November 17, 2005 Written by SilkTork
Southampton, United Kingdom, ENGLAND -
Brothels, strip-joints, beat-cafes, obnoxious landlords, drunken writers and artists, film, media and advertising companies, theatrical agents, jazz-clubs and legendary rock clubs, more gay bars and clubs than you can shake a handbag at, and a general scruffy carefree atmosphere of Bohemian sleaze and rotting vegetables – this is Soho.
Avoided by most respectable people and ignored by tourists, the Soho area of London has developed a dark reputation for its sex industry and its small pubs spilling over with character and characters.
Where it is now throbbing and lively, during most of London’s history this area, plus the area to the north known variously as Noho, East Marylebone and Fitzrovia, was peaceful grazing farmland; however, in 1536 the land was taken by Henry 8th as a royal hunting park, and it’s been a place of thrilling, wicked entertainment ever since. Indeed it is part of Soho folklore that the area’s name derives from the ancient ‘soho!’ hunting call; though, truth be told, it is more likely to have come from the nickname of the Duke of Monmouth who used ‘soho’ as a rallying call for his men, and who in the 1600s was among the first to build in the area.
Despite the best intentions of landowners such as the Earls of Leicester and Portland to develop the land on the grand scale of neighbouring Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Mayfair, immigrants, such as French Huguenots, settled in the area, and it never became a fashionable area for the rich.
Indeed, it has been the making of Soho’s charm and character that it has been neglected and undeveloped and allowed to run a little wild and rough and cosmopolitan. By the mid 1700s all the aristocrats who had been living in Soho Square or Gerrard Street had moved out and the artists had started to move in.
By the mid 1800s all respectable families had moved away and prostitutes, music halls and small theatres had moved in. By the early part of the 1900s there was a healthy mix of foreign nationals opening cheap eating houses – French, Italian, Greek, Russian, German, Polish and Swiss – and it became a fashionable place to eat for intellectuals, writers and artists. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, if Soho folklore is believed, the pubs of Soho were packed every night with drunken writers, poets and artists, many of whom never sobered up enough to become successful; and it was also during this period that the great Soho pub landlords established themselves. Sadly, with the retirement this year of Norman, the landlord of the Coach & Horses, the last of the legendary landlords has now gone.
There are five tube stations encircling Soho, and a crawl can be started from any of these: Goodge Street, Tottenham Court Road, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus. I shall start at Goodge Street and follow a roughly circular clockwise route.
You exit Goodge Street tube station turn right and right again into the groovy and mediatastic Goodge Street - the heart of the media industry, the setting for Absolutely Fabulous, and the start of Fitzrovia. Given unlimited time it would be nice to wander around and dip into such places as The Crown & Sceptre or The Fitzrovia where I once had the best London Pride of my life. But we have a serious pub crawl to attend to.
At the crossroads with Charlotte Street turn left heading south. A little way down on the left is The Fitzroy Tavern This famous literary pub gave its name to the Fitzrovia area.
It was here that a drunken Dylan Thomas would give away poetry written on beer mats to any pretty woman, and where George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw and Augustus John, among many others, would gather to drink, argue and inspire each other. It was for a while in the 1940s considered to be the most famous pub in the world. But today it is simply the part it took in the debauched history of some creative and interesting people that makes it worth visiting. Samuel Smiths have bought it up and refurbished it to create a place that feels authentically 1940s, though the photos of famous past drinkers sometimes reveal a pub that is markedly different. There is a charming bar downstairs at the back with photos of Dylan Thomas amongst others. The main drawback is that being a Sam Smiths house the beer choice is not exciting, but Sam Smiths have bought so many fine pubs in Soho, that it is almost impossible to avoid stumbling into one or other of them.
Come out of The Fitzroy Tavern and continue south along Charlotte Street, turn right at the end and at the corner on the right is The Marquis of Granby. Another of the true Fitzrovia literary pubs. Dylan Thomas spent boozy lunchtimes here writing "Death of the King’s Canary" with John Davenport, later to be joined by TS Eliot for a few pints. It was also the pub where Orwell would finish the evening as, being in a different borough to the other pubs in Fitzrovia, it would stay open half-an-hour later. Today it’s an ordinary one room pub with a horse-shoe bar and plenty of wood, including panelling half way up the wall. It’s low key and modestly attractive with two walls of windows to give some views of the passing world. As with The Fitzroy Tavern, the main attraction is the romantic past rather than the idle present. The name is quite common for pubs because the Marquis was a British general who gave many of his ex-soldiers money to set themselves up as pub landlords and the pubs were named in his honour.
To complete the famous literary trio, come out of The Marquis and continue south down Rathbone Place, to the Wheatsheaf on the left. Dylan met his wife Caitlin here; Orwell threw up over the bar; a promising and legendary writer called Julian Maclaren-Ross drunk himself to death on his publishing advance in here – the books never got written; and Tambimuttu, editor of "Poetry London", would drink away the night, his pockets carelessly stuffed with manuscripts from the leading writers of the 1940s. It’s a cosy place, and there are regular guest ales.
Continue down Rathbone Place to Oxford Street, turn left, then an immediate left into Hanway Street. Here you’ll find Bradley’s Spanish Bar, a charming place which feels like you’ve been transported to the set of some cheesey TV soap from the 70s. Of particular note is the orange formica table tops in the downstairs bar. If you enjoy cheap, tacky, slightly strange, hugely atmospheric, warm, laid back and unique bars then this is the place for you. No cask ales, but the Cruzcampo on tap is inoffensive and drinkable.
On coming out, you may want a short detour to visit the site of an infamous brewery incident. Turn left and walk to the end of Hanway Street – you’ll emerge in Tottenham Court Road opposite the Dominion Theatre which was built in the 1920s on the site of Meux’s Horseshoe Brewery where in 1814 a giant vat burst flooding the area, destroying several houses and killing 8 people.
Turn right, then shortly right again, into Oxford Street. You may decide to pop into The Tottenham as it is famous for being the only pub left on Oxford Street, and was built by the Victorian master pub builders the Baker brothers in fine gin palace splendour. Otherwise cross over and take the next left into and through Soho Square. You are aiming for Greek Street and the Pillars of Hercules a cramped pub with the best selection of cask ales in Soho. There has been a pub on this site since 1733, though the present building dates from 1913. There are various literary connections with this pub, ranging from the old, with Casanova, Thomas De Quincey and Charles Dickens, to the modern with Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. But the most famous connection is with the lesser known poet Francis Thompson who in 1887 was living rough in Soho, addicted to opium. He sent off a scruffy parcel of poems to a publisher, care of Charring Cross Post Office. The publisher was so impressed he searched Soho for the talented poet and found him in the doorway of The Pillars of Hercules, totally stoned on opium.
Carry on down Greek Street a little way, then turn right along Bateman Street to Frith Street where on the opposite corner is what used to be Madonna and Guy’s local, the Dog & Duck. Now in the hands of Nicholson’s, this offers a changing range of good cask ales, plus the regular Taylor’s Landlord. The interior is ornate tiles and well worth seeing, while the upstairs offers a Turkish harem soft cushion comfort with views of Soho life passing by.
Now walk back along Bateman Street to Greek Street, turn right and continue down to The Three Greyhounds, a dull pub, but as it’s a Nicholson’s, worth a look to see what guest ales are on. Turn left along Old Compton Street and bear right down Langley Mow until you get to The Spice of Life on the corner. This is not an interesting pub in itself, but it is a rare London outlet for McMullens beers; and on the stage in the downstairs bar Bob Dylan performed in the 1960s and The Sex Pistols in the 1970s.
Turn right on leaving and walk back down Romilly Street, passing Norman’s Coach & Horses on the right. It’s not a great pub. It never was a great pub. But Norman was famously rude, and the place was always popular with drunken old farts, drunken journalists, drunken writers and poets, and the not quite so drunken bunch from Private Eye. Has passed into immortality with Keith Waterhouse’s play "Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell" about the drunken journalist who wrote his column while drinking in the pub.
Carry on down Romilly to where it joins Dean Street. Turn right and you will see The French House. Famous for being pretentious and hip, for being laid back and snobby, for serving genuine French cider, and for being where William Burroughs seduced Francis Bacon and Rimbaud seduced Verlaine.
Come out, turn left, cross over Shaftesbury Avenue into Chinatown. There on the left in Macclesfield Street is the very expensive and over-rated De Hems. Most of the continental beers served here are now readily available in most supermarkets or good pubs, but the odd rare beer does turn up. I mention De Hems because it’s a major part of the Soho pub scene, but I don’t recommend it.
Now it’s a little walk to the Carnaby Street end of Soho. Walk along Shaftesbury Avenue to Great Windmill Street, go up there past the girls tempting you into the strip-joints, and turn left into Brewer Street - so named after the breweries of Thomas Ayres and Henry Davies which once existed on the north side of the street. On the left, next door to the left-hand shop, is The Glasshouse Stores. Another all keg Sam Smiths pub, but with plenty of warmth, character, wood, leather and etched glass to take your mind off the beer. And, as a special bonus, right at the back is a bar billiards table.
Walk back past Great Windmill Street to Rupert Street, then turn left down the alley to Berwick Street Market - the only surviving fruit and veg market in central London. At this point you feel like you’re in some scruffy East End street. Work your way to the end and turn left into Broadwick, then right into Poland Street where you’ll see the Star and Garter. A warm and charming place.
Back into Broadwick, continuing past the John Snow pub to turn right into Marshall Street. The modern building on the right replaces some houses destroyed during the Blitz. In one of those houses William Blake was born. Turn left into Ganton Street for the Hall & Woodhouse pub The Shaston Arms. This is two houses from the 1700s badly knocked into one, creating a very narrow bar in one house, and the main seating area in the other house reached through a crude passage hacked through the walls.
Turn right on exiting the pub, continue on then turn right into Carnaby Street. Cross over Great Marlborough Street, bearing left into Argyll Street where, at the end, on the left you’ll find The Argyll Arms, which - as Nicholson’s proudly claim, is famous for its original snugs. Perhap a bit too famous, as this pub is always crowded. However, endure the crowds because the interior is Victorian splendour gone mad. This is a veritable temple to the art of beer consumption. The place glows and shimmers with light reflecting off etched glass mirrors and polished mahogany. The snugs, rather infamously, provided some privacy for naughty goings on for prostitutes and their clients - though you’d be hard put to find some privacy these days.
Not far from the Argyll, just across Oxford Street and up Great Portland Street, is an American style homebrew bar called Mash. It is a place lacking in character both in ambiance and beer, is ignored by knowledgeable local beer drinkers, and does not belong on any decent pub crawl; yet for the morbidly curious I mention it. Going to Mash while in Soho is like going to Paris and eating in McDonalds. However, the toilets with their infinity mirrors are worth seeing, and you can get a sample tray of their four poor quality lagers. The bottled beer called Mash Beer is not made here – that is made by the respected Alastair Hook of the Meantime brewery.
But to continue with the crawl proper, turn right off Great Portland Street into and through Market Place to Eastcastle Street where down the Adam & Eve alley on the right you’ll see an entrance to the gothic lunacy that is Ben Crouch’s Tavern.
Or carry on until you reach The Champion on the left. Another glorious Sam Smiths pub, this has stunning stained glass window displays of various champions from the late 1800s. It is more gin palace (or even a chapel) than English pub, and is worth visiting to experience the uplifting effect of these Victorian heroes in glowing glass.
The Champion is the last pub in the crawl. On leaving, head south down Wells Street, passing Ben Crouch’s on your right. You’ll come to Oxford Street. Turn left for Tottenham Court Road; turn right for Oxford Circus (slightly nearer).