There was a time, in the days before hook-up apps like Grindr, when gay men went out and met one another in person. They talked, they cruised one another, and they had sex. Forget smartphone emoticons to denote whether you’re up for it – and what you’re into – back in the good old days (now, this is starting to date me!), just a nod and wink would suffice.
From the 1970s onwards – certainly in the more sexually liberated US cities like New York and San Francisco – cruise bars, for men who had sex with men, were at their most popular. As the internet has taken over – and gay venues in major cities continue to close – they are now few and far between. Vault139, near Warren Street tube in central London, is the only such establishment in the capital and is proudly keeping the old traditions of cruising for sex alive.
The entrance to the bar itself is a nod to the furtive business of sexual shenanigans: you have to descend a set of steps to reach it, and then pass your money (just £8, including drinks token and free coat check) through a small hole in the wall. The whole process is oddly liberating – it reminds you that you’re temporarily getting away from the endless heterosexuals who insist upon hogging the street by never letting go of one another’s hands, as you enter into a domain that belongs uniquely to gay male culture.
And so down into the subterranean depths of central London – into the thrilling, unapologetic realms of uncomplicated sex as escapism. Everything about the venue has been carefully designed to optimise space. A large circular bar dominates the main room (and the half-naked bar staff is a sight to behold in themselves). Drinks are amongst the cheapest you’ll find on the London gay scene, and there are plenty of stools and even a sofa where you can sit and chat before exploring further. And you’ll be surprised: people do talk to one another here – proof that gay men are still capable of a form of interaction that doesn’t just involve thrusting their bits at one another.
The lighting is kind, and the décor has a slick, industrial feel, which only adds to the sexually charged ambiance. Porn plays on a big screen behind the bar, and there are areas partitioned off with metal hangings. To the left, there’s a large communal area which is often full of guys getting down to group action. For more privacy, the back section consists of gated alcoves with a wipe down mattresses, while on the right, you’ll find cubicles with glory holes and a dark room. Throughout, there's a high standard of cleanliness – which is rare in such a venue, and the owner – a respected member of London’s gay community – strictly forbids the use of chewing gum.
The bar is open from 1pm to 1am every day of the week – and is so popular that you’ll often find a small queue of guys waiting to get in before opening. There are a variety of themes: ‘cruise’ is every day and welcomes everyone, while there are also nights for underwear only and strictly naked parties, where no clothes apart from footwear are permitted. Whatever day you opt for, you’ll find guys to suit every taste, from mature to muscle to under 25s – who even get a discount on certain days. Vault139 is that rare thing on the gay scene: a bar that does what it says on the tin – making it one of the first ports of call for tourists all over the world who are looking to sample a hot, sweaty and friendly British welcome.
139-143 Whitfield Street, London, W1T 5EN
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