London’s Hidden Neighborhood

photo courtesy of Jonathan Gregson

Overshadowed by nearby Covent Garden and the theatre district, London’s Seven Dials never became a tourist destination. Yet the seven cobblestoned streets that radiate from a central square with a sundial has been a colorful neighborhood since the 17th century, when speculator Thomas Neale designed the area to lure London gentry.

As industrial-age immigrants flooded the area, it deteriorated into a slum known for its gin shops. At one point, each of the seven apexes facing the central square housed a pub. Today, only Crown remains.

Rundown or not, the area has always fascinated. As Charles Dickens wrote in Sketches by Boz, “The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time.”

Today, the quirky neighborhood of artsy boutiques and cool restaurants feels like a discovery. Evolving from its recent hippy past, it is charmingly restored but not hyper gentrified. One of the sweetest corners is the historic Neal’s Yard, a kind of backyard that is home to vegetarian cafes, bars and Neal’s Yard itself, the homeopathic remedy store.

Across the yard, Neal’s Yard Dairy, encourages you to discover all manner of farm cheddars and stiltons from the British isles. Take advantage of the outdoor seating, or grab a massage at the Walk-In Back Rub. The presence of this local chain makes sense here, since this London nook has been the home of alternative medicine since its origins. Also long-drawn to the area: occultists and astrologers, attracted by both the sundial and the symbolic star layout of the streets.

In Earlham Street an outdoor market thrives and the flower stalls have the vibrant colors and giddy aromas of perpetual spring. Elsewhere on the street, Firetrap offers two floors of London-style fashion with an edge, while Fred Perry purveys more classic and veddy proper clothing.

For a break, Kitchen Italia serves great cappuccino and tasty, inexpensive pasta. And if you want to check your email, there are three computers.

On Monmouth Street, Coco de Mer sells upscale erotica and one-of-a-kind vintage clothing. Down the block, the artisanal parfumerie, Miller Harris, creates its own scents. A heady blend of amber, oak, vanilla, and musk, made for the legendary 60-plus songstress, Jane Birkin — most famous for the Hermes bag named after her — can be yours for about $100.

Where to stay? The trendy Covent Garden Hotel, visited by the likes of Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland, is a low-rise hotel in traditional English style, with a flower-bedecked lobby and an inviting wood paneled library. Of course, afternoon tea is served.

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