It’s at this point that I tell the untold story of the aftermath of last year’s London bookshopping expedition. As I sat on the train home, I felt a twinge in my left knee. My excesses had caught up with me and during the months following I had to spend £’s and £’s on glucosamine, cod liver oil and ginger root before my newly-arthritic knee stopped giving way as I went up and down steps. So this year, unwilling to forego the pilgrimage round London’s bookshops, I decided to pace myself and take not one but two days to do it and to make better use of public transport than I had last year. I had two guide books for company, both from Haus Publishing.
The first, London Fragments A Literary Expedition by Rüdiger Görner, was one of last year’s purchases. Each of the 10 chapters focuses on a specific area of London, peeling back the history of the place. As I stayed in Bloomsbury this trip, we’ll concentrate on Chapter 6, The Omega of Bloomsbury. Let’s skip all allusions to the Bloomsbury set for once and concentrate on the history of this area, before Virginia and Leonard stamped their mark upon the place.
Wine grew here in the 11th century, and the woodland provided for at least 100 pigs to snuffle for truffles, so says the Domesday Book ….. Bloomsbury was originally named Blemondsberi, because this is where a certain William Blemond had his ‘bury’ or country seat …. After the civil war the Earl of Southampton’s son had the medieval walls torn down and build Southampton House, with houses for the servants nearby and a fenced-in garden in the middle; this architectural design, which contemporaries greatly admired as one of the many “English wonders” was named a square by the Earl.
It turns out that today this archetype is known as Bloomsbury Square, the precursor of the many squares in the district: Bedford Square (home of Bloomsbury Publishing), Fitzroy Square (Virginia’s former abode) as well as Russell Square (my base for this trip).
Rüdiger Görner is Chair of the German Department at Queen Mary College, a German Anglophile who has lived in London for upwards of a quarter century. The preface to his book states that it documents the illusion that this city can be tamed with words … and that London cares about the way it is represented in literature. The book takes a tour through the London of literature, from the moment it entered the stage of modern literature in Samuel Pepys’s diary entry recording the Great Fire of 1666 up to contemporary images recorded for example in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. An erudite tour, as you would expect of a German professor, but it also documents his personal odyssey through the capital, observing things that only a non-native would see. So for instance his aside that London must have more luggage outlets than any other city in the world brought a wry smile of recognition as I emerged from Russell Square tube station to be greeted by a luggage stall. I probably wouldn’t have clocked it had it not been for Görner s tip. It was to prove extremely useful.
My second guide was Peter Clark’s Dickens’s London as, in this bicentennary of his birth, it would have been neglectful not to have gone in search of the great author himself. The London of Charles Dickens has largely disappeared from sight but this book makes it visible to the mind’s eye once more. It is divided into 5 walks around Central London, each o which would probably take me a full day to complete. However, I didn’t have the time to be so structured. After all I had bookshops to visit and as they were the primary object of my meanderings, I used Clark’s book as a reference guide. So it was that I discovered that Joseph Grimaldi (whose memoirs were edited by Dickens) died in poverty ironically in a building now housing a goldsmith, just 3 houses away from independent book shop Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market (EC1). Heading back to Russell Square, there’s the Charles Dicken’s Museum at 48 Doughty Street, a hop skip and a jump away from Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street. (WC1). Moving back into the heart of Bloomsbury we find another square, this time Tavistock Square, home of the British Medical Association. In former times this was the site of the house in which Dickens wrote Bleak House.
Ah yes, Bleak House, my favourite Dickens. Cue tube to Chancery Lane and legal London, a veritable treasure trove of Dickensian venues. We enter through Staple Inn, where Mr Grewgious, Neville Landless and Mr Tartar, all from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, had chambers.
Let Esther Summerson describe her first visit to the offices of Kenge and Carboy at No 10 Lincoln’s Inn. We passed into sudden quietude, under an old gateway
and down on through a quiet square, until we came to an old nook in a corner, where there was an entrance up a steep broad flight of stairs, like an entrance to a church.
She also passed the old hall, where the infamous case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce was heard. (Suitably shrouded in a light mist on the day of my visit.)
I didn’t have time to wander right round Lincoln’s Inn Fields but had I, I would have discovered Tulkinghorn’s abode at No 58 and (pre-raphaelite diversion alert) a former home of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The second day of my wanderings was just as fruitful.
It was inevitable that I would return to Haus Publishing in Chelsea, SW1. Dickensian links here being St Lukes Church, where Dickens married Catherine Hogarth and the Carlyle Home where he was a frequent visitor. To rest the knee, I made my way by a long bus/tube back up to Marylebone. My destination was the beautiful Daunt Books (W1). I walked there from Regent’s Park tube station to pass this frieze on the site of the former 1 Devonshire Terrace, the house in which Dickens lived between 1839 and 1851 and where he wrote The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield.
Really this slim pocket-sized book is an enlightening companion. The helpful index at the back ensured that no matter where I found myself, there was a Dickensian link to be explored. There’s really no need to go out of your way to find a connection to the man or his works but at the end of my trip I did just that. There was one more bookshop that had to be visited, to tie together the Dickensian and bookshop themes of this trip. Back into the heart of Bloomsbury we go, to Great Russell Street, WC1 and the British Museum. Just opposite to the right we find Jardynce Booksellers.
Scene of the most appropriately dressed shop window in town. Complete with authentic 1st edition Dickens!
Talk about temptation. Just as well the shop was closed ….. it meant I still had money left to buy a new suitcase from the luggage stall mentioned above. Because as you can imagine, I had booty to carry home and Rüdiger Görner’s tip was about to prove invaluable.
Daunt’s bookshop is so beautiful. I haven’t visited for quite a few years, but I used to work near there when I lived in London.
Wonderful journey/guide – Lonely Planet never was this good, thank you, Elspeth
Thanks for the tips. I’ll be in London for three months and hope to visit some of the literary places you mention. I’ll sure check those guide you have mentioned. The one by the German professor especially interests me.
I just found you through Bride of the Book God. I love your blog, I’ve been reading several of your most recent posts. I too go through London looking for literary places and references, so I was delighted with this post. The Cheshire Cheese still exists, by the way, one of the pubs Charles Dickens liked to go to. I found it on my last visit to London three years ago. I love your photos here, and I’ll be back!