Bloomsbury

A walk around the London region of Bloomsbury, in which I find an interesting graveyard, get scowled at and fail to find tea.

Bloomsbury covers the area (roughly) south of King’s Cross and Euston stations in the North and stretches South towards Holborn. It is famous for its literary connections, notably the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, and for being composed largely of formal squares: modest terraces, or sometimes elegant townhouses, arranged around a communal garden. Dorothy Parker said of the Bloomsbury Group that they “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.”

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Platform 9¾, King’s Cross

Arriving at King’s Cross Station, the first thing you will notice is the Harry Potter ‘Platform 9¾’ exhibit. You will notice it by the throngs of people queuing to have their photograph taken next to a bisected luggage trolley bolted to the wall. The effect of this is to make it appear to be entering a portal into the magical world of Hogwarts. I ignored the queues but took a photograph or two of the exhibit, complete with happy, smiling people trying on scarves and clinging to the trolley as if about to be transported into fantasy land. There is a Harry Potter gift shop here too, selling various memorabilia: wands, scarves and the like. This owes more to the film franchise than to the books but the queues outside the store at least show how effective this series has been in getting people, particularly young people, excited about fiction. Some of them will find a lifelong love of reading through the Harry Potter books; many of my students began their literary journey reading about the boy wizard. These books, along with the film and theatre franchises they have spawned, have had an enormous impact on our culture and on the reading habits of the younger generation.

Walk north of the Station and you will find St. Pancras Churchyard. Really well worth a visit for some of the notable people with memorials there, chief among these is the joint tomb of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, political philosopher and advocate of women’s rights. Their bodies were moved to the family vault in Bournemouth but the memorial is still there, covered with remembrances of admirers. Other notable burials include John Polidori, author of one of the first Vampire novels, and Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian.

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The Hardy Tree, St. Pancras Churchyard

There is also the Hardy Tree. When the railway was built, the churchyard had to be cleared to make way for the new line. A young apprentice architect was put in charge and he had the removed gravestones leant against an ash tree. The stones stayed and the tree grew around them until they became embedded in the trunk. It’s a really interesting and unusual sight and well worth the short detour to view it. The architect’s name was Thomas Hardy and he went on to become one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century.

John Betjeman Statue
Sir John Betjeman, St. Pancras Station

In St. Pancras station is a wonderful statue of Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman by Martin  Jennings. Betjeman had a great love of public architecture: churches and railway buildings in particular.  In the post-war years, when there was a zeal for development; for clearing away the past, he could see that much of it was worth saving for future generations. He was instrumental in the campaign to save St. Pancras station in the 1960s and so has been immortalised here, gazing up at Sir Gilbert Scott’s magnificent pointed arch.  Unfortunately, I had little time to contemplate the statue, or the quotations from Betjeman’s poetry that surround it. I was meeting Ms. E for a little stroll through Bloomsbury. We’d planned on an aimless wander through the squares, looking in museums and second hand bookshops, getting tea somewhere, probably, and generally reflecting on our rich, cultural heritage. When I suggested the trip, the vision in my head was of a brisk but bright spring day. This was London, however, and, by the time I met her train, it was absolutely chucking it down.

We took refuge first in the British Library: the national Library of the United Kingdom. It moved to its present site, next to St. Pancras Station, from the British Museum in 1998 and now has a gallery, completely free to view, containing the foremost books and manuscripts of our culture: Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s first folio; Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael Faraday, Ada Lovelace and Charles Darwin are here, as are Handel, Beethoven and the Beatles. Simply to wander through a room containing these documents is a breath-taking experience; to stand at one short remove from the literature that changed the world. Literature like Virginia Woolf’s hand-written text of her groundbreaking novel, Mrs Dalloway.

The Stephen family came to Bloomsbury following the death of the literary critic and biographer Leslie Stephen, moving to Gordon Square in 1904. His daughters, Virginia and Vanessa, were largely educated at home; although women did attend university at the time, it wasn’t normal practice for a middle-class family to send their daughters there. The sons, Adrian and Thoby, however, went to Cambridge and mixed with some of the brightest intellectuals of the age: Lytton Strachey, a biographer; EM Forster, novelist and literary critic; Leonard Woolf, essayist; Maynard Keynes, economist; Roger Fry, painter and Clive Bell, Art Critic.  After university, they settled in the squares of Bloomsbury and continued to meet to discuss their ideas as they had done at university. Now, however, Virginia and Vanessa would join in and quickly became pivotal members of the group. This was the origin of n one of the major intellectual flowerings of the modern age.

They began to see, not just what the problems were in society, as Victorian writers had done, but how things could change. They looked forward to a new age: new ways of writing and artistic expression were a part of this. Virginia herself found a new way of writing, in which the thoughts and feelings of characters were presented to the reader in an uninterrupted flow; the so called ‘stream of consciousness’. There was much intrigue within this group and they caused a great deal of scandal, with outrageous pranks, affairs and fluid sexuality. Eventually, Virginia married Leonard Woolf and the two of them moved out of Bloomsbury, first to Richmond, where they set up the Hogarth Press, and then to Sussex.

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Virginia Woolf, Tavistock Square

Virginia had a number of residences and you will find many plaques as you wander around. As well as Gordon Square, Virginia lived in Fitzroy Square (in a house previously occupied by George Bernard Shaw) and Brunswick Square. She and Leonard temporarily returned to London from Sussex, taking houses in Tavistock Square and Mecklenburg Square. There are plaques and memorials to a number of other literary folk too: Shelley shared a flat with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (daughter of the aforementioned Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin) in Marchmont Street (they had previously met in secret in St. Pancras churchyard as Shelley was married to someone else at the time). Mary is, of course, well known for writing Frankenstein, on of the archetypal gothic novels. Charles Dickens once lived in Tavistock House, the site of which is now occupied by the British Medical Association, and Christina Rossetti was living in Torrington Square at the time of her death. Yeats, George Du Maurier and Jerome K. Jerome also made their homes in the area. There is a statue of Virginia in Tavistock Square and I stopped to take a photograph of it. On a spring or summer’s day, the squares of Bloomsbury are extremely pleasant places to be. Most of them are now parks and serve as recreation spaces for workers and students as well as residents. They are, however, not quite as nice on a rainy afternoon in January and I soon became aware of Ms. E scowling from beneath the umbrella she had been bidden to hold while I happily snapped away at statues, plaques, squares and buildings. I thought it mete to find shelter and we made our way to the British Museum.

The museum, located in the heart of Bloomsbury, was home to the British Library before its move to St. Pancras, which gives this walk a nice sense of circularity. The Reading Room was an attractive prospect for writers, mainly as a warm place to read and write. George Bernard Shaw came here when he couldn’t afford to heat his flat. EM Forster and Virginia Woolf were both frequent visitors. It was famously where Karl Marx would come to work on his political manifestos. Oscar Wilde used the reading room, as did Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Today, you will find a large open space at the heart of the building with a fantastic glass roof. Leading off from the central courtyard is The Enlightenment Gallery. This recalls the early days of museums, when people would travel throughout the world and bring back interesting things with them. They encompass an array of curious objects: cabinets contain stuffed animals, coins and architectural drawings; medieval artefacts jostle for space with fossils and porcelain; classical statues vie for floorspace with scientific instruments. Although the gallery has been arranged thematically, there is still a sense of the haphazard way that the objects would have been arranged in the early museum.

Enlightenment Gallery, The British Museum
Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

Elsewhere in the museum are many items of interest to the literary traveller or casual observer. It is one of my favourite places in the world. When working in London I would visit it about once a week, discovering something new every time. Today, there isn’t time to see any more. It is well past four o’clock and Ms. E and I must leave in search of tea. We are both big tea fans, Ms. E and I. We don’t always see eye-to-eye: she favours Earl Grey while I go for Ceylon but what we do agree on is the absolute necessity of stopping for a cuppa mid-afternoon. In London, this is no easy task. You are well-served by pubs and a lunchtime pint and sandwich is easy to find but there are very few teashops in the capital and none at all in Bloomsbury, as far as I’m aware. The Museum itself has the courtyard café, which is very well reviewed but it is always too busy and – at least in my opinion – hideously overpriced. We went to a well-known coffee chain that I frequent, not because I particularly like it but because it’s named after a literary character. We had a coffee and a sandwich and it was absoluletly fine, just not really what I was looking for at the end of an afternoon out.  As we left the café and and faced the long walk back to King’s Cross and home, it had stopped raining. It was turning into quite a pleasant evening.

2 thoughts on “Bloomsbury

  1. Bloomsbury also has a connection to the American writer Charles Fort. I believe he moved there so he could be close to the British Library which is where he did a lot of his research. (I believe Fort also wrote some fiction BTW. His writing style is an acquired taste, but there is a definite humour and satirical side to it which is often overlooked.)

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