Visit London’s famous theatre district covering Soho, Covent Garden and Leicester Square.
The Theatres Walk was written and first published in October, 2005 and updated in March, 2014.
This is a circular walk, starting and ending at Leicester Square tube station
On arrival at Leicester Square tube station, take the exit marked Charing Cross Road (South).
Turn left down Charing Cross Road until you reach Cecil Court. Go down Cecil Court to St Martin’s Lane and turn right. Continue along St Martin’s Lane until you reach Brydges Place, a small alleyway on your left, almost at the end of St Martin’s Lane.
St Martin’s Lane and the Coliseum Theatre
For centuries St Martin’s Lane was the only road north from Whitehall. The original road was built in 1610 and for many years it was a fashionable area to live in. Thomas Chippendale, the famous cabinet maker, had a home here and Mozart stayed in nearby Cecil Court as a child.
Cecil Court is now home to a number of antiquarian bookshops.
The Coliseum theatre is London’s largest. It is home to the English National Opera. The theatre was built in 1904 and was the first in London to have a revolving stage.
The globe on top of the theatre used to revolve but this practice was stopped by Westminster City Council. Famous actors who have performed at the theatre include Lillie Langtry, Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.
Did You Know?
In 1642, the Puritans closed down all London’s theatres, many of which were located on the south bank, as they feared that plays were corrupting morals.
Two were subsequently re-opened by Charles II, who granted Royal patents for presenting spoken drama to playhouses in Drury Lane and Covent Garden. These could not cope with the demand from Londoners for theatre and as a result, minor theatres operated outside the law until 1843, when the law was abolished.
By 1850, London had around 20 theatres, mainly located around Covent Garden, Drury Lane and the Strand. Many of these still exist today.
go down Brydges Place and, at the end, go straight ahead along Chandos Place. Cross Bedford Street and continue ahead along Maiden Lane until the junction with Southampton Street. Turn left, then stop at the edge of Covent Garden market.
Covent Garden was originally called Convent Garden, as it was where the fruit and vegetables for the Monks of Westminster were grown.
London’s first square surrounded by houses was built here in 1631 by Inigo Jones, one of London’s most famous architects. The houses were intended for “gentlemen and men of ability” and up until the Great Fire of London in 1666, Covent Garden was the most fashionable London address to live at.
The original market started in 1670 and by the 1700’s the area was famous for its coffee houses, where literary men met and discussed events of the day. The area was also popular with artists and actors, and by 1722 was home to 22 gambling dens.
Brydges Place is the narrowest alley in London. Only one person can walk down it at a time.
The Marquis pub backs onto the alley. This pub was a haunt of Dickens when he worked at a blacking factory nearby, and was originally known as the Hole in the Wall. It has been here since the 1600’s, when it was notorious for its criminal regulars. In 1669, the original romantic highwayman, Claude Duval, was captured here. (He was later hanged at Tyburn and is buried in the grounds of nearby St Paul’s church in Covent Garden.)
The only remaining building from the original Covent Garden is St Paul’s church, known as the actor’s church. It was the first Protestant church in London and, mainly due to its proximity to the Theatre Royal (in Drury Lane), every wall in the church is covered with memorials to actors. Ellen Terry’s ashes are here. There is also an “avenue of the stars”, opened in 2005 in the grounds of the church.
The Central Market building was built around 1830 and the original market operated until 1974.
Maiden Lane was originally a country lane, and provides access to the back doors of various theatres in the Strand, including the Adelphi. Queen Victoria used this entrance in order to avoid the crowds at the front entrance, an event which is commemorated by the royal coat of arms displayed on the door. The pub at no 13 has been here since 1692.
Did You Know?
London’s oldest restaurant, Rules (in Maiden Lane), has been trading since 1798. Many famous people of the nineteenth century have dined here, including Charles Dickens. To the right of the main entrance is a side door built for Edward VII so that he could entertain his lady friends in private.
turn right and walk around the outside of the market, passing the London Transport Museum. At the front of the museum turn right along Russell Street (crossing Bow Street) until you reach the corner with Catherine Street (next to Drury Lane Theatre).
Russell Street was in the heart of London’s clubland for a hundred years until around 1815. The whole of London Society used to come here to exchange news and gossip at three coffee houses: Tom’s, Button’s and Will’s.
The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane is London’s oldest theatre. It has been on this site since 1663, though the present building dates from 1811 – all previous buildings were destroyed by fire. Samuel Pepys attended the first play here. The theatre has its own ghost – The Man in the Grey Suit- who is known as Arnold.
Did You Know?
By 1861, there were 80 hospitals in London, including specialist hospitals dealing either with particular ailments (such as eyes) or certain types of patients (such as women or children). However, these tended to treat wealthier patients and the poor were not helped until 1867, when the public hospital system was introduced.
The first hospital for the poor was opened in 1870 to treat paupers suffering from scarlet fever and smallpox, and by 1890, there were several more “Poor Law” hospitals across London.
return to Bow Street and turn right.
Royal Opera House and Bow Street Police Station
The Royal Opera House is home to the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet.
The first theatre on the site was built in 1732 and the current building is the third. Its facade dates from 1858.
Opposite the Opera House, stood the site of the first police office in London, Bow Street, which was established in 1829. Beside it stands the old and abandoned Bow Street Magistrates Court, where famous people such as Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, the Kray Twins and Jeffrey Archer were tried.
Did You Know?
In 1801, the population of London was just over one million people, but by 1911 it had increased to over seven million. To support this growth, new forms of public transport emerged: horse-driven buses after 1829, railways in the 1830’s, the underground from 1860 and trams in the 1870’s.
Access to public transport was linked to the ability to pay and as a result, the working classes tended to live in the innner city areas of London (so they could walk to work) and the more wealthy moved out to leafier, suburban areas as they could afford to pay to commute back into London to work.
continue to the corner with Floral Street, and turn left. At the end, turn right along Garrick St then, at the end, along Cranbourn Street to Charing Cross Road. At Charing Cross Road, turn right.
Follow it to Litchfield Street and turn right. Turn left in front of St Martins Theatre then follow it around to rejoin Charing Cross Road at Cambridge Circus.
Charing Cross Road and St Martins Theatre
Charing Cross Road was built in 1877 to relieve traffic congestion on St Martin’s Lane (which runs parallel to it).
It is probably best known for the many bookshops that used to be here, and for the novel and film called 84 Charing Cross Road, which was based on a series of letters written by the author to the bookshop at that address in 1945. The bookshop, Marks and Co’s, no longer exists.
St Martins Theatre is home to the world’s longest running play. The Mousetrap has been running here continually since 1952.
Did You Know?
London suffered four major epidemics of cholera between 1832 and 1866. People washed down roads in an attempt to clear away rotting garbage and excrement, which they believed spread the disease. In fact, cholera is mainly water-borne and attempts at cleaning away waste only made subsequent epidemics worse than previous ones.
In 1854, a cholera outbreak in soho resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 people. The local doctor, John Snow, realised that all the victims of one particular street had been drinking from the same street water pump. When the handle was removed, the death rate quickly fell. This led him to the discovery that cholera was a water-borne disease.
Cross Cambridge Circus and stand facing the Cambridge Theatre. Walk along Romilly Street (which runs down the right hand side of the theatre), then turn right at Greek Street and left at Old Compton Street.
Old Compton Street area
Old Compton Street runs through the heart of central London’s gay area. There are a number of bars, restaurants, shops and pubs in this street including the Admiral Duncan, which was bombed in 1999. There is also a popular theatre.
At the junction of Romilly and Frith Streets there is a restaurant called Kettner’s, which opened in 1867. In 1892, Oscar Wilde hosted a dinner party here.
Bar Italia in Frith Street (just off to the right, along Old Compton Street), is a famous Italian coffee shop and reputed to be a favourite of Robert De Niro’s when he is in London.
Ronnie Scott’s, opposite Bar italia, is a world famous jazz club. It opened in nearby Gerrard Street in 1959, and moved to its location in Frith Street in 1965.
Next to Bar italia is the site of a house where Mozart lived between 1756 and 1791.
Did You Know?
At the end of Romilly Street, just before the corner with Dean Street, is a pub called the Golden Lion. This is where the serial killer Dennis Nilson met several of his rent boy victims. He was found guilty of murder in 1983.
continue along Old Compton Street. At the end of Old Compton Street, turn right on Wardour Street then almost immediately left along Brewer Street. Turn left again at Rupert Street.
Soho was originally farmland and hunting fields, and the name comes from an old hunting cry, “So Ho”, which was also used as a password to rally troops during the English Civil War.
By 1851, Soho was one of the most crowded areas in London and during the late 1800’s, it gained its reputation as a place for entertainment. With its many clubs, bars and theatres it is still a popular entertainment area today.
These days, only 3,000 people live in the area, but 70,000 visit it daily.
Did You Know?
In the late 17th century, the area of Soho was settled by foreign immigrants including many from France, and the area continues to have a distinctly foreign feel with many European cafes, businesses and place names scattered throughout.
continue along Rupert Street to Shaftesbury Avenue and turn left.
Shaftesbury Avenue and the Queen’s Theatre
Shaftesbury Avenue was built in the late 1800’s and is today home to many of London’s famous theatres, including five that were built between 1888 and 1907: the Lyric, the Apollo, the Globe, the Queen’s and the Palace. They all survived the bombing of London during the Blitz in 1940 and are what give Shaftesbury Avenue its name, “the heart of theatreland”.
The Apollo theatre was designed for musicals and from 1908 to 1912 was the home of the Follies.
The Queen’s theatre was where “tea dances” were first introduced, in 1913. Known as “Tango Teas”, the admission fee covered dancing, a dress parade and tea in the stalls.
Did You Know?
Many people are probably aware that London was bombed during the Blitz of the second world war, but fewer may know that it was also bombed in world war one.
In world war two, the first bombs of the Blitz were dropped in September, 1940 and over the next 6 months, 71 raids were made by German bombers, who dropped 18,000 tons of bombs, killing 20,000 Londoners. Bombing ceased on May 10th, 1941, but then re-commenced in June, 1944 and continued almost until the end of the war in 1945. Though less damaging than during the Blitz, 9,200 people were killed.
In world war one, on June, 1917, 14 German bombers dropped four tons of bombs, most falling near Liverpool Street Station. Bombing continued until the following May.
walk along Shaftesbury Avenue then turn right along Wardour Street, to the junction with Gerrard Street
Gerrard Street marks the centre of London’s Chinatown.
The area was originally established in 1677 as a military training ground. By the mid eighteenth century, Gerrard Street had become more famous for its coffee houses and taverns, being on the edge of Soho. And by the 1920’s, it was renowned for its nightclubs.
The area is now distinctly Chinese, with street signs in Chinese and English, telephone boxes in the shape of pagodas and lots of bright red paint (which the Chinese believe to be the colour of good luck).
Did You Know?
London has been a place of opportunity and refuge for many people from other countries since medieval times, firstly for people from mainland Europe and later for those from Commonwealth countries.
Jewish traders came to London with the Normans (only to be expelled in 1290), and were later followed by merchants from northern Germany and Flemings, Dutch and French.
In the 1650’s, Oliver Cromwell allowed persecuted Jews in Europe to come to England again. Huguenots (Protestants) also fled to London from France in 1685, settling in Spitalfields and Soho.
As the British Empire rapidly grew in the late eighteenth century, people from the colonised countries began flocking to London. This included Chinese, Indians and Afro-Caribbeans.
Immigration in the nineteenth century, however, was due to new factors including poverty and political unrest in homelands. The Great Irish Famine of the 1840s led to many Irish people coming to London. And the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 led to many Jews fleeing Russia and Poland, settling in the East End of London.
continue along Gerrard Street, then turn right along Newport Place and along Leicester Court to Leicester Square
First laid out as a square in the 1670’s, Leicester Square is synonymous with London’s nightlife. Originally a fashionable residential area, by the mid 19th century it had started to become a commercial district.
The square enjoyed its most popular days between 1860 and 1914 when various theatres, including the Empire, attracted audiences from across London. These days, many of the theatres have been replaced with cinemas.
The Empire stands on the site of the old Empire theatre, which closed in 1927. Its final performance featured Fred Astaire.
The Odeon cinema is on the site of the Alhambra theatre, famous for a man named Mr Leotard who amazed audiences with his flying trapeze skills and gave his name to the costume. He was the original “Daring young man on the flying trapeze”.
Did You Know?
Many women worked in London’s theatres as fruit-sellers, the equivalent to modern day ice cream and drinks vendors.
As fruit was often thrown at the actors on stage, sales were eventually restricted to people seated in lower tiers only.
you have now completed this walk …… I hope you enjoyed it
Continue through Leicester Square towards Charing Cross Road and Leicester Square tube station