London is crazy, dirty and overwhelming according to some, or a multicultural hub filled with history and many cool things to do according to others. Whichever you think it is, one thing is for sure, London makes its mark. No surprises then that it has inspired so many literary figures throughout time – book after book has been set in or featured the British capital. Here are six literary locations in London that every book-lover should visit. This post was written by Julianna, a London local!
Cecil Court – Harry Potter Series, J.K. Rowling
The Harry Potter series needs no introduction. The best-selling book series of all time charts the story of a young wizard’s friendships, growth and challenges as he follows a path that will ultimately lead him to overthrow the dark wizard Voldemort.
Cecil Court is one of London’s more curious spots – a collection of small independent shops set along a small street near Covent Garden and off of Charing Cross Road.
What’s so special about it? Mainly that it looks almost exactly as it did in the Victorian times – it’s even lit by some of the few remaining gas-burning lamp posts remaining the city.
It’s thought that Cecil Court provided J.K Rowling with the inspiration for Diagon Alley – the magical London alley full of wizarding shops and the famous Leaky Cauldron pub in the Harry Potter series.
Like Cecil Court, Diagon Alley is just off of Charing Cross Road and has the atmosphere of times gone past. It’s one of the less well-known things to do in Covent Garden and the perfect literary London spot to escape the crowds if you’re in the West End.
Brick Lane – Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Monica Ali’s book Brick Lane offers a peek into London’s vibrant Bangladeshi community in East London through the eyes of its main protagonist Nazneen. Nazneen comes to the area knowing only a few words of English to marry her much-older husband Chanu and we watch as she flourishes and gets to know the area’s distinctive community.
The book is particularly focused on Brick Lane, Shoreditch and Whitechapel – hence the name and walking around these areas is a chance to immerse yourself in an alternative literary London spot.
Although the novel was only released in 2003, the Brick Lane and Shoreditch it describes has already changed – fading ever just a bit in the wake of the ever-increasing cool hangouts and street art Shoreditch has now become known for.
But you can still find it if you take a walk around and look – from the curry houses for which Brick Lane is most famed to stalls in nearby Petticoat Lane market, walking in the footsteps of the books helps you to discover a different side to Shoreditch.
Finchley Road – The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White was one of the first detective novels in English literature – but don’t let that put you off – its story is just as compelling today.
Several narrators guide us through the story, a page-turning romp of mystery, intrigue and some rather scandalous behaviour from the two antagonists Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde.
It all begins at a spot on Finchley Road on the intersection with West End Lane in Camden when one of the main characters Walter Hartright comes across and gives directions to a woman in white who he later learns has escaped from an asylum.
Visiting the spot today, it’s not hard to imagine you’re at the beginning of your very own mystery plot.
Postman’s Park – Closer by Patrick Marber
Postman’s Park is one of London’s more unusual spots – how often do you come across parks featuring a memorial dedicated to Londoners who lost their lives in heroic acts? Thought so. Although the memorial was installed in the early 1900s with much fanfare and coverage, it wasn’t until the 1990s and 2000s that people started paying attention to it again thanks to its appearance in Patrick Marber’s play Closer.
The park provides the perfect backdrop for the start of Marber’s play – a chance accident between two characters that sets off the dramatic relationships on which the play is focused – one of the characters even takes her name from a name on one of the memorial’s plaques.
Not seen the play but think it sounds familiar? It was also adapted into a film of the same name starring Jude Law, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts – Postman’s Park makes an appearance in that too.
Willesden – White Teeth by Zadie Smith
White Teeth is pretty much the best contemporary book about London and its diverse and ever-changing population. Fact. There’s a reason that this book set the literary scene alight when it was released in 1999 – because few novelists have captured the scope of the London experience in quite the way that Zadie Smith has.
Jumping between 1945 and 1999, it looks at the lives of a small circle of Londoners and the way their lives intersect and intertwine over the course of time – framed through the friendship of two wartime friends, Englishman Archie Jones and Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal.
Most of the story takes place in and around Willesden, where Smith herself grew up. It’s not an area frequented by many tourists and is the perfect place to have a look at a relatively unpretentious area of the city.
Notting Hill – The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is an impossibly beautiful book focused on the life of its main character, Nick Guest – a gay man in the 1980s who graduates from Oxford University, moves to London and is touched by the AIDS epedemic when it strikes.
Though the book features many parts of London, it’s most associated with Notting Hill – the area in which Nick lives with his friend Toby Fedden and his sloaney (and very rich) family in the book. We’re plunged into the world of quiet gardens in squares for which you need a resident’s key to enter, Tory parties with the Iron Lady (Margaret Thatcher) – in other words, the rich Notting Hill of the 1980s. These days the huge houses still remain, as do the old money families who own them – it’s not too hard to imagine yourself walking in Nick’s footsteps as you explore either.
Any other literary spots in London that you’d love to visit?
Julianna Barnaby runs the London and travel site The Discoveries Of. A born and bred Londoner and a travel writer, she helps people explore more – covering offbeat locations in her hometown and further afield.