A Tour Through London’s Literary History

On a recent holiday in the U.K., Read it Forward's editor found a bibliophile's dream vacation.

Literary London

It’s safe to say I’m a book nerd. So, I was delighted when, on a recent holiday to the United Kingdom, I was met by bookish delights at every turn. Britain has such a rich literary history and their love for the written word is evident everywhere you look. Libraries are abundant, rare manuscripts are on display at museums next to the Crown Jewels and there are tributes to the countless authors who hail from London and the surrounding areas on every corner. Reader, as I strolled the foggy streets, I had you in mind, so I captured a few sights I saw along the way that any bibliophile would love.

There are libraries big and small…everywhere!

literary london

Notting Hill Gate Library is just one of many neighborhood library branches I saw as I strolled the streets.

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The British Library has about 150 million items in its collection, among them include Jane Austen’s writing desk, the Magna Carta and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook. Books are held on over 388 miles of shelves.

At the heart of the library, housed in a tall glass tower are the books collected by King George III (reigned 1760-1820). It consists of 65,000 volumes of printed books and is considered one of the most significant collections of the Enlightenment.

To celebrate the 100th birthday of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl, Sir Quentin Blake drew special portraits of some of the most celebrated characters from Dahl’s stories. Above, the Big Friendly Giant from The BFG.

Charlie of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Miss Trunchbull from Matilda.

Fellow book lover Matilda from Matilda!

Hilary Mantel, the two-time Man Booker award-winning author, has become the only living writer to have her portrait on display in the British Library, in this work by Nick Lord.

The Bodleian Library, the main research library of The University of Oxford, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe.

In 1920, the library needed more space, so expanded into the nearby Radcliffe Camera. The two libraries are connected by an underground tunnel and there are many books stored under the square’s streets. There used to be a small underground railway to transport books between the Radcliffe Camera and the main Bodleian site.

With over 12 million items in its collections, it is the second largest library in Britain after the British Library.

The building above was the first home of Oxford University Press.

The final resting place of many of the world’s greatest writers is Westminster Abbey.

A memorial to The Chronicles of Narnia author C. S. Lewis

Poets’ corner is in the southwest corner of the Abbey, thusly named for the number of poets, playwrights, and writers buried and commemorated there, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling.

 There are books everywhere in London! Books on shelves in pubs…

Grab a beer and a book… a pint and a paperback…

Or a Dickens-themed lending library in this pub in Bath.

In almost every pub you enter, you find famous authors have been there before you…

At the Holly Bush in Hampstead in London, located in a house built in the 1790s by portrait painter George Romney, a plaque mentions that past visitors to the pub include Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, A. A. Milne and Agatha Christie.

The Dog and Duck pub in London was a favorite watering hole of George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm.

At the Turf Tavern in Oxford, which can be dated back to 1381 (!), literary patrons have included Stephen Hawking, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy and Ernest Hemingway.

The tavern also features prominently in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, which are set in and around Oxford.

I found books for sale everywhere…and I somehow managed to restrain myself from buying all of them.

Portobello Road Market, one of London’s notable street markets, is known for its antiques and its secondhand clothing.

But you know I stayed the longest at the used books stall…

I made a pilgrimage to the London Review bookshop to gaze lovingly at their well-stocked shelves.

I loved looking at all of the U.K. covers of some of the books I’ve loved reading recently (The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and The Girls by Emma Cline) and noticing how different they are than their U.S. counterparts.

Located in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the Chaucer Head bookshop, which started in Birmingham in 1830, has my vote for best name.

Waterstones bookstores named Sarah Perry’s work of historical fiction The Essex Serpent their Book of the Year.

Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, began in 1879 as a rare book dealer, and remains one of Oxford’s best bookstores.

I couldn’t go to Britain and not pay homage to Shakespeare in his hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon…

The aforementioned Avon River.

A statue in tribute to the Bard.

The exterior of Shakespeare’s childhood home. When I saw it, I started crying.

“Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile…” —Love’s Labour Lost, Act 1, Scene 1, 72-79.

I’m not the first person to pay homage to Shakespeare by visiting his birthplace. For centuries, literary visitors have made pilgrimages to come and pay their respects, and some scratched their names into the windowpane to show they’d been there. Among the more famous names? Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, Ellen Terry and Charles Dickens.

After Shakespeare “hit it big,” as it were, he purchased a large house in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1597. He died there in 1616. Though the house is no longer standing, the gardens remain.

Me, sitting at a replica of Shakespeare’s writing desk, getting seriously inspired.

In the garden is a Mulberry tree, which is said to have been grown from a cutting of the tree Shakespeare planted.

Shakespeare is buried in his hometown at the Church of the Holy Trinity.

Many great works have been inspired by Britain’s famous landmarks. Above, the Salisbury cathedral is the setting for Cornelia Funke’s children’s book Ghost Knight.

Salisbury Cathedral also served as inspiration for Ken Follett’s international bestselling novel The Pillars of the Earth. The novel tells the story of the construction and life of a ‘new build’ cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge.

Even when you’re strolling through the streets, you see literary history everywhere…

William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, served as the schoolmaster at a Salisbury school after serving in the Royal Navy during World War II. During wartime, he participated in the invasion of Normandy and his experience had a profound effect on his view of humanity and the evils of which it was capable. After the war, Golding resumed teaching and started to write novels. His first and greatest success came with Lord of the Flies, which ultimately became a bestseller in both Britain and the United States after more than twenty publishers rejected it.

Meanwhile, at Oxford University, one of the most literary college campuses…

The dining hall at Wadham College, where I ate breakfast. There are incredibly gorgeous dining halls all over Oxford. The one at Christ Church inspired the set designers on the Harry Potter films to create the Great Hall in its image.

Rosamund Pike, who played Amy Dunne in the Gone Girl movie adaptation, is a Wadham alumna and her portrait hangs in the dining hall.

In 1851, young Charles Lutwidge Dodgeson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) came to study mathematics at Christ Church in Oxford, where he would later meet his muse, Alice Liddell, the daughter of a Dean of Christ Church, who became the base for the fictional character in his first book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is the great lawn in front of Christ Church where rumor has it Carroll played croquet with Liddell, inspiring the famous scene with the Red Queen.

Christ Church has perhaps some of Oxford’s most famous literary alums. Besides Lewis Carroll, W. H. Auden, Sir Philip Sidney and Bishop and poet Thomas Percy are all graduates. Nearby, J. R. R. Tolkien was a professor at Pembroke College during the time he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were dear friends during their time in Oxford.

Even as you pass through the West End, London’s theater district, you see literature coming to life…

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was playing to a sold-out crowd 155 years after it was originally published in France in 1862.

There were even books on wallpaper in a local cafe…

Need for my home!

While traveling, the books I carried were…

A guidebook to England by travel master Rick Steves, The Road to Little Dribbling, a first-person travelogue/essay collection by Bill Bryson and a fabulous forthcoming work of historical fiction, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan, set in the U.K. during WWII.

As a bibliophile, I felt at home in London…

As you can see, I may have fallen in love.


Featured image: Bucchi Francesco/Shutterstock.com

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

  • jupe77

    What, no 34 Charing Cross? LOL. Very interesting article, and great pictures. Thanks!

  • LaVerdad2016

    I did a literary walking tour of London…went to pub The Chesire Cheese…Charles Dickens hangout & first pub to reopen after Great Fire if 1666 (it reopened in 1667!)

  • topazshell5

    I really loved visiting Oxford college and looking at the books in this article.

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