John Keats and fellow Romantics spent a lot of time in Hampstead during the early nineteenth century, making it one of the most important literary hubs in London. Take a stroll through leafy Hampstead Heath and pay a visit to poet John Keats’s House (Tuesday to Sunday 1-5pm entrance £6.50), which has become a thriving museum dedicated not only to Keats but also to poetry in general. The gardens are darling, and it’s possible to sit under the tree where he was inspired to write Ode to a Nightingale. The literary reputation of Hampstead has a circular effect. John Keats and his contemporaries inspired DH Lawrence to move to the ‘Vale of Health’; a blue plaque commemorates where he lived with his wife, Frieda (1 Byron Villas, Vale of Health). But perhaps the best tribute you could make would be a pint of ale in one of Hampstead’s literary pubs. The Spaniards Inn is one of London’s oldest and most notorious pubs; Charles Dickens immortalised it in The Pickwick Papers and Keats himself wrote an ode or two here, it was also a famous watering hole for many infamous highwaymen including Dick Turpin. Today it caters to the discerning generation of brunch enthusiasts. If you’re looking for a more upmarket spot of lunch, brunch or afternoon tea, check out our guide to London’s best skyscraper restaurants.
Head north east of Hampstead Heath and you’ll find the charming London suburb of Highgate, where you can indulge in a spot of blue plaque hunting amongst the area’s grand Georgian houses – keep your eyes peeled for mentions of Dickens, John Betjeman, AE Housman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and JB Priestley to name but a few. Score double points by picking out the house that Coleridge and Priestley both lived in (at different times) on The Grove, one of London’s most prestigious streets. These writers all drank in Highgate’s perfectly preserved old pubs, making it the perfect place for a literary pub crawl. Start at the The Wrestlers, then on to The Bull, followed by one in The Red Lion and Sun. By this stage you’ll be wandering along the High street, where you should visit The Gatehouse and The Prince of Wales. Leave this last establishment by the back door and walk through Pond Square, for one final swift half at William Hogarth’s regular, The Flask. For more of London’s top pubs and restaurants, check out this line-up.
A walk in Bloomsbury will be at the top of many literary lover’s lists; especially if they’re fans of Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Lytton Strachey and the rest of the famous ‘Bloomsbury set’. There are blue plaques on every street in this historic quarter of London, which hasn’t changed much for three centuries. Gordon Square is most closely connected to this group of artists and thinkers. In fact, they lived in so many of the houses here that there’s just a single plaque to cover all of the houses that the Bloomsbury Group lived in.
4. Baker Street
Arrive at Baker Street station by tube and exit one of the original stations of the Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway, opened in 1863. The first thing you’ll set your eyes on is Elementary, a statue of the world’s most famous detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. There’s a post here where you can stop to listen to interesting facts about the detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – did you know that the original Sherlock never uttered the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson"? Baker Street has become a shrine to its most famous fictional resident. Visit The Sherlock Holmes museum posing as 221b, but actually at 239 Baker Street open every day 9:30am to 6pm (admission £15, under 16s £10), where the offices of Holmes and Dr. Watson have been lovingly recreated, based on Sir Arthur’s stories.
Soho is one of London’s most vibrant districts with an extremely colourful past. Greek Street is where you’ll find the House of St. Barnabas, built in 1846 for London’s destitute and homeless, and the inspiration behind Dr. Manette’s abode in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. In fact, he got the character’s name from nearby Manette Street, which runs under The Pillars of Hercules pub. Further down Greek Street is The Coach and Horses pub, one of the many unspoiled, wood-lined writers’ pubs in Soho, and the place hangout of author and drinker Jeffrey Bernard. See the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (there’s a great 1999 film version starring Peter O’Toole), and you’ll see a mock-up of The Coach and Horses’s interior. Another drinking den worth a look is The Dog and Duck, the spot where Karl Marx and George Orwell did most their drinking, whilst patrons of French House included Wyndham Lewis, Anthony Burgess and Dylan Thomas – the pub’s landlord had to intervene one day after a particularly heavy session and rescue Thomas’s Under Milk Wood manuscript when he left it on his seat!
6. Primrose Hill
The Battenberg Cake style painted houses of Primrose Hill are reminiscent of Cherry Tree lane in Mary Poppins, written by P. L. Travers. Number 3 Chalcot Square has a plaque commemorating the tragic poet Sylvia Plath. She and Ted Hughes lived here before their marriage broke down. Plath then moved a short walk away to 23 Fitzroy Road, which has a plaque for the poet WB Yeats, a fact that greatly excited Plath. If you’re int he area then you should definitely climb to the top of Primrose Hill, where you’ll get an amazing panoramic view of London, and you’ll see the inscription by poet and artist William Blake: "I have conversed with the Spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill". At the bottom of the hill, you’ll find Regent’s Park Road, a beautiful little high street. The Queen’s pub was the local of Kingsley Amis. He was also fond of the restaurant, Odette’s, opposite. He lived at 194, in an unusual arrangement, in the attic, while his ex wife lived in the basement with her new husband. Make sure you’ve got your own sleeping arrangements sorted for your next stay in London with our guide to the best budget hotels and hostels in London.
Chelsea is a tale of two cities, so to speak; the fashion conscious present (on display along the King’s road, the main artery that runs through Chelsea) and its village-esque past. Go off any side street and the houses are centuries old and a wonderful hodgepodge of styles. These pretty back streets include Tite Street, which was home to Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and AA Milne, author of much the loved children’s story Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne’s publisher recalls being at this address, watching Milne reading the story aloud while his son, Christopher Robin, played with the toys that had become characters in his stories. Along Cheyne Walk, you’ll find writers’ block, Carlyle Mansions; Henry James lived on the fourth floor, poet TS Eliot lived on the third floor, and it’s also where Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, lived and wrote Bond’s first adventure Casino Royale.
8. Harry Potter World
This list wouldn’t really be complete without mentioning the biggest selling book series ever, penned by JK Rowling. Join the other muggles queuing to have their picture taken by the half-trolley sticking out of the wall at platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross station, before stopping by the Harry Potter Shop (every day 8am–10pm) on the same platform to buy a bit of boy wizard paraphernalia. Super fans should head to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour(adults £35, children £27, open every day 9am–6.30pm) to step into movie sets from the blockbuster Harry Potter series, including the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s Office and Diagon Alley. If you’re not such a fan you’re bound to be won over after a trip on the Hogwarts Express and a butterbeer. Looking for more kid-friendly fun in London? Here are our picks of the best things to do in the capital when the weather’s not so hot.
9. Shakespeare’s Globe
Shakespeare’s Globe was originally built in 1599, and then demolished in 1644. The reconstruction that stands today was founded by the American actor Sam Wanamaker. There were many local detractors but Wanamaker persevered in his vision for over twenty years, and a new Globe Theatre was eventually built near its original location on the Southbank. Built authentically with the help of historical advisors, the site also includes the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a candle-lit, indoor theatre (which is much more practical in a rainy city like London). There is also an Exhibition about Shakespeare’s life and work, and regular tours of the two theatres. (Exhibition and Globe Theatre Tour £15, daily 9am to 5pm).
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