Bohemian dissipation happily co-existing with strip clubs and sex shops? Prostitutes and poets sharing the same pubs, coffee bars and nightclubs? No wonder Soho was once the central London district everyone wanted to visit but where few actually wanted to live.
Today, Soho is a very different place, with its sex industry confined to a single short alley; brothels have been replaced by bistros that get written about in glossy magazines, and at every turn there are cafés, bars, restaurants and quirky little shops that are among the best in town. Unsurprisingly, young professionals are now queuing up to live there.
Soho is a compact area between Oxford Street to the north and Leicester Square in the south, with Regent’s Street marking its western boundary and Charing Cross Road its eastern limit.
A walk round Soho reveals hardly one bad building and it is to the credit of the Soho Society that the area was saved in the Sixties and Seventies from the wrecking ball. The area has some of central London’s oldest surviving domestic buildings dating from the early 18th century. But there is also an interesting mix of Victorian, Edwardian and 20th-century buildings, many of which started life as industrial or commercial premises.
Property for sale in Soho
There are a handful of houses in Soho, including some fine early Georgian examples in Meard Street that sell for as much as £4 million. With these rare exceptions, Soho residential property is made up entirely of flats, many above commercial or retail premises. Soho was one of the pioneers of loft living. Soho Lofts on the site of the famous Marquee Club on Wardour Street, is an early example. It was developed in the mid-Nineties and flats there now sell for between £670,000 and £935,000.
There are also a number of council tower blocks, such as Kemp House and Ingestre Court, where “right-to-buy” flats are occasionally available and eagerly snapped up. In Ingestre Court, a small flat sold recently for £380,000.
The local council, Westminster, is encouraging office-to-residential conversions and estate agent EA Shaw is selling The Hat Factory (020 7993 7395) in Hollen Street. This former Victorian top hat factory is being converted into eight flats for completion before the end of the year. Prices range from £925,000 to £4.95 million. There is a stunning penthouse with a loft-style living room, with the building’s original steel beams fully restored. According to EA Shaw’s Guy Passey, the price per square foot on this development is between £1,200 and £1,800.
“Soho is still not prime London, so we are beginning to attract people from areas such as Kensington and Knightsbridge who think the area is a sound investment with a lot of growth left in it,” he says.
The area attracts:
Soho is at the centre of the UK’s film and post-production industry and many buyers walk to work.
This is not a family area, so couples usually move out once they have children, though many retain their flats and either rent them out or use them during the week.
Soho is scrubbing up well. Leicester Square has had a £10 million facelift; the Crown Estate has spent £300million on Quadrant 3, a mixed-use development on a triangular site between Brewer Street and Glasshouse Street, close to Piccadilly Circus, and Crossrail is excavating from a large site on the corner of Great Chapel Street and Oxford Street. This will be the location for a new eastern ticket office for Tottenham Court Road Tube station, serving both Crossrail and the Central and Northern lines.
Up and coming:
Berwick Street, with its market and cloth shops, is often described as Soho’s high street. The council has an action plan for this run-down corner of Soho, and Shaftesbury, the company responsible for the improvements around Carnaby Street, has been buying up properties.
In the meantime, Barratt Homes has planning permission to build a mixed-use development on the site of Trenchard House, a former police section house on the corner of Berwick Street and Broadwick Street. There will be a total of 78 one-, two- and three-bedroom flats, of which 65 will be affordable.
Getting an education:
Soho Parish CofE in Great Windmill Street is the only primary school; it is judged “good” by Ofsted. The two nearest secondary schools are St Marylebone CofE (girls ages 11 to 18 with boys in the sixth form) in Marylebone High Street, a high-achieving state school rated “outstanding”, and Queen’s College (girls ages four to 18) in Harley Street, a private school within walking distance.
Shops and restaurants:
Stepping away from the crush on Oxford Street and Regent Street, Soho now offers a wide variety of shops and restaurants. The major jeans brands all have outlets in Carnaby Street but in the side streets, such as Newburgh Street and Kingly Court, there are smaller independent boutiques and, over the past couple of years, new restaurants and bars have opened up along Kingly Street.
Leading US menswear brands Wolsey, Jack Spade and Woolrich have all opened their first UK outlets along Brewer Street in Quadrant 3. Also in the development, The Wolseley owners Jeremy King and Chris Corbin have opened Brasserie Zedel with an art deco interior rescued from the now-demolished Regent Palace Hotel, and Danish steakhouse Mash opens soon.
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Some Soho institutions survive:
Patisserie Maison Bertaux and the Gay Hussar and L’Escargot restaurants are all still in Greek Street, the Groucho is still in Dean Street, the Amalfi continues in Old Compton Street and two of London’s finest Italian delis still do a roaring trade: Lina Stores on Brewer Street and Camisa on Old Compton Street.
These long-lived establishments have now been enlivened with the arrival of new operators, such as Mark Hix’s eponymous restaurant on Brewer Street; Anthony Demetre and Will Smith’s Arbutus on Frith Street; Russell Norman’s Venetian bacaro, Polpo, on Beak Street and his Brooklyn-style diner, Spuntino, on Rupert Street; as well as Yotam Ottolenghi’s NOPI on Warwick Street and smart Milanese pizzeria and patisserie Princi on Wardour Street. Soho is also home to London’s Chinatown, with a wide choice of Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street and Lisle Street. Old Compton Street and Rupert Street remain the core of Soho’s gay quarter.
Soho is a close-grained urban area, but there are pleasant places to sit in Soho Square, Golden Square and the much-improved Leicester Square.
Leisure and the arts:
West End theatres and Leicester Square cinemas are all on the doorstep. The Marshall Street Baths is a recently refurbished listed Victorian swimming pool off Carnaby Street.
the nearest Tube stations are Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and Piccadilly Circus; all stations are in Zone 1 and an annual travelcard costs £1,168.
Westminster (Conservative controlled); Band D council tax for the 2012/2013 year is £684.52
Photographs by Graham Hussey