Go beyond your favorite novels and dive into London's book paradise! Hannah checks out literary locations in London and narrows down 8 places you need to visit around the city. She includes a good variety of historical spots such as the Sherlock Holmes Museum and Jane Austen Centre to new bookstores and ones with frequent author sightings. Plus, you don't want to miss the scoop about a floating bookstore on a canal!
When I decided to study abroad, London was particularly appealing given its rich literary history. In my college career as an English major, I’ve read Charles Dickens’s depictions of foggy Chancery in Bleak House and V. E. Schwab’s multiple-dimension London in A Darker Shade of Magic. Like these authors, I was hoping to tap into the creative energy of the city and see some of London’s renowned literary locations. As I continue to travel in and around the city on my literary pilgrimage, I am constantly inspired by contemporary and historical authors and works of literature. Here are eight of my favorite places from my journey so far.
1. Sherlock Holmes Museum
The Sherlock Holmes Museum is well worth the visit. It also has a gift shop where you can try on and purchase a deerstalker cap like the one Sherlock wears.
If you’re a fan of mysteries or detective stories, I highly suggest knocking on the door to 221B Baker Street, home to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Even though Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were fictional characters and their famous address did not exist at the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the classic stories, the Sherlock Holmes Museum makes it seem as though the iconic duo has just stepped out of their Victorian-style flat to investigate another mystery. On the first couple of floors, you can wander through rooms designed to resemble Sherlock’s study as well as the pair’s bedrooms, where antiques including a cosmetics kit, scientific equipment, and medical instruments are arranged to look as though they were just in use by Holmes and Watson. On the upper floors, you can peruse artifacts such as a taxidermy hound from the Baskervilles (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and the Bulldog revolver concealed inside ex-reverend Williamson’s Bible (“The Solitary Cyclist”). You can also witness scenes from some of their most famous cases, including Holmes and Watson’s discovery of the Lady Carfax in “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.”
Holmes and I puzzled over the mystery of my missing earring. The case has yet to be solved.
In the study, there is a desk with Victorian antiques arranged to look like Holmes has just been using them.
2. Word on the Water
Word on the Water is an eclectic bookstore floating on Regent’s Canal.
What better place to be whisked away on an adventure than a floating bookstore? Word on the Water is a vintage Dutch barge from the 1920s docked in Regent’s Canal next to Granary Square. It carries an eclectic selection of classics and antiquarian books as well as modern fiction, poetry, and nonfiction—from Beowulf to Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. The atmosphere is also very tranquil with the scent of burning incense clinging to the air and a sunlit statue of the Buddha gazing out over a colorful range of postcards and a cozy leather armchair. If you’re looking to embark on a literary journey, chart your course for Word on the Water! Anchors aweigh! Bon voyage!
Word on the Water has a great selection of new and vintage books. I skimmed through a couple of them while sitting in the armchair just inside the entrance to the store.
3. House of Minalima
The House of Minalima is pretty easy to spot; just look for the bright pink storefront!
The House of Minalima is a must-see for Harry Potter fans. Located in Soho, The House of Minalima is a gallery and shop devoted to the work of Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, best known as designers for the Harry Potter franchise. This multi-story building is vibrantly decorated with flower garlands and a trail of Hogwarts letters scattered along the floor, leading up the staircase through the gallery. At the House of Minalima, you can purchase lustrous prints of the iconic artwork, replica notebooks, and various other Harry Potter trinkets. There are also several display cases scattered throughout the gallery that are filled with props that were used on the film sets, including Luna Lovegood’s Spectrespecs, the Marauder’s Map, and the Half Blood Prince’s annotated copy of Advanced Potion-Making.
The inside of The House of Minalima is so whimsical and vibrant, and Harry’s deluge of Hogwarts letters lead you up the staircase to the rest of the gallery.
The House of Minalima has display cases filled with props used in the Harry Potter movies.
Here, you can see Luna’s Spectrespecs and a copy of The Marauder’s Map!
4. London Review Bookshop
London Review Bookshop in Holborn is an excellent venue to shop and attend literary events. So far, I have signed up for several of the author talks, and recently, I went to hear Women’s Fiction Prize Winner Tayari Jones talk about her novel, An American Marriage. Jones answered questions about form, time, and tone in her novel, all of which work to reveal the humanity of her characters and the deep injustice of wrongful conviction. Hearing Jones explain her motivation and writing journey was very insightful, especially when she described how she discovered her story and conducted her lengthy research.
Tayari Jones signed my copy of her novel An American Marriage, which just won the Women’s Fiction Prize.
After accepting audience questions, Jones began to sign copies of An American Marriage. When at last I nervously handed her my book, I asked her a few questions about publishing and the writer’s life. I am still ruminating on her wisdom and advice, and I can’t wait to read my autographed copy of An American Marriage.
5. The Second Shelf
The Second Shelf is a bookstore devoted to the works of women. They host events with notable contemporary authors and have a neat selection of zines too!
The Second Shelf is a relatively new bookstore in London, carrying new, used, and rare books by women authors. Historically, women have not had as much space in the literary sphere, and their work is generally not as well known or widely read. The Second Shelf is a comfortable, progressive space that seeks to support and promote intersectional feminism through their inventory and events. The Second Shelf also publishes a literary magazine. While I was there, I bought the first edition, which features readers writing about their favorite women writers like Audre Lorde and Gwendolyn Brooks. I look forward to browsing through its contents and hearing author Esmé Weijun Wang speak at one of The Second Shelf’s upcoming events!
The Second Shelf publishes a literary magazine. This is its first edition.
6. Keats House
Here is the outside of John Keats’ villa, nestled in a peaceful green space in Hampstead.
I’m a sucker for Capital-‘R’ Romantic poetry, so I just had to travel to Hampstead to visit John Keats’s villa. On a self-guided tour of the house, I wandered through the spaces in which Keats lived and wrote poetry meditating on melancholy and yearning for the waters of the “blushful Hippocrene” (as he words it in “Ode to a Nightingale”). While I was there, I attended a gathering of The Blue Stockings Society in the scarlet Chester Room. The Blue Stockings Society was a women’s social and intellectual group in 1750s England. Today, the Keats House hosts The Blue Stockings society on the first Friday of every month. Primarily, this inclusive group discusses writing and literature with a special focus on the works of women.
At June 2019’s Blue Stockings Society gathering, we read work from women who wrote about the Great War.
At the June 7th meeting I attended, we examined women’s writing on war, analyzing Mary Borden’s “At the Somme: The Song of the Mud,” May Sinclair’s “Field ambulance in retreat,” Edith Sitwell’s “The Dancers,” and Ellen N. La Motte’s “A Surgical Triumph.” Although the group was small, we had sprawling discussions about perspective, tone, imagery, and style while also delving into the historical context behind the pieces. I definitely feel that participating in The Blue Stockings Society’s gathering was both informative and rewarding, and I would highly recommend the experience.
7. The Jane Austen Centre (Bath)
Sitting on a bench overlooking Pulteney Bridge and the River Avon was the perfect place to begin reading Northanger Abbey.
After our first CAPA excursion to Bath and Stonehenge, I returned to Bath to visit the Jane Austen Centre, which is housed where the famous novelist lived for a stint of time in 1797. The centre features a museum with portraits, artefacts, a film about Austen’s life in Bath, and interactive portions where you can pose with Mr. Darcy (male romantic lead in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) in period garments and write with a quill as Austen’s words play on an intermittent loop. The museum is £9.50 for students. Two of Austen’s novels are actually set in Bath—Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. I picked up a copy of the latter while I was there and sat by Pulteney Bridge to read whilst listening to the cascading waters of River Avon. This picturesque site also happens to appear in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Miserables, which is based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo.
I had a hard time suppressing my laughter as I slid my arms into this costume and posed with Mr. Darcy.
Ladies would have worn red Vans and denim blouses under their dresses back then, right?
It took me a little while to get used to writing with a quill, but I’m fairly happy with the results.
8. The British Library
The British Library is one of the largest libraries in the world, containing over 170 million collected items from throughout global history. The exhibitions at the British Library are fascinating. While I was there, I visited Treasures of the British Library as well as Writing: Making Your Mark. The latter exhibit featured displays on the origins, systems, styles, materials, technology, humanity, and future of the practice and art of writing. While I was there, I learned about the composition of various world languages, including Chinese, Arabic, and Devanagari abugida. I also gazed in awe at the beautifully gilded illustrations in a Qu’ran from 17th century Iran and the intricate folding book containing the Phra Malai from 19th century Thailand. Inside the Treasures of the British Library exhibition, I was excited to see lyrics hurriedly scrawled by The Beatles, Shakespeare’s legendary First Folio, and various documents from literary giants like Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters. That said, the British Library is perhaps most well known for showcasing the Magna Carta, the Great Charter granted by King John at Runnymede in 1215. For me, seeing that particular document in person brought history to life as I imagined the day it was signed and considered its lasting impact on the nation.
Although photos weren’t permitted in the exhibition, I was able to snap a picture from the outside. On the left, you can see a Mayan limestone stela from over 2,500 years ago. The Mayan glyphs are used to construct words and sentences. Some of the symbols in the stone represent complete words, while others are syllables.
Of course, this is not a comprehensive list. There are many more places left on my travel list, such as Gordon Square, Persephone Books, and the University of Oxford. There’s so much to see in England, and it would be almost impossible to cover all the literary sites in one blog post. For now, I hope you’ll enjoy following along on my pilgrimage and maybe even find a few of these places yourself. Until next time!
Hannah Woodruff is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. With a double major in English Literature and English Writing at University of Pittsburgh, she is studying abroad in London this semester.
Hannah's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.