You can find the map for today’s 6.38 mile walk here. 131 days until the Congestion Zone Ends Party! Follow on Twitter for more updates.
I absolutely loved today. I think it was one of the top three days of the project so far.
If you’ve read any previous posts you’ll see that one thing I love about London is that there are lots of hidden alleys and teeny tiny crevices and passages to wander down and get lost in. But today was totally different. It was big and grand and majestic. Everything was open, there was space to move and room to breathe, there were people all over the place, and there was so much life happening.
Firstly, the weather was phenomenal. So much so, that I really didn’t go inside much at all. It’s a crime to spend any time indoors with weather like this. It was definitely the best day of the year so far. I could not believe how perfect it was.
Secondly, Bloomsbury is beautiful. I’m kind of tired of saying beautiful because it seems a little boring but there’s no other way to say it. The ornate architecture and eye-catching buildings really pull you in. You want to study them and look at all the artwork to see what’s carved in the top and what the patterns are.
A friend of mine recently visited London for the first time described it as stately. I couldn’t agree more. The definition of stately contains one word in particular that reflects the mood of today: unhurried. That’s a perfect way to put it. I walked and walked and walked because I was enjoying it so much I couldn’t stop myself, and yet it was completely unhurried. I just let it all seep in and lingered in those moments of awe at how beautiful the city is.
I wasn’t alone either. Everyone was taking it in, soaking up London and relaxing while surrounded by the beauty of it all. The things that I want to share with you today are the places where I saw that happening the most and where I felt like I could truly absorb the character of the neighbourhood.
Bloomsbury is a very academic area. The University of London is based here and some of it’s most famous colleges are right next door. Today I walked through the grounds of the University College of London (UCL), the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Birbeck University.
I spent the most time in and around UCL. The grounds of the main building aren’t that stunning, it’s the surrounding area that’s really gorgeous. The buildings are quite cool inside though. They’re a bit of a maze, and you can tell they kind of grew into each other over time. They even have a few halls that I’m pretty sure go nowhere. You can get out one way but not back in the same way; it’s that kind of place. Clearly, part of your education here is learning how navigate these buildings.
The part I like most was the quad. When you walk in, there is a nice open forum area and you can climb the steps up to a colonnade. Because it was such a stunning day, everyone was sitting outside enjoying the sun. It was nice to watch students going about their day, seeing them be lazy, and remembering the days of no responsibilities. Two guys were happily smoking weed in one corner, another guy was sucking on a lollipop, and one girl had crawled between the railings out onto a pediment to read a book and fell asleep in the sun. Another student sat behind her, giggling at the sight.
With all these universities next to each other, you get the sense of scholastic life everywhere you go. It’s nice to be in an area where people are studying all around you. It’s not like the City where they’re all stuffing down a quick sandwich and coffee on their fifteen-minute lunch break. In the cafes here students are reading books and studying. Professors are marking papers. You get the impression that everyone is discovering and learning all the time. It’s a really nice atmosphere to experience.
The Bloomsbury Group
With all this academic activity going on, it’s no wonder some of London’s most famous thinkers and writers assembled here. The Bloomsbury Group was a circle of intellectuals and artists who all worked and studied in the eponymous neighbourhood. Wikipedia says that “although its members denied being a group in any formal sense, they were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts. Their works and political outlook deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality”.
The core group, known as ‘Old Bloomsbury’, was made up of ten people (most famous being Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes) and eight more were added over the years. As with any good clique, you had to be specifically accepted into the group to call yourself a member. You could be Virginia Woolf’s best friend and meet her for tea every week, yet still remain decidedly un-“Bloomsbury”.
The group’s ideas were, in many ways, a reaction to the stiffness of Victorian society. They wanted to throw away the idea of being crisp and proper and focus instead on the idea of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. A Bloomsbury biographer puts it best, “They tried to get the maximum of pleasure out of their personal relations. If this meant triangles, or even more complicated geometric figures, well then, one accepted that too.” You can hardly claim to be an aristocratic group of any clout without everyone constantly sleeping together. It aids the creative process, you see.
Bloomsbury is sprinkled with squares and green spaces. There are three in particular I wanted to tell you about.
Tavistock Square is definitely worth visiting if you are in the area. Of the three I’ll mention here, it’s the smallest but it wins for the highest number of memorials. There is definitely a strong theme of peace. A giant rock by the north gate commemorates conscientious objectors while the living cherry tree next to it memorialises the victims of the nuclear bombing in Hiroshima. Gandhi is there too, in honour of his peaceful protests and his time studying law at UCL and training as a barrister at Inner Temple.
This also had the first magnolia tree I’ve seen in bloom this year. There were two or three today that were absolutely gorgeous. I’ve been so busy looking down at the ground at all the crocus and daffodils and I clearly hadn’t looked up to see that the magnolia were making their way out. Now they are in perfect bloom and are even starting to drop petals here and there. The snow of giant white petals all over the fresh grass was lovely.
This square is now infamous for the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London. Several suicide bombs went off that day and one was on a double decker bus just outside the square. Conveniently, the British Medical Association is just across the street so there were doctors and medical staff who could assist the victims immediately after. Sadly, the attack still managed to kill 13 people.
Gordon Square was my favourite today (and maybe of all the squares so far). The green bit in the middle is not necessarily anything remarkable, but there is something really majestic and sweeping about the scene around it.
You have this huge church that’s overlooking a big pedestrianised piazza, and today, because the sun was out, it was full of people. Then you look across from that and you see a big open square with huge tall trees covering it and the whole thing is surrounding by those perfectly typical London row houses. The whole space is open and huge and genuinely impressive.
I also really enjoyed seeing people out enjoying the day again. I walk at the same time every day and for the last few months no one has really been out and about. Maybe it’s different in this area because its a university campus and students don’t have the rigid schedule of the City, but there’s so much more activity going on in the streets. People were sitting at tables studying, having conversations with friends, picnicking, drinking coffee, reading books and basking in the sunshine. It was wonderful to witness.
This one is huge! I couldn’t even believe how big it was. It was also the liveliest of all the squares. Big groups of people were having picnics and lots of solo people were scattered around too: people napping against trees, people walking their dogs or watching while their dogs played together, people doing yoga, people reading on the grass. Everyone was just really enjoying these first days of Spring that are somehow such a gift after the greyness of winter.
This place was doubly awesome because a taxi shelter sits in the corner of the square so I finally got to order food from one of these little green huts! It was £2.50 for a sandwich. Not too shabby. Plus I got to chat with a cabbie while I was waiting for my panino to be toasted (the Italians I live with want you all to know that “panini” is plural so you can’t say it for just one). I commiserated with him about people parking in the taxi spaces and we chatted about my project a bit too. He told me that I reminded him of Phyllis Pearsall, the woman who wrote the A to Z and reputedly walked all the streets of London to do so. He shared his thoughts about her and told me what an asset she was to the city. It made me even more excited to go see the A to Z of Mrs. P next week!
I loved being outside today and absorbing everything going on around me; the colours, the sounds, the activity, the people, the life, the slow speed of it all. Every street and square had something really lovely about it. I’ll definitely go back here for a walk as soon as possible.
See you next time!
131 days until the Congestion Zone Ends Party! Follow on Twitter for more updates.