London as a city has so many odd little streets, hidden mews, whilst some areas of London still have cobbled streets that date back to the times of Dickens. London is after all a sprawling metropolis layered on top of itself. Walk around and explore; many are not aware that London is in fact made up of hundreds of tiny villages going back thousands of years which have joined up to make one specific general area. But that’s what makes it just so satisfying a city to visit. The layers of history come through often from a blue plaque on a wall to highlight where someone famous lived, or even a name of a street can give a lot away.
Lets take Seven Dials nestled next to London’s Covent Garden. Covent Garden as we all know used to the be the fruit and vegetable market servicing all of the London area. In the 80’s during one of the many development times, the market for wholesaling fruit and vegetables moved out to Battersea and a elegant piazza was turned into the most beautiful and luxurious shopping area.
But Covent Garden is so much more than the piazza. It has its own little areas, one of which sitting next to it is Seven dials, but where does that name come from? If we think marketing started in the 1980’s then think again. It was originally laid out by a Thomas Neale, MP in the early 1690s, who cleverly laid out the area in a series of triangles to maximise the number of houses as rentals, and were charged per foot of frontage and not per square foot of interiors.
The names of the seven streets were chosen with the intention of attracting affluent residents, however, some of the names have subsequently been simplified or changed because of duplication with other streets in London over the years. They were originally: Little and Great Earl Street (now Earlham Street), Little and Great White Lyon Street (now Mercer Street), Queen Street (now Shorts Gardens) and Little & Great St. Andrew’s Street (now Monmouth Street). Some of the original street signs can still be seen attached to buildings in the area. In 1693 onwards, Neale commissioned stonemason Edward Pierce to design and construct the Sundial Pillar as the centrepiece of his Seven Dials development. The Pillar was topped by six sundial faces, the seventh ‘style’ being the column itself. It was regarded as one of London’s ‘great public ornaments’ and the layout and identity of the area revolves around it. It was a precursor to what would now be considered public art.
Although Neale wanted the area to be for affluent shoppers and to be a very fashionable address, it failed to establish itself and ended up deteriorating into a slum, renowned for its infamous gin shops. At one point each of the seven apexes facing the Monument housed a pub, their cellars and vaults connected in the basement providing handy escape routes should the need arise. By the early 1800’s the area had become renowned for ballad printers and singers.
Dickens, in “Sketches by Boz” wrote “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…”
It was noted later on that the poverty into which the area had descended: shops selling second and third hand goods, a unique cluster of shops selling “every rarity of pigeon, fowl and rabbit, together with rare Birds such as hawks, owls and parrots, love birds and other species native and foreign”.
The 19th century saw an influx of workers in need of cheap lodgings. Henry Mayhew observed in
“London Labour & The London Poor”, 1861: “In many houses in Monmouth Street there is a system of sub-letting among journeymen. In one room lodged a man and his wife, 4 children and 2 single young men. The woman was actually delivered in this room while the men kept at their work – they never lost an hours work!”
This continuing influx of residents precipitated the development of the surrounding area. Endell Street was followed by Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1880s, which gradually eased the pressure on the area and allowed for gradual gentrification as craftsmen and larger businesses moved in.
The Thomas Neal’s centre, previously a banana, cucumber and book warehouse, retains the name of the original developer where Neal Street was also named after. Comyn Ching Triangle, a quiet square lying between Monmouth, Mercer and Shelton Streets was named after a local architectural ironmongery business. There had been a flower market on Earlham Street for many years, an offshoot of the more famous Covent Garden flower market.
Neal’s Yard, part of the seven dials areas is still home to a number of independent eateries, and has still been the home of alternative medicine, occultism and astrologers since the 17th Century, all of whom were attracted by the sundial and the symbolic star layout of the streets. In the 1980’s Neal’s yard remedies opened up in this distinct courtyard which included its therapy rooms as well as a major health food store and was an early adopter of of the new found destination style shopping centre that has grown and grown since.
Now the area of seven dials has established itself as a destination area, with a variety of shops and places to eat, much of which is experiential. Customisation is a lively activity in many stores. For example, at Duke and Dexter, 16 Earlham Street, the British-born footwear label specialising in premium loafers at the store, features a bespoke bar where customers can design a completely personalised pair of D&Ds from start to finish, alongside the option for hand painted illustration by their in-house artist Morgan Seaford. Have a coffee in store while you wait!
From handmade jewellery and shoes, bespoke bike saddles, custom built watches to fragrance, Seven Dials is the perfect destination for those loving bespoke and out-of-the-ordinary personalised items now.
Tatty Devine, 44 Monmouth Street an independent British company designing and micro-manufacturing original jewellery in Britain. Known for their fun and playful acrylic jewellery, alongside pieces made in fabric, wood, leather and enamel. In the Seven Dials store, you can design your own personalised Name Necklace or Speech Bubble Necklace and watch their skilled team make, laser cut and readied to be handed over on the spot.
Or if fine jewellery is more you style, pop next door to Laura Lee – 42 Monmouth Street.
London based Laura’s charming delicate handmade jewellery allows you to create your own individual story by layering her eclectic mix of charms, trinkets and precious gemstones. Her collections are influenced by travelling and life tales – her most recent, Desert Aurora, is inspired by her travels to the deserts of the USA. Heavily influenced by nomadic lifestyle and raw materials, these beautiful bohemian jewellery pieces see Laura’s signature style combined with textured gold settings, ‘galaxy’ opals, rose-cut diamonds and serpent imagery.
Maybe next you need a bit of TLC so why not pop to beauty store Fresh, 17 Monmouth Street. This famous Beauty brand initially known for their iconic Oval Soap Collection provide a sensorial experience that is as indulgent as it is effective. Fresh has evolved into a full line of lifestyle products spanning from skincare, body care, fragrance, haircare to candles. Pioneers of the use of many natural ingredients such as soy and sugar, as well as developing a cult-following for its Rose and Black Tea Collections. However the store also offers the opportunity for 3 different kinds of mini treatments; a hand ritual, a mini facial, and a lip treatment. This is not just to help customers find their specific beauty needs but is very much to encourage people to come in and engage with the brand and relax! The manager of the Seven Dials store, Amy, will aid all customers in their beauty and relaxation needs.
Is it lunchtime now? There are plenty of food options in Seven Dials but new to the area is On The Dak, 1 Monmouth Street. It is the latest restaurant from the team behind Korean favourite On The Bab. The lunch hotspot focuses on classic Korean fried chicken (KFC) with its sweet and sticky sauce, as well as Chibab of chicken with salad and rice, as well as a Chitang with some kimchi salads, pan-fried chicken dumplings and a selection of nourishing bowls of Korean soup. Eat in in the small shop or take away, but be careful as they run out because its so good!
In need of a sweet fix? specifically a chocolate fix maybe? Fear not and head to Choccywoccydoodah, 27 Shorts Gardens, a jewel box of colour and creativity at their new store with an extensive collection of chocolate and cake decadence, stacked, hanging and piled high on groaning tables. An art and design focused chocolaterie born in the bohemian city of Brighton specialising in chocolate, one-off sculptured fantasies, bespoke wedding cakes, chocolate gifts, chocolate pets and as they say really, really naughty stuff... It is a chocolate heaven and head downstairs where you’ll find the intimate Bar du Chocolat, (a bit like a chocolate version of the bat-cave) where you can enjoy hot chocolate, slices of cake and pots of molten chocolate.
Now you will be in need of some space to chill so head next to Knomo, 47-49 Neal Street. The brand established in 2004, designs products to get your life organised and to ‘Live Free’. Find a great selection of backpacks to briefcases, handbags to luggage and iPhone accessories, every product caters for technology and a modern life on the move. They have also collaborated with brands like the V&A on a small selection of bags. The store also features a coffee shop and co-working area for anyone to work from and spend time in, whilst currently collaborating with Microsoft Surface by presenting a free experiential exhibition called “The Dream Office”. The exhibition explores the concept of work space in an interactive environment.
For for a little bit more customisation head to Nixon, 31 Neal Street. The premium, global watch and accessories brand aims to bring to London a little of the brand’s action-sports heritage and its California DNA. The store features a downstairs customisation bar, which allows customers to create their very own one-of-a kind watch. The additional space also gives Nixon the opportunity to showcase its limited edition offerings, including its new, premium Swiss-made Automatic RSVP Collection. Prices start from around £20 and can increase to their limited edition pieces to some £2000. Customisation starts at around £55 all the way to £420, with 5 models available for customisation with the options of smart watch and engraving services too.
If you are an audiophile then head to Sonos – 21 Earlham Street who have only recently opened their first concept store in Europe in Seven Dials which includes a retail, exhibition, screening and listening space. The wildly impressive store features ‘mini home’ style listening booths including the launch of their own voice controlled home audio technology. The Seven Dials store stocks its brand new ‘One’ smart speaker, the first Sonos product with built in voice control from Amazon’s Alexa can now be connected via Wi-Fi or an Ethernet port; retailed at £199. This is a step towards where the future is going, or how it has already arrived!
Lastly now its time to relax so head towards BrewDog, 142 Shaftesbury Avenue, the home of craft beer which they have on tap. Enjoy from a selection of over twenty cutting-edge craft beers. The location is set over three floors with 2 different bars providing a unique bar experience. BrewDog as well as having a selection of their own home-brewed beer, include guest beers from their favourite breweries from home and abroad, great to have alongside a variety of food, including a full burger and wings menu, and should you be there at the weekend you can pop in for a brunch.
Know that as you step from place to place in the Seven Dials village, you are not just walking the paths of old London but even deeper into the history of the 20th century. Look up about 13 Monmouth street and see the blue plaque highlighting the location where former Beatles manager Brian Epstein ran his successful management company, NEMS. Or In Neal’s Yard, the other blue plaque identifies the location of the animation, editing and recording studios of Monty Python, which read as: “Monty Python, Filmmaker, lived here, 1976-1987”.
So next time you want an all encompassing experience head to Seven Dials in WC2 for a unique shopping and lifestyle destination of seven interconnecting streets nestled between Covent Garden and Soho. Find the quality British brands, high profile international labels, one-off flagship boutiques, beauty and grooming salons, award-winning theatres and a wealth of individual restaurants which makes this a truly unique London village.
For more information visit their website Seven Dials