An accidental literary tourist

20 August 2023

Early Sunday morning we arrived in London, disembarking at Heathrow somewhat dazed from the cocooning effect of long haul travel, blinking in the light. The best way to stave off jet lag is to get straight into local time, so we went for an amble from Kings Cross Station. The result was some accidental literary tourism in Bloomsbury.

This is the terraced house at number 48 Doughty Street, Kings Cross, London, where Charles Dickens lived for two years (1837-39) and where he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

Number 48 is not the only Doughty Street house bearing a blue plaque with a writer’s name on it. Along the road at number 30 is the house where Charlotte Mew was born in 1869.

She grew up in this street, living here until she was 21. My favourite of her poems has always been ‘The Trees are Down’, her lament for the felling of ‘the great plane-trees at the end of the gardens.’ Before we went looking for the Charles Dickens house, we had spent a lovely hour enjoying the leafy shade of the tall trees in nearby Russell Square. When I unexpectedly read Charlotte Mew’s name in Doughty Street I heard the final line of her poem sing in my head:

But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
‘Hurt not the trees.’

The next blue plaque to catch my eye was this one, at number 58 where the authors and activists Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby lived in the 1920s. Winifred Holtby makes me think of my Yorkshire roots.

She was born in the East Riding, as were my mother, my grandparents, my great-grandparents and the great-greats back through the family line. Winifred Holtby’s most well-known work is the novel South Riding, published in 1936.

And not quite on Doughty Street, but very close, is The Lady Ottoline pub, named after society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938). Lady Ottoline became Katherine Mansfield’s friend and confidante, although KM did not make a good initial impression on Lady Ottoline, who found her ‘mocking’ and ‘too dreadfully lacking in human kindness ever to be sympathetic to me.’

But this snippet from a July 1918 letter from KM to Lady Ottoline reveals something of the Katherine behind the mask, the Katherine who, while she watched, was also feeling, and who was carefully storing her strong sensual impressions for use in her art:

‘Do you remember the day we cut the lavender? And do you remember when the Russian music sounded in that half-empty hall?’

A nice place for a pint on a summery Sunday afternoon.

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    1. What a great start to your trip. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    1. Lovely start to your trip , enjoy the sights and sun 🌞

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