The area I covered on today’s walk was kind of a strange mix of things. There were posh bits and poor, green spaces and dirty alleys. One huge chunk of land was taken up by a hospitals, another by council estates. Pretty residential streets backed up to boring commercial alleys. And one of London’s most charming streets is surrounded by a few of its least. It was a strange mix of things, really.
The prettiest public space was Queen’s Square garden. The green is surrounded by buildings from two of London’s most famous hospitals: the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (the brick one on the left) and the Great Ormond Street Hospital (directly behind it). The former was the first hospital in England to specialise in diseases of the nervous system. The latter made international news when it became beneficiary of a famous estate.
The Great Ormond Street Hospital started out as The Hospital for Sick Children, providing the only in-patient beds in England specifically for kids (with only ten beds available at the time). JM Barrie, a strong child advocate, willed the Peter Pan copyright to the hospital on his death in 1929, allowing them to fund their activities through the royalties of any performance or publication based on his famous character. As you can imagine, these rights have brought in significant funding for the hospital and they are quite proud of their connection to Peter Pan and Barrie, going so far as to house editions of the book from all over the world in their hospital archive.
Weirdly, I didn’t see any plaques about Barrie or Peter Pan in the area but I found quite a few others, some with great epitaphs. My favourites included Dorothy Sayers – writer of detective stories, Sydney Smith – author and wit, and the best of them all, Wing Commander FFE Yeo Thomas – secret agent codename “The White Rabbit”.
As you can see from his double mention above, this is yet another one of Dickens’ former neighbourhoods. If there is one thing I have learned about him on these walks, it’s that he drank a lot and frequently moved house. Every pub claims to have been his local and most streets claim to have been the location of one of his old homes. I would bet that with all his pub and house plaques combined, he might win for Most Blue Dots Around London. I am starting to feel like maybe another Londoner or two might be worthy of mention along the way.
In this area, yet another of his homes (supposedly the only one in London still standing) has been turned into a museum in his honour.
I didn’t go through the museum part because I’m not really that into the whole “house museum” thing. I don’t need to know what his bed looked like or where he cooked the porridge that inspired Oliver Twist. But I do like getting the feel for old homes and places where important things happened. The gift shop and cafe (with garden) are really charming and appeal to anyone who likes to pore over books for as long as they desire.
By now you may have noticed that I like books. I feel like every post I write features a new book shop I found or references authors I am fond of. I thought about trying to cut back on the literary references to show non-Londoners there is a lot more going on here than bookshops. But a big part of this project for me is finding my London by mapping out a version of the city that makes me happy and inspires me. So basically you’ll have to get used to book talk.
The good part about London though is that everyone can find their own version of it, no matter their interests. That’s really why I write this blog, actually, to hopefully inspire people to wander around and see what strikes their fancy. You might come across Libidex, for example, the latex clothing manufacturer I found tucked down an alley. It might be just what you need when you’re planning a night at the Torture Garden or when you need the perfect Trinity costume in hurry (may be that’s what the secret agent codename “White Rabbit” was all about after all). See. London isn’t all books.
Lamb’s Conduit Road
Speaking of books…My favourite find of the day was probably Persephone Books. The view when I walked in made me smile but learning more about the shop made me feel lucky I happened across it.
The first thing I noticed when I got over the beauty of the storefront is that all the books look exactly the same (apart from one small detail). It’s such a dramatically different aesthetic from the average bookshop.
The second thing was that I didn’t know any of the books. As a compulsive bookstore frequenter it is a very weird phenomenon not to find anything familiar.
I’m no rocket scientist, but I was able to suss out that this is more than a bookshop, it’s a publisher that prints things I have never heard of. But what and why? The poor bookseller who came along next had no idea about the investigation that awaited her. Luckily, she was very friendly and happy to tell me all about it.
Persephone specialises in reprinting “neglected classics by twentieth century (mostly women) authors. Each one in their collection is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written.” They currently publish 104 books which you can buy in person or (true to the marvellous character of this throw back shop) order via post. If you don’t happen to live nearby, don’t worry, their 10 classics are widely available in shops across the UK and the US.
Any bookmakers who might be reading this (you know who you are) may enjoy knowing that the endpapers of each book are based on the design of a fabric or textile contemporary to the book and consistent with its personality and atmosphere. I personally love that little touch.
Just around the corner from Persephone is Volte Face, another cute little shop that caters to a second paper-related obsession of mine: stationery. Greeting cards, postcards, stickers and pens are to me what Manolo shoes, Gucci bags and Porsches are to some people. I just can’t seem to limit my spending in these places. My only saving grace today was that (after purchasing a shiny new cat suit, obviously) I had no more hands to carry bags with.
I loved that the whole store is arranged on peg boards. It gives it a really crafty feel and makes the colourful Moleskin covers pop out against the minimalist white. It’s basically the exact opposite of Magma Books from Day 20 and yet every bit as charming.
They also carry a small selection of books, my favourite being a children’s version of Les Miserable that condenses Hugo’s 1400-page brick into 12 words. Here’s the first page to get you hooked.
I’ll let leave the rest of the book up to your imagination. It’s pretty great though.
So there you have it. Day 24. A really strange blend. So much so that I can’t really think of a clever way to tie it all together (though Libidex might have some suggestions).
See you next time!
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