beak Street. Although it was mentioned in a previous post I couldn’t resist making the Old Coffee House pub of the day. Delighted to see that it’s hardly changed a bit in the last 25 years or so and also to have my half of one of Brodies’ craft ales and brie and chorizo sandwich in splendid isolation (apart from the old school Irish barman).
On leaving the pub turn south down Great Pulteney Street where the composer Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) lived for brief time.
The ill-fated writer and physician, John William Polidori (1795 – 1821) also lived in this street. His most successful work was the short story “The Vampyre” (1819), the first published modern vampire story but even this was originally wrongly attributed to Lord Byron. Despite his early death (probably suicide brought on by debt and depression) present day interest in the gothic and the romantic has led to an increasingly high posthumous profile.
Emerge on to Brewer Street opposite the Vintage Magazine Shop and just along from the Brewer Street Car Park which as well as being probably the most expensive car park in the country has set aside a space in which the Vinyl Factory outfit put on some of the most innovative art installations to be seen in the capital. (Unfortunately nothing on at the moment though).
So next it’s back up Lexington Street, cut through Silver Place on to Ingestre Place which leads into Hopkins Street which turn ends at Peter Street. Opposite is Green Court which is basically just an alleyway. Its in these passages (forgive me) that the seamier side of Soho retains a foothold.
Not sure exactly what characterises a British adult shop as opposed to any kind of foreign adult or if Up West has a connotation that has previously eluded me but I didn’t venture in to seek enlightenment. These pigeons have probably seen it all before mind you.
Walker Court which joins Brewer Street to Berwick Street is another case in point.
This stretch of Berwick Street contains the market and yet again we’re talking shadow of former self (check out the film and you’ll see what I mean.)
On the corner of Broadwick Street and Duck Lane is the third and final record shop of the day (and probably my favourite), Sounds of The Universe.
Another couple of albums acquired and I have quite a haul to lug around the final lap of today’s journey. Here’s a selection :
So that final lap is taken a quite a pace and involves heading back down Wardour Street, turning right into Winnett Street opposite the church, left down Rupert Street, right into Archer Street, up Great Windmill Street, right into Brewer Street again and then at the junction where the boarded up husk of one of Paul Raymond’s Revuebars forlornly sits proceed the full length of Rupert Street back to Shaftesbury Avenue where there’s just time to look back at the string of three practically adjoining theatres before escaping into Piccadilly tube station.