From Great Expectations to Bridget Jones’ Diary, London looms large in world literature. But the city offers book lovers plenty to see beyond location spotting.
Watch plays like a Shakespearean Londoner at the recreated Globe Theatre. Get up close and personal with all things Sherlock at the Sherlock Holmes Museum near Baker Street. Even the Old Bailey has literary associations. Lawyers prosecuted Penguin Books here in 1960 for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Would you like to explore a wider range of literary landmarks in London? Here are seven ideas to get you started.
1. Independent Bookshops
London spoils book lovers for choice with independent bookshops. Head to Charing Cross Road for various stores, including Any Amount of Books at no. 56. Find books for £1 in its bargain-basement or browse their collection of first editions.
Head towards Trafalgar Square and turn left onto the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cool calm of Cecil Court. Here you’ll find a row of antiquarian bookshops straight out of Victorian London. Nicknamed Bookseller’s Row, the street offers first editions, rare books, maps, and art. Mozart even stayed here when he was touring Europe as an eight-year-old.
If you’re on Piccadilly, go to no. 187 to visit Hatchards. It’s London’s oldest bookstore, established in 1797. They also run events where you can hear talks by authors.
And because Books and Travel is no stranger to the ‘unusual’, try Treadwell’s occult bookshop. Opened in 2003, it sells esoteric books, runs walking tours, and offers tarot readings. It’s a welcoming shop and the perfect place to connect with your spirituality.
Of course, you can’t miss Stanfords Travel Bookshop near Covent Garden, packed with travel memoir, travel guides as well as science books, maps, and a cafe.
There are also some great chain bookstores, Foyles on Charing Cross Road and also Waterstones Piccadilly, both epic-sized, multi-level stores with gifts as well as a large range of books.
I also recommend Blackwells at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road. I always leave there with more to read and their collection skews towards science and the unusual. If you’d like a walk along the network of London’s canals, keep an eye out for Word on the Water, a canal boat bookshop.
2. The British Library
It might sound obvious, but the British Library is the bibliophile destination. It’s the second-largest library in the world and it also hosts some fantastic temporary exhibitions. Recent gems include Harry Potter, unusual maps, writing, and Anglo-Saxon books.
The British Library moved to Euston Square from the British Museum in 1998. It holds over 150 million items, including the Magna Carta and Shakespeare’s first folio.
The King’s Library is a six-story tower in the center of the building, named for King George III. He collected the 65,000 manuscripts, books and maps between 1763 and 1820.
Visit the Sir John Ritblat Gallery for a free permanent exhibition. You’ll see original manuscripts like Beowulf, Jane Eyre and The Canterbury Tales.
The library’s two bookshops also sell a host of fantastic titles.
3. Senate House Library
Are you a fan of George Orwell’s 1984? Then head to Senate House in Bloomsbury. The imposing Art Deco building inspired Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in his landmark novel. His wife worked there during World War II, when the Minister of Information used the building. Graham Greene also took the concept into his 1943 novel, The Ministry of Fear.
This huge art deco building houses the university library of the University of London. Its collection includes the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature. Harry Price was a paranormal researcher who once investigated Borley Rectory.
The library hosts events and free exhibitions. You can also join the library, even if you’re not studying at the University of London. Or why not check out these secret libraries?
4. Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey offers two sites to the London book lover. The monument to Isaac Newton provided a key clue in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. (The film adaptation used Lincoln Cathedral instead of the abbey).
Head to the South Transept to find Poets’ Corner. Geoffrey Chaucer was its first resident in 1400. But he’s here to recognize his position as Clerk of Works, not his writing. You’ll also find the graves of other literary heavyweights. Look for Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Edmund Spenser, and Rudyard Kipling.
Or see memorials to writing luminaries not buried here. They include Jane Austen (Winchester Cathedral) and John Keats (Protestant Cemetery, Rome).
The Westminster Abbey Shop sells works by writers buried or remembered here.
5. Four Burial Grounds
Cemeteries might seem a strange choice for book lovers. But they’re often the only place to ‘visit’ our favorite authors. And they provide wonderful inspiration for writers.
Lizzie Siddal, the Pre-Raphaelite model and poet, lies in Highgate’s West Cemetery. According to legend, the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti buried his poems with her. A few years later, after his grief passed, he exhumed Siddal’s coffin to retrieve the poems!
You can only visit the West Cemetery on a tour. Or pop over the road to the East Cemetery to see the graves of Douglas Adams, George Eliot, and Karl Marx.
St. Pancras Old Church Yard
Look for the tree with the bizarre arrangement of headstones around it. You can thank the young architect Thomas Hardy for that, in his pre-writing fame days. The authorities moved the graves in the 1860s to make way for the railway construction in the area.
Charles Dickens names the churchyard as a body-snatching location in A Tale of Two Cities. You can also find Mary Wollstonecraft’s headstone here, although her body lies in Bournemouth. She spearheaded an early feminism movement with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This is where her daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, began her romance with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1812.
And head to Bunhill Fields on City Road. It’s a peaceful oasis amid the bustle of the City. You’re likely to spot office workers on their lunch break. But you’ll also see monuments to Daniel Defoe, William Blake, and John Bunyan. Look for Bunhill Row on the burial ground’s western side to see where John Milton wrote Paradise Lost.
This tiny burial ground once lay hidden down a backstreet near London Bridge. According to legend, the remains of the Winchester Geese lie here. They were sex workers belonging to the Bishop of Winchester who worked in local brothels. Other paupers and outcasts ended up in the burial ground before it closed in 1853.
The graveyard is now a Garden of Remembrance. A host of vigils and events happen throughout the year. It appears in a range of novels, such as John Constable’s The Southwark Mysteries, The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott, and my own crime thriller, Deviance. You can find more info and pictures here.
Bloomsbury was the home of the Bloomsbury Group in the 1920s and 1930s. This artist-writer collective included Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and John Maynard Keynes. Woolf ran The Hogarth Press out of her homes in Mecklenburg Square and Tavistock Square.
So, if anyone puts down indie publishing, remind them Virginia Woolf promoted it! You can find a bust of her in Tavistock Square Garden.
You’ll find the Dickens Museum on Doughty Street, where the writer lived between 1837 and 1839. He wrote Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers here.
T.S. Eliot worked in Bloomsbury at Faber & Faber. W. B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley all lived in Bloomsbury too. Shelley lived on Marchmont Street, though she pre-dated the group by a century. Still, her presence is a testament to the literary buzz of the area.
Why not pop into the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street? George Orwell and Dylan Thomas often visited during the interwar years.
7. Dr. Johnson’s House
In 1755, Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language. One of the funniest episodes of Blackadder deals with its creation.
In reality, it took Dr. Johnson eleven years to compile the first dictionary. He lived at 17 Gough Square in Holborn during that time. Dr Johnson’s House is now a museum dedicated to his life and times. The good doctor was very sociable, so plenty of writers visited during his time here. Their writing memorabilia is often on display.
The museum hosts a range of talks, performances, and exhibitions. It changes its displays, so it’s worth a return visit if you’ve been before. There’s also a statue of his favorite cat at the bottom of the square. After your visit, head to his favorite pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, around the corner.
That’s the beauty of London. Famous writers lived, worked, and died in the ever-changing capital. They’ve preserved its tales of murder and madness, beauty and bravery. More books than we can count take inspiration from its twisting passages and hectic pace.
Keep your eyes open as you stroll these streets in search of literary secrets. Who knows which strange door might lead to Neverwhere’s London Below?
Still curious about London? Check out these 25 quirky and unusual things to do in the capital.