Soho and the West End, London
Soho is synonymously known for its entertainment district especially for its sex shops/industry venues, night life and film industry. The area has undergone a big transformation since the 1980s. Today it's mainly restaurants, bars, cinemas, entertainment centres, theatre and media offices. Soho is also the home of London's gay community and London's Chinatown which holds a number of cultural events throughout the year.
It was the 1600s when the name 'Soho' first appeared. It was used to rally calls for James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, to rally calls for his men at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685. Soho initially wasn't the fashionable area in London compared to Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Mayfair. Instead it attracted immigrants especially the French Hugunenots which develop its own community (the area became know as London's French Quarter). There was never are considerable redevelopment at the time and by the mid 19th Century arrived, prostitutes, music halls and small theatres moved in. In the 20th Century the area became bohemian with its restaurants, cafes, bars and entertainment especially its film, theatre and music scene. The British Board of Film Classification has its offices in Soho Square.
I always enjoy wandering through Soho especially its backstreets and there is always something I find which is usually off the beaten track! It's a less stressful way going via Soho from Oxford Street, not far from my accommodation, to London's theatreland.
Waterloo Place is a square in which Regents Street meets the Mall. It is not a particularly noteworthy place, at least not from the point of view of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, but it does contain a number of statues and memorials. The foremost among these is the Duke of York Column and the Crimean War Memorial, the latter having been moved to accommodate other statues, including the one devoted to Florence Nightengale. The Place is an ideal place for pictures, as it is surrounded by imposing Imperial structures yet quiet enough to get just the right shot.
Soho Square, like Golden Square, is a historic green spot in Soho, the otherwise densely built section of central London that has gone through the rollercoaster of urban decline and renewal. The Square was initially built in the latter half of the 17th century and featured in the centre of the Square a statue to King Charles III. While the statue spent several decades in exile (initially removed for repair) in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was restored to its original place in the Square in 1938. The Square is also notable for its gardener’s cottage, which has that typically English half-timbered design that so many of us from outside of the British Isles associate with the English countryside. The Square hosts the headquarters of a number of media organizations, but also an interesting Victorian-era Catholic church.
Soho may be perceived as being a transitioning area between sleaze and the respectability of the arts and musical theatre, but it is also a commercial and residential district no different from other areas of London. Indeed, parts of Soho have an air of being the perfect bourgeois homestead, and this is aided by small spaces of greenery such as Golden Square. The Square doesn’t appear to have any special historical interest, but, as with so many other parts of London, it does in fact add to the city’s architectural fabric. In particular, it is believed (but not proven) that the square was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the architect famous for the plans of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Today a number of offices occupy the Square, including those of the Saatchi Group, as well as a wonderful coffee shop that specializes in Portuguese pastries and musical instrument shops.
I know that Old Bond Street and Savile Row have different reputations and different histories, but their proximity to one another, and the likelihood that visitors will be wandering from one to the other has led me to combine them into one tip. Bond Street was initially built up in the 19th century as a street for art galleries and auction houses. Sotheby’s, world-famous for its auctions of art works by European and American masters, is still located on the Street. Today, the street is lined with luxury retailers, particularly high-end clothiers and jewelers. In fact, the northern end of Old Bond Street supposedly has the highest concentration of jewelers in the world (I’m sure Dubai will find a way to outdo this). Conversely, Savile Row (located just to the east of Old Bond Street), has retained its reputation as the epicenter of high-end tailoring. While the street was first developed in the 18th century, it was not until the mid-19th century that it became established as the headquarters of some of London’s most established and well-respected tailors. Here you will still find the offices of some of the most exclusive providers of tailoring services both for men’s suits and for military and naval uniforms. You will also find some of the revolutionaries on the front of men’s modern fashions. Savile Row isn’t just about men’s suits, though: you will also see on the street the location of the Beatles’ recording business, Apple.
Regent Street, like Oxford Street, is one of London’s many, many shopping districts. Much like English society, the streets all have their particular class, and Regent may fall somewhere in the upper bourgeoisie of London shopping districts: a cut above the Zara and H&M leanings of Oxford Street, but definitely below the bespoke elegance of Saville Row or the new-money opulence of Bond Street. Nevertheless, Regent Street is a fun place to go for an evening stroll, even if you’re not one for window shopping. It can get busy, but not as busy as Oxford Street, and the crowds provide a health mix of people, owing to the Street’s proximity to Piccadilly Circus, Soho and Oxford Street itself.
Cambridge Circus is the destination in London for those who love big-name theatrical productions. It is here that you will find the late-19th century Palace Theatre of London, as well as various other theatres that offer such shows as the Mousetrap, London’s longest running production. The undisputed Queen of the Circus is the Palace Theatre, which was initially opened as the Royal English Opera House, and offered patrons only one English opera. It then moved into variety acts, and has since been a stalwart of the vulgarized form of opera known as musicals.
Soho is perhaps an example of a district that has come full circle, from a respectable, if somewhat sleepy, section of the city, to a seedy part of town taken over first by immigrants and then by the entertainment industry’s underclass, and finally back to a respectable component of London’s arts and culture scene. While aristocracy had initially attempted to turn the area into an upper-class neighbourhood, in the 17th and 18th centuries it became known for its French Huguenot community. These Protestants gradually gave way to music halls and theatres in the 19th century, at which point the last vestiges of London’s “respectable” classes had fled. In the 20th century, the music scene was joined by sex shops and blue venues. These have gradually died out, although a few remain, and Soho has now become a sort of gentrified counter-culture capital, thanks to the writers, poets and artists who were drawn to its more liberal mores and stayed once they had been accepted by society at large. Soho is also the centre of London’s vibrant gay community, although it appears that ridiculously high prices of real estate have meant that economics, rather than sexual or any other identity, govern the appearance of restaurants and pubs.
Old Bond Street has been the 'place to go' since 18th century and is the home of many high class expensive fashion and jewellery shops and happens to be one of the world's most expensive areas of real estate. Bond street is the most expensive retail streets and rents rose by over 19% in 2010. Sir Thomas Bond purchased the area and developed it, giving the street his name. Art dealers and antique dealers were operating out of the street but fewer and fewer are there now as fashionable boutiques have moved in. Take a look at the jewellers shops near the Piccadilly end, unbelievable prices and you just cannot enter any shop and look around. On each door there is a plain clothes security man, complete with the latest communication technology.
In Regent Street you will come across Man in Moon Passage, a small alleyway leading to Piccadilly . Nothing special about this place except for the peculiar name, which was probably named after a pub.
Walking up Regent's Street people are usually interested in shopping but spend a few minutes admiring the wonderful architecture on the buildings which are all listed and protected. Named after the Prince Regent, George IV, the street was completed in 1825 and planned by architect John Nash. It was first called New Street, a dividing line between upper class Mayfair and the less respectable Soho. The street was redeveloped at the turn of the last century with strict control over the buildings which were made from Portland stone and 66 ft above pavement level.
Broadcasting House was built in 1932, as the BBC's first purpose-built broadcast centre. The building is worth a visit for two reasons, in my opinion. Firstly, for its architecture; it is a classic example of 1930s design. It is built of Portland stone and often likened in design to the prow of a ship. Above the entrance is a famous statue of Prospero and Ariel (from Shakespeare's play The Tempest), by Eric Gill (see photo 3). Ariel is naked, and there is a story that there were complaints about the size of his p***s, with the result that John Reith, then Director-General of the BBC, ordered Gill to alter it, although there is no real proof of this.
Secondly, visit for the historical resonance of this building. It was from here that the first BBC radio broadcast was transmitted, a performance by Henry Hall and his BBC Dance Orchestra, on 15 March 1932. In a studio here John Logie Baird tried out his experimental television apparatus in August of the same year. And in Christmas of that year King George V came here to deliver the first of what is now a British tradition, the monarch’s Christmas day speech to the nation.
During the Second World War this building epitomised the British determination to carry on as much as normal as was possible. It was painted grey during the Second World War to disguise it from bomber attack but nevertheless it was bombed three times. The most destructive of these was in October 1940, when seven members of staff died. Newsreader Bruce Belfrage was reading the 9.00 PM News at the time – famously, he continued without pause, for security reasons. To ensure that they would be available when it was time for their programme to be transmitted, producers, announcers and artists often slept in the building. Apparently the Queen of the Netherlands was an overnight guest, and trod on sleeping newsreader/journalist Alan Bullock lying in the corridor on her way to the bathroom. It was also from here, on June 18 1940, that General de Gaulle made a speech, following his escape from Nazi-overrun France, in which he rallied his compatriots to form what was to become the Free French Forces.
More recently, Broadcasting House has seen the birth of Radio One, the BBC’s pop and rock station, in 1967. And today a large modern extension is underway, that will extend the activity here to include all BBC Television and Radio News, Network Radio services and the World Service (currently at another iconic building, Bush House in the Strand). The intention is to also increase access for the public, who will have much more opportunity to see broadcasting in action.
Meanwhile, although Broadcasting House isn’t generally open to the public, there are tours offered once a month on Sundays. More details of these are available on the website below, but do note that these are considered suitable for children 12 and above, and pre-booking is essential. I haven’t done a tour myself, but I have had occasion to visit BH (as it is often shortened to) several times in the course of my work and I reckon a tour would be well worth doing.
Piccadilly Circus with the statue of Eros, Theatres and antiquated book shops on Shaftsbury Avenue.
China Town and slippery Soho - a mix of old, seedy-sixties-sex-industry 'red neon' and pretentious yuppy restaurants, media and offices.
Leicester Square for cinema and food and Covent Garden for bars and street entertainers.
The West End of London is the place to be at night.
See this West End Map for details.
In the middle of the busy Soho the Soho Gardens is a delightful quiet place to have a moment of to relax.
The history of the square and gardens dates back to 1681.
In the center is a small Tudor-syle house built in 1925 to cover an electricity sub-station underneath; it's now a garner's hut.
Oxford Street in London is a hopping heaven. There are so many stores (both expensive and reasonable). However, shopping on Saturday afternoons requires courage (not being pushed from the main street because of so many shoppers), always keep eyes on your bags due to frequent appearance of pickpockets, maneuver skillfully your ways to shop and tube entrances. If you do not mind doing these things, it is one of the best shopping streets in London. A good luck.