Sunday 21 April 2013

A Northerner in London Town - Soho and Covent Garden

Whenever we are in London we always pay a visit to Soho.  After battering through the hateful shopping hell that is Oxford Street we take a left down Berwick Street, our favourite street in Soho.  It’s really an unassuming street, but it has a few record shops for Neil and arts and craft shops for me.

I absolutely love Soho.  I could spend hours round Soho people watching as I find it endlessly fascinating.  Most people think of Soho in seedy terms, but over the years it has scrubbed up well.  I no longer feel terrified wandering round Soho as I did in the 90s, although remain cautious about venturing into the local pubs. 
Old Compton Street is the main focus for the gay community and pubs can be  very male and unwelcoming to women.  However with the advent of smartphones I managed to Google a recommended pub with a vinyl jukebox.  We found Bradley’s Spanish Bar on the edge of Soho.  It’s a dinky little place with the vinyl jukebox in the upstairs bar and downstairs a cramped bar with tiny toilets, which I don’t recommend unless you are truly desperate.  Apart from the toilets I really liked the place.  It seemed to be popular with people in their twenties, although there was an irritating bunch of twentysomethings holding court in the corner of the bar reminiscing about student days.  Neil managed to subvert the 3 songs for a pound on the vinyl jukebox by putting on b-sides that had two song on.

Back to Berwick Street – the main attraction for Neil is the record shops and there are plenty with Sister Ray, Reckless Records, Sounds ofthe Universe, Phonica and Music & Video Exchange.  Normally I become a record shop widow for an hour or so as Neil takes residence in Sister Ray and the Music & Video Exchange.  This is a great opportunity to check out all the fabric and art shops along this street and beyond. 
Whilst I was waiting for Neil I caught a conversation between one of the members of staff from Sister Ray taking a fag break and the local trampy bloke.  The trampy bloke was giving the Sister Ray shop assistant a full critique of the state of the music industry.  I could easily spend hours on this street just earwigging on conversations and watching the world go by.  The one thing I noticed was that women my age and older were invisible in this neck of the woods – it’s a very male area and women here need a level of confidence to feel comfortable here like the jolly hockey sticks lady who strode down the street with purpose.  Thankfully I do tend to operate in my own little bubble, which has often kept me out of harm’s way - it does help that I’m tall and broad-shouldered with a determined look in my eye.

The Covent Garden area is just across Charing Cross Road from Soho, whilst only a few metres away is a world away from Soho.  Covent Garden is the heart of the theatre district and is a very sanitised tourist friendly place.  I made Neil go to see Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre – he still hasn’t forgiven me for it.  I understand why he wasn’t keen as it was a little too screechy and jazz hands for my liking.  It’s had great reviews and stuff, but I should remember my favourite musical ever is Blood Brothers which is grittier than the average musical.  I have seen more than my fair share of musicals in my life after spending four years working in the theatres in Manchester so I’m quite discerning when it comes to musical theatre.  Phantom of the Opera is my idea of hell (I did see parts of it over 200 times), although I found Les Miserables to be ace.  However at the Cambridge Theatre I had to double take at the cost of two glasses of wine which came in at an eye watering total of £19.  Next time I’m bringing in my own wine.
Before the show we ate at Browns restaurant and the food was nice.   Typically I had a burger which was perfectly fine and Neil had the Duck Cassoulet. I found this restaurant was popular with the theatre crowd having their pre-theatre meals like us.  They seemed either well-to-do middle aged people or families having an annual treat.  I noticed a lady in her 60’s having a meal with her daughters.  You could tell she took great care in how she presented herself to the world with her very good blond highlights, her immaculate and simple outfit with outsized gold jewellery.  Her daughters seemed like a slightly updated version of her.  I’m sure they were going to take in a show – probably an opera or a play.

Covent Garden itself is a family friendly version of London.  Oxford Street is pretty manic at the best of times as it’s populated with fashion frenzied teenagers and Japanese tourists, whilst Covent Garden caters for the well-heeled European tourists.  Sadly we missed James and Bob the Cat who busk here from time to time and we could only find the human statues and street theatre artists.
Tourist information alert – the signs for the toilets in Covent Garden do not lead to the toilets.  We did ask someone for directions, but still got completely lost.  We finally found them on the edge of Covent Gardens and had to pay 50p for the privilege.  They were still a bit smelly even though they were manned.

Given a choice between Covent Garden and Soho, I would choose Soho every time even though on one occasion we saw a trampy bloke passed out outside Starbucks with his pants half-mast – not a good look, if not illegal.  Soho is life in the raw, unsanitised and honest.  It’s a place for the brave especially after dark.  You may think from this blog I like pretty and lovely places, and in truth I do.  But I also love places that are off-kilter too and Soho is off its rocker.  So I’m glad to spend a few hours every couple of years soaking in its eccentricities.



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