Image Credit: Tony Tree, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/now-theres-even-more-space-tobe-at-home-with-the-bloomsburys-dhf3rkmwg
Opening a new book is like stepping off a plane in a new place. You leave your reality behind: excited, trembling, perhaps a little apprehensive or doubtful, and venture into new territory. A place populated by the tangle of words, or paths of ink paved with cobblestones made of punctuation marks, or characters plucked directly from the mind of someone else. You don’t need to pack a suitcase, struggle through an airport or desperately try to sleep through a twelve-hour flight. The transition is seamless and uninhibited by mundane concerns or Covid-19 restrictions. Coming equipped with your imagination is the only requirement.
Every book has a creation story, and here I will take you on a tour through some of the most important literary locations in England, at a time when reading may be one of the only forms of travel available to us. These places are where literature was born, where the minds of those who wrote them were inspired and where you will hopefully follow as a disciple of their histories.
“That's the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” - Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
The Lake District:
While walking through the Lake District, surrounded by towering peaks and hollow valleys, it is not difficult to imagine why so many writers found inspiration here. In particular, the Romantic Poets were drawn to the Lake District’s majestic scenery. William Wordsworth lived there between 1799-1808 in Dove Cottage, Grasmere. His home is open to the public alongside the Wordsworth Museum where a large collection of his writings is held. From here, I would suggest going for a walk up to Easedale Tarn, armed with a copy of Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’, to find traces of the landscape in the poetry of a man who, ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’.
Another significant literary site is Beatrix Potter’s House in Windermere. I am sure many of you grew up reading the beautifully illustrated children’s stories she wrote, so it is incredible to be able to visit the place which inspired these. Admittedly, my first experience of visiting Beatrix Potter’s House could not be considered a tableaux of childhood bliss, as my overriding memory is being harshly reprimanded by a member of staff for touching a table (with a disproportionate degree of anger I might add!) Regardless, it is definitely worth visiting.
A tour of literary locations cannot be completed without the inclusion of London, a centre of England’s artistic and cultural richness. However, it is almost impossible to choose which places to include, as every street resounds with the footsteps of great authors and pioneers of literature.
However, Tavistock Square is a perfect example of such concentrated literary history. The houses are signposted with plaques that reveal the all-star cast who lived there, including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Richard Lydekker. From here, the Woolf’s also ran their publishing house Hogarth Press, and the authors they published can be further pursued to many corners of the globe (T.S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and Sigmund Freud to name a few).
Keats House, located on the edge of Hampstead Heath, is another unmissable sight. This is where the Romantic poet, John Keats, lived with his friend Charles Brown and underwent the most prolific period of his writing career (which may have had something to do with the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, living next door which could send any man into a fit of verbose lyricizing). Whether you consider Keats to be a literary genius or, as (as John Gibson Lockhart wrote), a ‘fanciful dreaming tea-drinker’, his home is a must see on my tour of literary sites.
Westminster Abbey needs no introduction, but you may have not previously noticed ‘Poet’s Corner’ located in the Abbey’s South Transept. This is the location of many famous writers’ memorials such as Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, the Brönte sisters and more (like a glorified trophy cabinet for literary minds instead of medals – trust me, it’s exciting to an English student) so it is fascinating to see.
Finally, be sure to leave London via Platform Nine and Three-Quarters in Kings Cross station - I’m sure the significance of this site doesn’t need explaining (although, it should be noted that running into walls is deeply frowned upon and should not be attempted unless you have an owl and a magical red-headed family to cushion the blow).
Now for the one you’ve all been waiting for, England’s crowning jewel, Shakespeare (it would be almost an offence not to mention him and I might be forced off my English degree if I didn’t). Seeing Shakespeare plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the place where he was born has a vibrancy that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. Here, you can also see a collection of buildings associated with the poet: the homes of his daughter and mother, his birthplace, and the cottage owned by his wife. So, if you are asking yourself ‘to be or not to be’ whilst considering a trip to Stratford, the decision should be yes (and a lot easier to make than the mortal dilemma Hamlet faced!)
The last stop on our tour is Charleston, one which is testament to my mildly concerning obsession with Virginia Woolf. Home to Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the cottage was an escape from London’s bustling activity and the entire family moved there together in 1916. However, this house (now a museum), can be more accurately described as a work of art rather than a home due to the artistic transformation it underwent when Bell and Grant moved there. The two modernist artists embellished every room and painted all available surfaces, making it a shrine to their talent. Today, visitors can enter the museum, engage with the art, and by extension with the ideas of the Bloomsbury Group which were housed there.
Thank you for joining me on this tour of England’s literary hotspots. I hope I have demonstrated that the world of literature is vast, limitlessly filled with intrigue and all stored neatly on your bookshelf. Even during the pandemic when travel isn’t always possible, you need only reach out a hand and open a book to enter a different place; a place where furlough, PCR tests and Omicron are a foreign language.
Image credit: Emily Warner