I thought I knew what to expect when I moved to London. There were all the obvious showstoppers: the West End, every type of food imaginable, zippy public transport, sightseeing – all delivered in full glory. Other things were surprising, like none of those things being affordable after rent, and that one time when I was kicked in the shins for being in the way on the tube… I don’t mean to victim-blame myself but I do admit I was truly in the way. That said, kicking is a toddler’s response to conflict. And even toddlers don’t get away with it. Anyway, I’m over it, it’s not like I still shoehorn the story into any possibly relevant copy I write. But through thick and shin (ha), I think what I love the most is that the city offers the seemingly never-ending opportunity to bask in literature.
There’s something for every type of book lover in London, which should come as no surprise given that the city has been home to so many literary icons at different points in their careers, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Dolly Alderton, Ted Hughes to Bernardine Evaristo. So, if you’ve seen Big Ben and eaten your way around Chinatown, a bookish tour of London should be next on the agenda. I’ve broken it down by area, so you can do these as full days out but also as pitstops if you’re in the area.
Since the 1930’s, Cecil Court off Leicester Square has been known as “Bookseller’s Row” because every Victorian-fronted shop on the pedestrianised street sells books. But I’m guessing you figured that was the case – the nickname doesn’t leave much to the imagination. There’s Goldsboro Books, which specialises in first editions and signed books; Bryars & Bryars is an antiquarian book dealer specialising in historic atlases, maps and rare volumes; Travis & Emery Music Bookshop does what the name suggests; while Watkins Books specialises in the mind, body and soul field, selling new, second-hand and antiquarian titles. You’ll find bookish gifts at Alice Through The Looking Glass, and you’ll find books focusing on works by women, including rare and first editions, at The Second Shelf. Basically, if it’s a book you’re after, you have a high chance of finding it on Cecil Court.
All that book-buying can be exhausting, so when you’ve finished your meander, head to Leicester Square itself and look out for a bench with a young bear eating a marmalade sandwich. He’s very good company, but doesn’t do sharing.
Paddington Bear is not the only literary celeb in the square. In fact, he’s sat in the perfect position to look at the impressive marble Shakespeare towering in the centre, which has been there since 1874. You’ll also see Mary Poppins and Harry Potter in bronze on the square, so make sure you’ve spotted them all before heading to the next literary hotspot.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: there’s one thing that springs to mind when you think about King’s Cross and literature. Yes, it’s Platform 9 and 3/4. As you can see pictured below, when I first visited the platform in 2013, it was just a decorative feature at the station. Now, it’s a little more official. There’s the Harry Potter Shop next to it, which sells everything from chocolate frogs to Hogwarts hoodies (even witches and wizards need comfy clothes, ya know?) There is also a designated member of staff who will stand out of the shot holding your scarf while you pretend to run at the wall for a photo. Imagine how embarrassing it would be if your scarf wasn’t following the rules of gravity? Busted.
While the platform is arguably the “obvious” literary tourism attraction in King’s Cross, it’s the least exciting if you ask me (and by nature of the fact that you’re still reading, you did ask me). Head out the station and across Regent’s Canal to Granary Square – it’s about a 200 foot walk. There, you’ll find two gems: Word on the Water, and the House of Illustration.
The Word on the Water is a floating bookshop. That’s right, it’s on a barge – a century’s old Dutch one, to be specific. It reminds me of the ‘literary apothecary’ in The Little Paris Bookshop – have you read that? Word on the Water is simply wonderful and has an impressive range of adult and children’s titles, old and new. It also hosts jazz and poetry events, making it a bit of a dream boat, if you will, when the sun is shining on a Summer evening!
Word on the Water is right by the House of Illustration – a public arts organisation dedicated to illustration, founded by Quentin Blake. It has events and exhibitions year-round, including online events due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There is, of course, an exhibition to Quentin Blake himself, the man whose illustrations coloured my childhood through Roald Dahl books, from The Twits to Matilda. If you only know Roald Dahl as a children’s author, though, you’ve been missing out. Start with Kiss Kiss and then enjoy the spiral.
From Granary Square, you are right by the British Library – take a shortcut through St Pancras station and marvel at one of the largest libraries in the world. You can just sit amongst the books and read if you want to – I used to do this in my lunch breaks when I worked in King’s Cross. I can’t think about The Handmaid’s Tale without also thinking about my nook there. Or, you could attend one of the many free exhibitions and events that take place throughout the year. I also love to mosey around the gift shop and usually exit with a new notebook or a stack of postcards which I save for a special occasion (naturally, nothing ever seems special enough).
Venture south of the river to visit a number of bookish landmarks, including a statue of John Keats and of course the one and only Globe Theatre – both the site of the original Elizabethan theatre which burnt down and the open air replica which shows Shakespeare plays. I love Shakespeare, though I still haven’t actually seen any productions at the Globe itself. Need to fix that…
I have, however, seen my favourite play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at The Bridge Theatre, which is by London Bridge. It starred Gwendoline Christie (AKA Brienne of Tarth from HBO’s Game of Thrones) as Titania, queen of the fairies. It was all in original Shakespearean speech, with some twists and turns along the way, including an inflatable moon…
While you’re near London Bridge, head for a pint on Talbot Yard, the site where the pilgrimage in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales begins. The original pub – The Tabard – was established in 1307 at the road’s intersection with the ancient thoroughfare to Canterbury and Dover. This was demolished in 1873, but you can now visit George, a 17th-century coaching inn and pub, to mark the occasion.
Bloomsbury is not simply bookish because it is home to the publisher which brought us everything from Harry Potter to Sexing The Cherry, but also where author Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, founded The Bloomsbury Group. The Bloomsbury group was a circle of artists, writers and intellectuals including Woolf and Bell, their brother Thoby Stephen, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Saxon Sydney-Turner.
It’s for this reason you’ll find Dalloway Terrace (named after Woolf’s fictional Clarissa Dalloway of Mrs Dalloway) within the Bloomsbury Hotel, serving elegant afternoon tea and al fresco dining options… including a fish and chips which results in a £1 donation being made to Demelza Children’s Hospice with every sale.
You can also visit a bust of Woolf in Tavistock Square, after which you can carry on down Tavistock Place and pop into Gay’s The Word, a much-loved book shop selling queer fiction and non-fiction and hosting regular literary events.
On Doughty Street, you’ll find the home of Charles Dickens, which is now the Charles Dickens Museum. It’s where he wrote Oliver Twist, and displays manuscripts and personal items of the author.
If the sighting of Keats by London Bridge didn’t quite satiate your Keats-craving, hop on the tube and ride the Northern line up to Hampstead. There, you can visit Keats House. It’s a museum, but it’s like walking through a chapter of his life. It feels rather surreal looking at a chair in which he most likely sat. Learn a bit more about the famous Romantic through manuscripts and artefacts, and then feel deep envy about how lovely his house was/is. I thought writers were supposed to be poor?! I think I’ve been tricked…
If there’s one person whose home it seems oddly appropriate to snoop around, it’s Sigmund Freud. You can do just that in Hampstead at The Freud Museum. It’s the house where Freud lived with his family during the last year of his life. His original psychoanalytic couch is on display – but you’re not allowed to dramatically lie on it and confess your sins. Boo.
Though slightly morbid, a number of high profile authors are buried in Highgate Cemetery, a graveyard which actually makes for an eery but beautiful walk – you may also recognise it from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Take a moment for the graves of George Eliot (who was actually Mary Ann Evans, of course), Douglas Adams, Karl Marx, Catherine Dickens and more.
Pick ‘n Mix
For this final section, I’ll leave you with some great spots which can’t be categorised by area – more because I haven’t properly explored the area than to suggest the areas aren’t suitably booky.
Some book-themed restaurants include Mr Fogg’s Tavern, which serves English pub grub and is themed around explorer Phileus Fogg and his 80-day adventure, The Dickens Inn is an 18th-century flower-covered restaurant with great pizza, and The Fable is a fairytale-themed restaurant decorated with books and typewriters.
There are of course so, so many Harry Potter orientated things you can do in London: I’m going to write up a separate piece for that to do it justice. But if you’re a Potterhead, your first port of call needs to be Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter in Watford. Bad news, though: Butter Beer tastes a bit weird. I’ll let you decide that for yourself, though.
If you’re less interested in where the authors lived, what about the characters they created? Bridget Jones lived in Holland Park, the 101 Dalmatians were walked on Primrose Hill, the Darling family from Peter Pan lived near Kensington Gardens (in which you can find a bronze statue of Peter now) and Mary Poppins’ Banks family (who were evidently equally loaded) lived nearby. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some books to read.
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