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Following the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, wealthy Londoners began moving beyond the walls of the crowded city, looking for more space and healthier surroundings. Aristocratic families like the Dukes of Bedford planned city squares as self-contained communities centered around a square garden. During London Literature Tour, we will explore some of these picturesque squares and will learn about the institutions and local thinkers, like Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and Vanessa Bell who made this area the intellectual hub of the city.
Bloomsbury became the first neighborhood in London to have such a square; originally know as Southampton Square, it is now fittingly called Bloomsbury Square. John Evelyn, the diarist, described it as 'a noble square or piazza—a little towne.' As long as the façade was uniform, developers could build what they liked behind. Squares soon became popular and are still a distinctly-London style of urban design: today there are 600 of them.
Bloomsbury intellectual reputation developed after the establishment of the British Museum in the 1750s. The area is home to world-famous institutions like University College London (the first university in London) and Great Ormond Street Hospital for children, as well as the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts (RADA). Bloomsbury also gave its name to the literary group centered around Virginia Woolf. Many members of the group lived in the squares we will visit.
Over the course of this 3-hour walk, we will explore some of the more famous, as well as the lesser-known garden squares in Bloomsbury. We will discuss the importance of these green oases in a grey city and how much they help to beautify the city. Until the suburbs to the west and north of London developed in the nineteenth century, Bloomsbury was largely residential. Today, most of these garden squares are open to the public, and we will look at the design of the gardens and the varieties of plants and trees.
We start our walk in Bloomsbury Square where we will discuss its social importance (one side was originally built just for the servants of the big houses) and its famous residents and institutions, including Spinks, the auctioneers of coins, medals, and stamps.
We will continue our walk with Queen Square, also known as Medical Square, which was developed in the eighteenth century, as well as Russell Square with its historic Russell Hotel. This magnificent building was designed by architect Fitzroy Doll, who was one of the architects involved in designing the Titanic: some of the hotel rooms echo the interior of that fateful ship. The magnificent gardens of the hotel have recently been restored to the original designs of Humphry Repton.
We will make a detour to look at Coram Fields (entry only possible if you are accompanied by a child) and discuss the Foundling Hospital and its famous benefactors including Hogarth, Handel, and Charles Dickens, a local resident in his time. Our attention will be drawn to the Dickens House museum in Doughty Street.
After visiting Woburn Place, we will end in Tavistock Square, now dedicated to peace with a beautiful statue of Mahatma Gandhi at its centre. The statues of Virginia Woolf and Louisa Aldrich Blake remind us of the literary associations of the area. A visit to Bloomsbury would not be complete without a stop in Gordon Square, where the two sisters, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, started their cultural circle, as well as Bedford Square—the most perfectly preserved of the eighteenth-century squares in London. Originally, it was set almost in the country, rather like a small suburb. It was enclosed by gates to prevent traffic, forcing tradesmen to make deliveries personally. It was also the home of publishers including Warne, who published the Beatrix Potter books. Today, it's home to many prestigious institutions including the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the Architectural Association School of Architecture, and the Yale University Press.
At the end of our walk, we will have a deeper knowledge of how and why these squares came into being, as well as an understanding of how local institutions and literary figures shaped the character of the area.
Where do we meet? Where does it end?
The walk begins and ends in the Bloomsbury neighborhood. Your confirmation email will have the exact meeting point details along with a map, and emergency phone number.
What if it’s raining?
Tours operate rain or shine, but in the case of inclement weather, your docent will modify the tour so more time is spent indoors. It never hurts to have an umbrella on hand.
Is this a walking intensive tour?
This walk covers about 1 mile overall. There are occasional opportunities to sit at times.
This private walking tour takes you on an interesting 2.5 hour walk around the Bloomsbury district of London. What Montmartre in Paris is to the world of art then so is Bloomsbury to the world of literature. Bloomsbury was the center of the English-speaking literary world in the 19th and 20th centuries and to a degree still is. The beautiful squares and quiet neighborhoods created a special community where writers from around the world would come to live and write in a creative atmosphere.
On this tour you will visit the homes of a number of world-renowned writers, see the largely unchanged neighborhoods that they lived in and which helped form some of the greatest works of literature of all time. Just some of the places you will visit include the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Charles Darwin and the Suffragette Millicent Garrett Fawcett. You'll see the building that inspired George Orwell and his Ministry of Truth in 1984. Learn about the tragic life of Virginia Woolf, a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group and the location of where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented the famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes and why he never liked his famous detective.
Such luminaries as Gertrude Stein, Aleister Crowley, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and WB Yeats round off the tour, not forgetting J M Barrie whose wonderful story of Peter Pan continues to help a world-famous children’s hospital in London to this day.
Meet your guide in Fitzrovia in the afternoon, then start your tour with a traditional British pub quiz. Test your knowledge of Britain’s literary scene, then head onward through the City of London to further your knowledge.
During your tour, sample a selection of British beers (own expense) and meet a lifelike incarnation of Charles Dickens to hear what he has to say! Visit sites frequented by great 19th- and 20th-century poets and writers including Brendan Behan, Anthony Burgess, Karl Marx, George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, and Virginia Woolf.
Watch re-enactments of key moments in Britain’s literary history — such as the moment Dylan Thomas met his future wife Caitlin — and hear of the incidents and mishaps that shaped some of British literature’s most famous works.
Discover some of the places that have inspired more modern songwriters and artists like Paul McCartney and Damien Hirst, and enjoy book and poetry readings along the way. Afterward, finish your walking tour at The Coach and Horses pub in Soho, central London.
Henry Liddell, the Dean of Christ Church College from the 1850s to 1891, had a duaghter in 1852 he named Alice Pleasance Liddell. The Liddell family struck up a friendship with a mathematics professor named Charles Dodgson, who would regale the Liddell sisters with elaborate fantasy tales on their boating trips down Oxford's rivers. Little Alice begged Dodgson to write some of them down, and he did, using the pename Lewis Carroll, casting a precocious seven-year old girl named "Allice" as the protagonist, and eventually publishing Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.