Gay Life: This way for the sex and seediness of Soho village

Organised walking tours of lesbian and gay Soho began yesterday, designed to celebrate the homosexual heritage of what has become London's gay village. Clare Garner visited the hunting grounds of Oscar Wilde and Charles Laughton.

A band of sightseers, with more than a handful of dog collars between them, gathered together yesterday to be guided solemnly through celebrated cottaging country and the17th-century world of Molested Mollies.

Stephen Crane, a virger at St Martin-in-the-Fields, strode ahead, dodging traffic and weaving a path through the labryinth of Soho in central London. His two-hour historical tour of gay hot spots - organised by Kairos, a "spiritual project" for lesbian and gay communities - begins at his church and winds up in Old Compton Street, now centre of the "village" gay life. He pieced it together after scouring records in the British Library.

Left into Wardour Street, right at Ann Summers and into Old Compton Street. "A lot of 18th-century Soho is still here," said Mr Crane, remarking on some ornate shutters. But a lot is not. One is struck by how the cruising landscape of Oscar Wilde, Cole Porter and Noel Coward must have been wonderfully devoid of themed pubs.

"Over the road," he said, pointing his umbrella in the direction of a branch of a French-style cafe chain, "is where 2Is coffee bar used to be. That's where Cliff Richard and the Shadows used to work and where he was discovered."

Into Dean Street, where the serial killer Dennis Nielson picked up rent boys in the Golden Lion pub, and the newly wed actress Elsa Lanchester, living at No 28, famously told her husband, Charles Laughton, that he should get rid of the couch on which he had confessed to "entertaining" young men.

At Charing Cross Road, Mr Crane conjured up an image of Molly Trials on the street in the 1600s. "Most Mollies [an old word for homosexuals] were pilloried at Charing Cross - and it wasn't just vegetables that were thrown at them. It was dead cats, dead dogs, iron and broken glass. Often people died."

On to Soho Square, where William Beckford lived in the 1820s and wrote Vathek, a tract of sin, sorcery, seduction and sex. "He was the richest man in England and also openly gay, which was astounding for that time," Mr Crane said. Beckford spent his time in the Seven Dials, a place he called "the Holy Land" where he could "kiss the relics". "It's always been a seedy area," added Mr Crane.

References to lesbian haunts are rare, but a cafe called The Box, apparently holds a regular women's night. It was, in an earlier incarnation, called As You Like It, and a second home to Quentin Crisp.

At the launch earlier, Neil Whitehead, general secretary of Kairos, explained that the aim of the tours is to raise money. Participants are invited to give pounds 5 towards a Kairos spiritual community centre.

Soho Square yielded another hot spot: No 3, which now houses the British Board of Film Classification, was once the home of Richard Payne Knight, author of a book on phallic worship: The Worship of Priapus.

The tour takes in St Martin's Court, where Pocket books had a gay section before 1967 and Oscar Wilde lived, and St Martin's Lane, where a scene from, Victim, a film about the blackmailing of homosexuals starring Dirk Bogarde, was shot. Kettners restaurant also features. Once the haunt of Wilde and Bosie, it is: "more of a pizza place now, I'm afraid".

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