London Street Guides: Soho

By Patrick Evenden

SEX! SEX! SEX!

Well maybe not quite that much any more, it does become terribly tiring. But, not so long ago, Soho was the sex industry capital of the UK. The closest thing we had to a red light district. A few last bastions to Soho’s erotic past can be found in the writhing back streets, beneath faded, flickering neon lights but in truth Soho today has so much more to offer than what may, or may not, be contained in the brown paper bag, passed to you from beneath the counter.

Situated south of Oxford Street, between Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road tube stations, Soho is incredibly diverse. From Hare Krishna to homosexuality, Communism to Carnaby Street, Soho has a varied history that doesn’t lie too far beneath the surface. It has always been considered the pauper amongst its more well-heeled neighbours: Bloomsbury; Marylebone and Mayfair.

In the late 17th century, it became the focal point for London’s French immigrant population, with Huguenots establishing what was then considered to be the French Quarter. It’s not surprising that, in his novel The Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens situates Monsieur Manette and his daughter, Lucie, in Soho’s Golden Square.

Pubs

By the time of Dickens himself, Soho had descended into London’s capital of vice, with prostitution and alcohol the primary interests of its hard-up inhabitants. In 1854, it was at the centre of London’s Cholera epidemic. The outbreak was later traced back to the public water pump on Broadwick Street, which can still be found there. Thankfully, today there are a few more drinking options and the pump is overlooked by a pub called The John Snow, named after the doctor who pinpointed the source of the problem.

With its shifting immigrant population combining to create a thriving cultural hub, and the availability of cheap alcohol, Soho became a beacon for writers, artists and intellectuals. Notably, Karl Marx was a resident and much of the Communist Manifesto is thought to have been drafted by Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Red Lion on Kingly Street. Personally, I find its atmosphere conducive to ruminating on the shortcomings of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, rather than the corrupting nature of capitalism.

Music

In the 20th century, creativity continued to thrive and Soho’s reputation as the home of London counterculture was further enforced by the burgeoning jazz scene. The most notable of London’s jazz bars, Ronnie Scott’s, still exists today on Frith Street. The bar also has a rightful place in rock and roll folklore as the venue of Jimi Hendrix’s last live performance.

Soho, along with the Kings Road in Chelsea, quickly became the heart of London cool in the 60s. The Rolling Stones played their first gig at the Marquee Club on Wardour Street and were later followed by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. A plaque can still be seen where the club once stood, in tribute to legendary rock and roll wild man Keith Moon, who performed there with The Who.

Soho’s musical legacy is further enhanced by the numerous guitar shops that line Denmark Street and the once-thriving vinyl shops that lined Berwick Street, also pictured on the front cover of Oasis’s second album, ‘What’s the Story Morning Glory?’

Carnaby Street

Carnaby Street, with its shops, boutiques and proximity to rock and roll greatness was the fashion capital of 60s London. Today, maybe overwhelmed by its own reputation, it has lost its independent streak but remains popular with tourists looking to discover their inner Jagger. It is also a great place to escape the swarming masses of streets Oxford and Regents and grab a bite to eat or a restorative drink. The Diner, on Ganton Street (just off of Carnaby Street) offers no-nonsense Americana, while if you need something a little stronger than a milkshake, try Zebrano (just over the road).

Nightlife

With the rise of the Permissive Society in the 60s and the establishment of more liberal attitudes towards sex, Soho’s long hidden-from-view gay community exploded onto the scene and can now be found in the southern area of Soho, situated around Old Compton Street. The area contains a number of gay bars, including the Admiral Duncan, which was the scene of a neo-Nazi nail bomb attack in 1999. Around the corner on Wardour Street, Freedom bar, is a great place for cocktails and is more accessible than some of the areas more outlandish venues.

If you prefer your nightlife a little more heterosexual, there are plenty of options. Lucky Voice karaoke bar, Beneath Yo! Sushi on Poland Street, is a great place to meet up with friends. Their private rooms mean you can’t “wow” members of the public with your rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart and also make it advisable to book beforehand. LVPO (pronounced Lupo) is a great alternative to the more pompous, exclusive nightclubs in Mayfair, with free admission and drinks lasting well into the night; 3am for those that can last that long.

Theatre

If you want to tap into Soho’s creative past, the Soho Theatre makes a pleasant alternative to the latest, Ben Elton penned, musical nonsense being staged at the larger theatre down the road. As well as often playing host to the world’s leading alternative comedians, it also stages works from up-and-coming young writers. As a nod to Soho’s French Huguenot past, follow it up with a visit to Pierre Victoirre, just down the road, where you can enjoy fine French food, a pastis and, if you’re feeling that pretentious, a Gauloise. Outside. Obviously.

For more things to do in London, check out our Notting Hill street guide or or see all London street guides.

Looking for London accommodation on a budget? See our guide Help! I need some cheap accommodation in London. Or, click for a full list of hostels in London.

Author bio: Patrick Evenden is a PR media-monkey by day, and a restaurant/bar critic for Fluid London by night, as well as a life-long Londoner by birth. When not nestled beneath people’s armpits on the tube, he likes to spend his time out and about in the capital, drinking, eating and drinking some more.

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Thanks to konstantin, Ewan-M, Kake Pugh, KatArney, Gaterion and Co-operative Stores for the images off Flickr. Please note, all images were suitable for use at the time of publication according to the Creative Commons License.

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