Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin our tale of literary London... Actually, it's not really a tale, it's more a one-stop shop for all our favourite book-based things to do in the city. No end, no beginning, just books. From literary landmarks and London's best bookshops, to talks, events and anything else you can shake a hardback at, rummage through our guide to London for book-lovers and go get story hunting.
The best of literary London
The museum, library and headquarters of the Dickens Fellowship – and the house where Dickens lived from 1837-39 – allows visitors a glimpse of how the writer worked and how people lived in Victorian London.
The modern Shakespeare’s Globe only holds about half the capacity of the original, but you can still get a rich feel for what it was like to be a ‘groundling’ (the standing rabble at the front of the stage) when you come to see a play here, in the circular, open-air theatre. However, a visit here isn’t just a history lesson. The theatre productions here are among the best in London.
This was the home of the Romantic poet from 1818 to 1820, when he left for Rome in the hope of alleviating his tuberculosis (he died of the disease the following year, aged 25). As well as mooching through the rooms, you can attend events and talks in the poetry reading room and see a display on Keats's sweetheart, Fanny Brawne, who lived next door.
A copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland is sent to The British Library – an institute that has amassed a collection of more than 150 million items and adds some 3 million new items each year. Here, some of the most famous written and printed items in the world are displayed, and you might see the Lindisfarne Gospels, Shakespeare’s first Folio, Handel’s Messiah, the Gutenberg Bible, drafts of the Magna Carta and the Beatles’ manuscripts.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum – founded in 1989 on a site approximating that described by Conan Doyle, though actually standing at number 239 – fought long and hard for the right to claim the address 221B Baker Street as its own. When you visit you are likely to be greeted by an august person wearing a bowler hat and whiskers; this, you will deduce, is Doctor Watson. And every lovingly recreated detail here conspires to persuade visitors to suspend their disbelief and feel themselves travelling back in time to a preserved fragment of historical reality.
Samuel Johnson’s home from 1748-1759 and the place where he compiled the first comprehensive English dictionary houses collections of pictures and period furniture.
The final resting place of some very famous Londoners, Highgate Cemetery is a wonderfully overgrown maze of ivy-cloaked Victorian tombs and time-shattered urns. Visitors are free to wander through the East Cemetery, with its memorials to Karl Marx, George Eliot and Douglas Adams, but the most atmospheric part of the cemetery is the foliage-shrouded West Cemetery, laid out in 1839.
This charming little gallery is dedicated to the art of illustration and generally hosts two or three small exhibitions at a time. Quentin Blake is the gallery's patron, so fans of his scratchy pictures are likely to be in for a treat.
The best of literary London
Tucked away in London’s gothic masterpiece, Westminster Abbey, here you’ll find all the big dogs of literature immortalised in marble and bronze. Check out Shakespeare doing a casual ‘best playwright ever’ lean, accompanied by lines from ‘The Tempest’. Then there’s Matthew Arnold with hefty stone chops, a creepy bust of William Blake, a whimsical quote on Lewis Carroll’s memorial and a very Christian one for CS Lewis’s.
This tech-free bookshop is so into printed words on physical pages that mobile phones are actually banned. 'Techpreneur' - and former special advisor to David Cameron - Rohan Silva founded the analogue bookshop as a reaction against digital distractions. The design is fun - shelves designed by Slade School artists, a whisky bar for events and a printing press downstairs.
Made of timber from old sailing ships, The Old Curiosity Shop in Holborn (now a shoe store) was so named because it was believed to have inspired the antique shop in Charles Dickens’s book of the same name. The story became famous for Dickens’s depiction of the death of Little Nell, said to be drawn from the traumatic experience of witnessing his sister-in-law’s passing in the Doughty Street townhouse where he lived, now the Dickens Museum.
Why splash out on a walking tour when you could be in the pub? Drink with the spirits of George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan in the boozers of central London: Orwell based the prole pub in ‘1984’ on The Newman Arms, while the Welsh and Irish poets patronised The French House. Legend has it that Thomas drunkenly left his ‘Under Milk Wood’ manuscript in the Soho favourite one night, which makes abandoning your laptop in a taxi seem trivial.
This leafy graveyard is a great place to add to your dead poets pilgrimage. People have been making visits since as far back as 1867. Forget Highgate and Nunhead for cemetery kudos: William Blake is buried here, as are Daniel Defoe (‘Robinson Crusoe’) and John Bunyan (‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’). Blake’s headstone always seems to have fresh flowers in front of it – testament to the fact that his poetry’s still alive and kicking.
Raided by the police in 1984 and attacked on several occasions (including the 2011 riots), this bookshop is still the UK’s most radical. Check out its appearance in last year’s Bafta-winning film ‘Pride’ for more of its history.
Bloomsbury’s home to a humble monument for the first person from outside of Europe (well, apart from Rudyard Kipling) to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and studied at UCL. Bengali poet Tagore was instrumental in opening the West to new writing, especially from Indian authors and poets. A short walk away, you can also find a bust of Virginia Woolf, who lived in and often wrote about this area of London.
Want to do some reading beyond the dusty old farts in Poet’s Corner? This is for you. More than 5,000 books from 1900 to now, including 500 books of poetry, collected over 40 years are available for Londoners curious about gender, sexuality and the history of equal rights in the UK. Visit on Saturday afternoons for coffee, cake and stacks of women’s literature.
Word nerds, book a date with yourself this weekend. If you haven’t yet been to the Poetry Library then you have so far missed out on 200,000 poetry, magazines and critical studies all in one quiet, welcoming library. Open til 8pm every day but Monday, it also offers free poetry editing. Get away from it all - or, if you like, get back to what you love.
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