Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past six weeks, you will know that the Olympic Games are being held in my home town, London, right now. After a magnificently bonkers opening ceremony that appears to have impressed and perplexed in equal measure, the sport has so far been brilliant and my experience of the Olympic Park yesterday filled me with patriotic pride as the organisation was flawless, the transport system didn’t collapse and the various volunteers, armed forces personnel and police officers on duty were friendly and welcoming. If you are here already or are visiting at some point over the next fortnight, you are in for a great time, despite London’s changeable weather. As a Londoner, I’m incredibly proud of my city so far and have definitely drunk the Olympic kool-aid, even though, as a confirmed Olympics junkie, I needed little encouragement.
One interesting aspect of the Games is that London is simply not as crowded as everyone imagined it would be. Walking along the South Bank earlier today, it was noticeably quieter than a normal summer weekend and, for the first time I can remember, there was no queue for entry to the London Dungeon. I was reminded of the conversation I had with a taxi driver in Athens when I was at the 2004 Olympics. He told me that the hype and expectation around the Games had put “ordinary” tourists from visiting the city both before and during the Games that year. Although I have no empirical evidence to support it, I suspect we may be experiencing the same effect here – there are certainly hotel rooms to be had at non-extortionate rates and restaurant tables are nowhere near as scarce as I had thought they would be. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that this might, perversely, be a good time to visit London even if you aren’t a sports fan.
And, if you do, or if you are already here and have some spare time in between the sport, I thought I’d give you some suggestions for things to see. So here are ten great literary places to visit in London this summer. Please come and join us – it’s turning into a wonderful summer.
1. The British Library. A copy of every book published in the United Kingdom is required by law to be deposited at the British Library. Consequently, if you can get a reader’s ticket (not actually too difficult), it is a treasure chest for the reader. For the more casual visitor, there is a permanent gallery, the Sir John Ritblatt, which displays many of the most interesting items in the Library’s collections, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio. There are also special exhibitions which this summer include Writing Britain: From Wastelands to Wonderlands. This examines how the landscapes of Britain permeate classic literature. This exhibition features original manuscripts for woks like Middlemarch, Jane Eyre and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A second summer exhibition , Collecting the Olympic Games, tells the story of the Games through memorabilia. There is a good café and it’s a pleasant place to sit outside on a sunny day.
2. The Globe Theatre. It’s a bit obvious but it’s also unmissable. The reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre gives a real flavour of the Jacobean theatre-going experience and is a centre for the exploration of Shakespeare’s writings and world. Even if you can’t get tickets, you can still tour the theatre and there are often special events which, this summer, include Midnight Matinees, a chance to watch Shakespeare under London’s midnight sky, followed by a post-play breakfast.
3. 221B Baker Street. Elementary, my dear reader. Of course, there was never an actual 221B Baker Street during the period when Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the Sherlock Holmes stories but it is, nevertheless, one of London’s most famous addresses. When Baker Street was extended, the Abbey National building society inhabited 219-229 Baker Street and so ended up receiving correspondence addressed to the great consulting detective. Indeed, they ended up employing a full-time secretary to answer his mail. The Abbey National is no longer there and mail now goes to the fun but inauthentic Sherlock Holmes Museum, situated at 237-241 Baker Street. It’s a fun visit anyway.
4. The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth Street, WC2. Reputedly the inspiration for Little Nell’s home in Dickens’ novel, this shop, protected by a preservation order, is London’s oldest shop, dating from the 1560s, and is an interesting glimpse into how London would have looked in the 16th Century. Unfortunately, it is almost certainly not really Dickens’ inspiration.
5. Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. In the South Transept of the Abbey, this area contains the graves of British literary figures such as Chaucer, Spenser, Hardy, Kipling and Dickens, together with memorials to others such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Austen and the Brontës. You’ll probably be in the area at some point anyway so you’d be remiss to miss it.
6. 84 Charing Cross Road. Somewhat improbably, a book based on the correspondence between Helene Hanff, an American author, and the staff of a bookshop at this address was made into a hit film in the 1980s. A plaque now commemorates this, although it is no longer a bookshop. Never fear, though, because Charing Cross Road still contains a number of fascinating specialist and second-hand bookshops in which you can lose hours in browsing and could come away with a bargain in the process.
7. Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street. Although the journalists who used to populate Fleet Street, once the home of Britain’s newspapers, have long gone, this old pub, dating from the 18th Century, endures. It still reputedly houses Dr Johnson’s chair and was a haunt of, amongst others, Thackeray, Dickens, Conan Doyle and Chesterton. A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without supping a pint in a proper London pub now, would it?
8. The Red Lion, 20 Great Windmill Street, Soho. I can see a theme developing here but this pub, in the heart of Soho, was the place where Marx and Engels gave lectures in an upstairs room and, later, wrote the Communist Manifesto. Funny to think that a piece that had so much impact on the world was written here by a couple of blokes drinking warm, English bitter!
9. The Pillars of Hercules, 7 Greek Street, Soho. Yes, definitely a theme here. This tiny pub, tucked away in Soho has been a hangout of, amongst others, Casanova, De Quincey, Barnes and Ian McEwen. It gets a name check in A Tale of Two Cities and, ahem, was a former drinking spot of yours truly. Must be worth a visit.
10. Foyles Book Shop, Charing Cross Road. Within easy staggering distance of the Pillars of Hercules, Foyles is a massive, confusing, disorganised but brilliant bookshop. I suspect there are readers who, having wandered in to the shop, fail to emerge for days, engrossed in the browsing opportunities therein. If you want a specific book, it’s probably there, the trick is finding it without picking up half a dozen other books on the way.