A walking tour of London, chapter and verse

August 28, 1994|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special To The Sun

If writers define themselves by where they live, then listen to Virginia Woolf extol the inexhaustible energy of London, her muse: "London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play and a story and a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets."

As true today as in 1928 when Woolf penned her observations, London is a sensory stimulant, best appreciated on foot. And whose footsteps better to follow than those of London's literary greats?

A walking tour past the homes and hideaways of celebrated writers is a fine way to make London's acquaintance, introducing us to the leafy expanse of verdant Hampstead, the gracious homes of Chelsea, the gritty excitement of Southwark and the tired elegance of Woolf's own Bloomsbury, to list only a sampling of the neighborhoods on London's literary map.

For visitors, a stroll through London's "villages" offers some of fiction's most memorable characters and literature's most luscious language. And the lives of our "guides," the writers themselves?

The tragedy! The romance!

For centuries, this spirited city has inspired the world's great writers, creating a landscape rooted in storytellers who require no first-name introduction: Dickens, Keats, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, among others.

In the hands of its writers, from Shakespeare to Dorothy Sayers, London becomes a city fully realized. Like a good book, it is easy to get lost in (more on that shortly) and difficult to tear yourself away from.

"No sir," pronounced the beloved essayist, Dr. Samuel Johnson. "When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

A few traveling tips: Before setting out, buy a week's pass for the London Underground. It's economical (about $18), and also covers the bus system. Each of the four neighborhoods described here is served by an underground station that will be your starting point.

Take along a map. I am not giving away a national secret here, but the British give terrible directions: "Turn gently," they'll say. "Just go along," they'll say. "Go to the bottom," they'll say. Even my British friends acknowledge their failing. Buy a map. (The London A-Z maps are particularly useful.)

Book lovers will be struck dumb by the number of bookstores in London, which seem to grow on every street corner. The best shop for travel guides: Stanfords, at 156 Regent St., near the Piccadilly Circus underground stop, or 12-14 Long Acre near the Covent Garden station. This shop offers dozens of titles on London, including a few that cover walking tours.

The book shop at the tourist information bureau at Victoria Station also is worth a look.

I suggest buying two guides in particular: "Literary Villages of London," by Luree Miller (1989), and "Slow Walks in London," by Michael Leitch (1992). Used in conjunction, these two softbacks, complete with maps, offer an unbeatable self-guided tour with their nuggets on the city's history, architecture, literature and literati.

Several companies operate guided walking tours, but London Walks Ltd. (call 071-624-3978) is at the top of the heap. Tours last two hours, cost about $6 and are guided by an eclectic cadre of actors, musicians and literary historians.

When to walk?

Henry James had the right idea.

"Summer afternoon -- summer afternoon," he said. "To me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

Bloomsbury

After the Great Fire of 1666, Londoners rushed to the suburbs, creating villages such as Bloomsbury, which was laid out in tidy, elegant blocks between the late 17th and early 19th centuries. It consists of six grassy squares, encircled by lovely Georgian rowhouses, none more well-known, perhaps, than 50-51 Gordon Square, which housed the Bloomsbury Group.

Many writers have called Bloomsbury home over the years, but it is Virginia Woolf and her circle of literary luminaries with which the neighborhood is most closely linked. The biographer Lytton Strachey, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and Vanessa and Clive Bell comprised the nucleus of this questing coterie, which sought new meaning in life and art.

The neighborhood, the seat of the University of London and a fair number of publishers, is little changed since Virginia Woolf "moved" her legs through its streets, collecting the kernels that would turn up later as books, plays and poems. Her Gordon Square digs now house the university's career advisory service. Woolf doubtless would be horrified to see her name slung across Virginia Woolf's Grills, Burgers & Pasta at nearby Russell Square, where Thackeray's Osborne and Sedley families lived in "Vanity Fair."

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