Dave the Taxi Driver's


Guide to London

Soho, London

Soho, London

Ronnie Scott's, Soho.London

Soho Book Shop

Soho (W1) --the most vibrant place in London

The place names of the old villages of London evolved historically from ancient settlements. They gradually became what we know them to be today having changed spellings and pronunciation from the beginning of Saxon times in the seventh century, until the Norman Invasion in 1066 and thereafter as English developed as a language. Hampstead was known as Hamstede (AD 978), meaning ‘homestead’. Islington was Gislandune (c 1000 ). Clapham was known as Cloppaham (c 880, Anglo Saxon Chronicle). Battersea slowly came about from Batrices ege ( 693) Patricesy (1086) and Battersey(1595).Battersea means ‘island or dry ground in marsh of a man called Beaduric’.

Duke of Monmouth-Battle of SedgemoreSoho has no such pedigree. Soho had a more eccentric beginning, the name being a hunting cry from a time when hunts regularly took place across the open fields of the area which became known as Soho Fields. Soho was also said to be a rallying cry during battle, particularly the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685.The voices of the enthusiastic hunter the Duke of Monmouth and his hunting party were to be heard booming across the fields ---Soho! Sohooooo! as they raced across the countryside; chomping at the bit, mouths salivating and eyes piercing the shadows they galloped on. When they got on their horses they went even faster Soho! Sohooo! Afterwards in the tavern, were the slaps on the backs, reliving the day Sohooo! as they quaffed their ale.

In time, the lives of the Duke and his men faded into memory( the Duke was eventually executed in the Netherlands), but the name of Soho lives on and Soho has become probably the liveliest, most vibrant place in London.

Not long after the area began to be developed, in 1641 a woman named Anna Clarke ‘a lewd woman’ by all accounts, was bound over after threatening to ‘burne the houses of Soho’.

From such a beginning it is not surprising that Soho was not destined to become a place of sobriety.

During the Middle Ages the area was open farmland. It was owned by the Abbot and Convent of Abingdon and also the Master of the Hospital of Burton St Lazer in Leicestershire. He was the custodian of the Leper Hospital of St.Giles in the Field which is close by (the church that is). During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 both owners surrendered their land to King Henry VIII and a Royal Park was formed for Whitehall Palace.

Building began on a modest scale in the 1600s and by the 1700s the area was occupied by the nobility with a view to it remaining a high class area. Residents included foreign diplomats. The Duke of Monmouth lived at Monmouth House in Soho Square, which was formerly known as King’s Square. Nearby Carlisle House was occupied by Theresa Cornelys, who was a native of Venice and mistress of Casanova. She hosted lavish parties and masked balls in there for nearly twenty years. By the time society began to move away to the newer, fashionable Mayfair in the late 1700s, Soho had already acquired a foreign and cosmopolitan character mainly from the influx of religious exiles, Greek Christians and French Huguenots. The houses by this time were increasingly being occupied by professionals such as lawyers and architects.

With more migration of Jews and Italians and French the population increased rapidly as Soho developed. The houses were divided into tenements and by 1851 there was much overcrowding. There was a cholera outbreak in 1854 caused by the unsanitary conditions. Dr. John Snow, a resident of Soho, was the first to prove scientifically how cholera spread thorough contaminated water. The replica of his famous water pump can be seen outside the John Snow Pub in Broadwick Street, Soho. I prefer an even better view from the inside drinking a pint of ale.

Those who were able of the more well to do families finally abandoned Soho after the cholera scare.

God as an Architect (The Ancient Days) by William BlakeSoon after, writers and artists started to move in bringing with them their bohemian influence. William Blake was born and had his hallucinations here. Karl Marx lived in Dean Street whilst working on Das Kapital. The building is now the Quo Vadis restaurant. Casanova seduced here. The poet Shelley composed here. The mural which is painted on the wall in Noel Street is dedicated to his poem of the same title-‘Ode to the West Wind’. William Hazlitt lived in a house in Frith Street which has since become Hazlitt’s Hotel. In later times the celebrated alcoholic journalist Jeffrey Bernard spent much, if not most of his life in the Coach and Horses on the corner of Greek Street and Romilly Street. This cohabitation of bohemian life and the sex industry continued until the later 1900s when the sex industry gained the upper hand.

Soho sex shopDespite the conditions in the late nineteenth century, it was also around this time that Soho gained its reputation as a place of entertainment. Theatres and music halls opened up along with other establishments which opened which for more carnal reasons, and I am not talking about butchers’ shops. Prostitution became rife. It was only during the 1950s that the area was cleaned up so to speak. Prostitution moved indoors. The signs of ‘Model’ here and there which are sometimes pinned onto an old door or written on an intercom button confirm that prostitution is quietly prospering.

With the building of new theatres in Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road towards the end of the 1800s social habits changed. By the time of World War I, when domestic staff became scarce, the custom of dining out had become increasingly popular. The shabby old restaurants spruced themselves up and went upmarket. Soho still maintains its gastronomic reputation with much more varied cuisine.

The 1900s saw the rise of the coffee bars run by foreign nationals. The all night Bar Italia which opened in 1923 is still there in Frith Street. Many more became popular during the 1950s and 1960s staying open late to serve the theatre crowds and contributed along with the sex industry to the unique Soho character and vivacity.

The Windmill Theatre had already become the first theatre to stage nude entertainment put on by Laura Henderson before and during the war years. These were known as ’tableaux vivants’. ‘We never closed’ was the slogan chosen by the Windmill because it remained open during the bombing of World War II. The licensing acts of the time were much more strict so the naked ladies had to remain motionless throughout the show. The much more adventurous Raymond Revue Bar opened in 1958.

Marquee Club, the WhoTimes were changing. The swinging sixties were to follow in the ongoing march that transformed London life and for that matter the whole of the world. Carnaby Street, the modern shopping haunt of the Beatles, Rolling Stones the Kinks and Small Faces was dominating world fashion. The Marquee Club in Wardour Street hosted bands that were to become legendary. Among the illustrious list were Cream, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Who and Jimi Hendrix.

Soho lies neatly in the almost square area outlined by Regent Street, Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road down to Leicester Square and over to Piccadilly Circus. Chinatown began to take over the area between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square in the 1950s but it is still regarded as part of Soho.

Beatles at the London PalladiumSoho is the home of the moviemaking world, sound studios, media companies; TV and film personalities and countless businesses tucked away in narrow streets and alleyways; Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club; coffee bars and cafes with photos of film stars adorning their walls; sandwich bars and delicatessens; tattoo parlours; record shops; renowned restaurants such as L’Escargot, The Gay Hussar, The Red Fort and Kettner’s plus dozens of others; Carnaby Street (still there) and the Marquee Club (gone); the first pizza restaurant in England opened in Soho; revue bars and sex shops; the Football Association; Paul McCartney’s company; erotic mannequins staring blankly at you through windows; great traditional English Pubs; jazz at the Pizza Express; the hub of Gay London is Old Compton Street, the Radha Krishna Temple in Soho Street with Govinda’s Vegetarian Restaurant; the London Palladium, part of Theatreland (which threads its way through the West End); Liberty’s; the scents of Chinatown’s restaurants floating through the air; Berwick Street Market and the smell of old vegetables outside the back of restaurants in the early morning and a community that lives and thrives there.

There are the residents of the area who meet when the tourists are not there or indeed when they are there but maybe unnoticeable within the crowds in their well known haunts of the local pubs. Despite the fact that ‘bohemian’ Soho has declined over the years Soho still has its personalities who live and work there.

Soho still retains its character principally because although it has undergone further development with one or two higher rise blocks caused by the bombing in World War II, most of the old buildings remain. The sex premises were further purged in the 1980s and now they are licensed to operate, but the brothels remain furtive.

Part of Soho has been partly pedestrianised or made walker friendly such as around Carnaby Street. Soho Square, although it is only a stone’s throw from Oxford Street and Golden Square which is just around the corner from Piccadilly Circus are both quiet backwaters despite the number of people who might be sitting in them. Most of Soho is around the next corner or at the end of a narrow street or alley. The limited views make it interesting. You will find it difficult to be bored in Soho.

To give a few examples of what it is like, one Saturday afternoon I sampled the ‘worlds of Soho’ with Maria, a family friend.

Maria in SohoThis is Maria. Maria accompanies me now and again on my photographic walks in London such as the Sunday on the South bank. Maria gives second opinions on any restaurant or pub we might visit and takes photos that I find difficult to take, such as those of me. She also comes in very handy if I suddenly start talking to myself in the street because people think I am talking to her. Just over Maria’s left shoulder there is a window with two girls sitting there, the idea being to tempt men or maybe women as well to the sensual delights within the establishment. I thought it more discreet to construct this photo without standing blatantly in front of the two ladies. As we walked back into the cobbled Rupert Street I was telling Maria that I managed to get the ladies in the photo. To our left there were two more ladies sitting on the small posts. One of them asked me to repeat what I had just said about ‘ladies’, which I did. A short conversation started (which I was trying to make even shorter) when it came out that Maria was not my wife. At this point I immediately became irresistible to the ‘lady’ sitting on the far side. Suddenly she leapt at me. She flew at me so fast I could hear the wind whistling through the gaps in her teeth, wrapping her legs around me in the process (with no priapic response from me I can assure you). We wrestled for about a minute until she accepted that Maria and I had other things to do and climbed down. She did apologise and Maria and I went on our way. I couldn’t help thinking that somewhere above us, from behind a curtained window, a man was quietly observing this vignette of Soho life, perhaps regretting he had just paid for a similar experience.

After that excitement Maria and I had a beer (Samuel Smith’s) in the Duke of York in Brewer Street and then went on to Dean Street to eat at the Pierre Victoire.

The Pierre Victoire at 5 Dean Street, was recommended by a passenger in my cab. Cheap good food stylishly created by the Estonian chef in a kitchen just a bit bigger than a small envelope. £6.90 for two courses. The price increases by £2 in the evening. A starter of humous and bread, two main courses each, a large glass of red, a soft drink, including an optional 10% service charge cost only £25.96.

radha krishna temple londonWe continued our walk through Soho Square and into Soho Street. Govinda’s Vegetarian Restaurant, which is attached to the Radha Krishna Temple serves tasty cheap vegetarian food. The last time I went there it was only £5.00 for a tray full of dishes of your choice.

After the manner in which this afternoon began you could not have a more different experience than a visit inside The Radha Krishna Temple. The custom is to remove your shoes on entry. Maria and I witnessed gifts offered to Krishna accompanied by the hypnotic rhythmic beat of the tabla. For anyone who might dismiss this form of worship I would advise you to read and learn about it and experience the peace that emanates within the temple, if only once in your life.

Moving on down Dean Street we entered the Kaslik mezze bar and restaurant. The rich red and gold colours of the interior enhanced the strong Arabic coffee that we were served. The Kaslik is at 58 Greek Street.

So there was our afternoon in Soho. We could have stayed on throughout the evening and night but we did have homes to go to so we left Soho to the people who were already filling up the pubs, the pre-theatre diners arriving as evening neared and to the thousands on their way, until the next time.

Following the shows come the post theatre diners and drinkers and during the night the mood changes but is no less entertaining.

As goes for any city I suppose it has to be said that it is not advisable to wander around alone in the middle of the night. Soho is as safe as anywhere but we are all I hope, aware of the need to be sensible. The dark hours and dark streets do attract undesirables.

Hotels in Soho

Maybe surprisingly, Soho has very few hotels. The four star Best Western Premier Shaftesbury Piccadilly, on Shaftesbury Avenue, is in a great location to get the buzz of the vivacious West End. Opposite Chinatown, in the heart of Theatreland it has a bar, fitness centre, conference facilities and free wi-fi.

Hazlitt’s is a sort of secret that you feel you have discovered in Soho. It is in Frith Street, occupying three houses that were built in 1718. Four star stylish modern luxury as you would expect, but all rooms are individually decorated, with original panelled walls and antique furniture to take you back in time. Fresh croissants are baked every morning.

The Radisson Edwardian is five star luxury in Leicester Square with Modern British Cuisine and an outdoor terrace at its restaurant. The Royal Trafalgar in narrow, Whitcomb Street, is just behind the National Gallery with its stylish Gravity Bar and Squares Restaurant(British Cuisine). Three Star Thistle Piccadilly is a large Victorian building near Piccadilly Circus in Coventry Street. Some rooms have views of Leicester Square. St Giles Hotel is 50 metres from the Tube and Oxford Street shops. Its leisure club has a swimming pool and gym. The hotel has Italian, Japanese and Asian restaurants.

You can of course have easy access to Soho from the surrounding areas. In Mayfair, the four star Westbury is a short walk away in Conduit Street, the Berners in Fitzrovia opposite Wardour Street, just across Oxford Street. Covent Garden has the convenient Radisson Mountbatten by Seven Dials. Very close, at the Soho end of Bloomsbury, you have the St.Giles Hotel and Leisure Club and near Trafalgar Square the Haymarket, in Suffolk Place just south of Chinatown.

Tube: Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus, Tottenham Court Road,Leicester Square

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