Those reading this blog since its inception (and anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with me) will know that I absolutely love living within an easy distance of London. Studying in the centre of the City means that much of my week is spent travelling back-and-forth for lectures and the like, but I never miss an opportunity to take advantage of what else the Capital has to offer. Having lived both here and in the US, and having travelled about a fair bit, I know how unbelievably lucky I am to have so much history and culture right on my doorstep.
When I decided to start a series of Literary Excursion posts, I obviously knew that London would be featuring quite heavily. But, since there are just so many literary-related adventures to be had in our fantastically diverse Capital, there is no way to do the place justice without a session of posts on its offerings. So this is the first The Book Habit insight into literary London and, hopefully, a first glance at the blossoming relationship between yours truly and the world’s most fabulous city.
This trip was initially decided upon because of my inexcusable failure to make it to the British Library for their current exhibition: Murder in the Library. Having realised that the exhibition would be ending next month, however, I seized on the opportunity to take a day off and make a visit. Disclaimer: I would like to add that, despite how this blog makes me appear, I do actually focus on my studies periodically.
Anyway, all literary trips to London must start in one place. Enter…the greatest bookshop that London has to offer (and no it’s not Waterstones – shock horror). Foyles!
Please enjoy the unsuspecting bald man in this photo. An artistic choice on my part.
As the largest independent bookshop in London, Foyles is absolutely a must-see for any bibliophile. It is fantastically well-stocked, catering to virtually every taste and interest. Despite the immense number of books on offer, the shop is marvellously laid out and, being located on Charing Cross Road, there are plenty of cafes near-by to review your purchases. Also, if, like me, you have an intense addiction to book-related tote bags, they sell what has to be the best tote in the world. Seriously. Go and get one right now.
After substantially reducing my bank balance at Foyles, it was time for the British Library. This is hands-down one of my favourite places (big surprise, I know).
When I started my Masters, one of the first things I did was register for a Reader Card – not only giving me access to the 150 million books housed in the archives, but also allowing me to use the amazing Reading Rooms as a study location. The British Library also hosts some fantastic exhibitions – and, from 17 May, they will have the fascinating Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition on show. However, my trip was one of homage to my deep-seated love of crime fiction and, more specifically, the moustache(s) of Monsieur Hercule Poirot.
Sadly, there are some strict policies on photography in the British Library (although, given that I work in a Stately Home, I applaud their rigour) so I was restricted to photos in the public areas. I will say, however, that the exhibition was fantastic. Not only did I get to see some original manuscripts, but I learnt a little more about two of my favourite authors – Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle (aka the man who gifted us Benedict Cumberbatch in all his Sherlockean glory). On the way out, I even got to say a Happy Birthday to this attractive chappy:
A lesson in how to look super intelligent at all times.
And enjoy the world’s greatest bench:
A lesson in how to make theft impossible.
Whenever I visit a country, I always make it a priority to book in a trip to the national library, because I fully believe that how a country treats its books is massively revealing. So I love that the British Library is such a fantastic institution and I massively recommend a visit to anyone in the UK or passing through. You will not be disappointed!
Ending your day here will also give you the chance to pay a visit to St. Pancras Station (right next door) – not only a stunning piece of architecture, but also the home of this guy:
Disclaimer: St. Pancras is not actually the home of John Betjeman.
John Betjeman, poet extraordinaire. And such a convenient way to wind up this post, having come across this doozie of an extract from his verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells:
Then I found
Second-hand bookshops in the Essex Road,
Stacked high with powdery leather flaked and dry,
Gilt letters on red labels – Mason’s Works
(But volume II is missing), Young’s Night Thoughts,
Falconer’s Shipwreck and The Grave by Blair,
A row of Scott, for certain incomplete,
And always somewhere Barber’s Isle of Wight;
The antiquarian works that no one reads –
Church Bells of Nottingham, Baptismal Fonts
(‘Scarce, 2s. 6d., a few plates slightly foxed’).
Once on a stall in Farringdon Road I found
An atlas folio of great lithographs,
View of Ionian Isles, flyleaf inscribed
By Edward Lear – and bought it for a bob.
Perhaps one day I’ll find a ‘first’ of Keats,
Wedged between Goldsmith and The Law of Torts;
Perhaps – but that is not the reason why
Untidy bookshops gave me such delight.
It was the smell of books, the plates in them,
Tooled leather, marbled paper, gilded edge,
The armorial book-plate of some country squire,
From whose tall library windows spread his park
On which this polished spine may once have looked.