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Destination: England : The Literature Lover's London : A stroll through neighborhoods echoing with some of fiction's most beloved characters

October 02, 1994|ELLEN UZELAC | Uzelac is a Baltimore free-lance writer. and

LONDON — 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 neighborhoods echoes with some of fiction's most memorable characters and literature's most luscious language. It also reveals much of the real-life stories 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 and Wordsworth, among others.

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. When I was there last year, I wandered the streets at my leisure and recommend that as an appropriate method of exploration. But burdened by time constraints I would suggest that only one or two neighborhoods be approached in a single day.

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. Take a hint: Buy a map. (The London A-Z maps, sold in London and some U.S. travel bookstores, are particularly useful.)

I suggest buying two guides: "Literary Villages of London," by Luree Miller (Starrhill Press, $8.95) and "Slow Walks in London" by Michael Leitch (HarperCollins, $13). Used in conjunction, these two paperbacks, 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. is at the top of the heap. Tours last two hours and are guided by an eclectic cadre of actors, musicians and literary historians.

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After the great fire of 1666, Londoners rushed to the suburbs, creating neighborhoods such as Bloomsbury--now central London--which was laid out in tidy, elegant blocks between the late 17th and early 19th centuries. The area consists of six grassy squares, encircled by lovely Georgian row houses, 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 made up the nucleus of this questing coterie, which sought new meaning in life and art.

The once tony neighborhood, seat of the University of London and a fair number of publishers, is visually little changed since Woolf's time--when the writer "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 reside in the novel "Vanity Fair."

Three blocks south of Gordon Square lies the massive British Museum, to which Londoners have assigned the ungracious abbreviation "The B.M." The original manuscripts in the museum's British Library read like a roll call of literature's most famous works: "Finnegans Wake," "Jane Eyre," "Middlemarch," "Pygmalion," "Mrs. Dalloway," "Beowulf," "Canterbury Tales," "Don Juan," "Alice's Adventures Underground."

A half-century before the Bloomsbury Group took root, Charles Dickens lived a block northeast of Gordon Square at Tavistock Square in a now-demolished house, where he wrote "Bleak House," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Little Dorrit," "Hard Times" and part of "Great Expectations."

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