Bookish in Britain

In February, my partner and I took a short holiday to London, Oxford and Cambridge. This was my second trip to the UK and I was excited to fit some bookish elements into our itinerary. My first time there, I was in London the summer before grad school. Despite the August heat and crowds of pushy tourists, it was everything that my tiny anglophilic heart desired: visiting historic monuments and museums, eating in pubs, and generally revelling in the stereotypical British culture that I had received second-hand through my maternal grandparents. This time around, I was on the lookout for lovely libraries, iconic bookstores, author haunts or statues, and definitely a book or two. We only had 10 days and needed to fit in other touristy activities, but I’m happy with what we managed to see and do in that time.

It feels like ages ago since we touched down in Heathrow airport, bundled in heavy winter clothing and excited for a new adventure despite the biting wind and chill air. A part of me has wondered if it was even worth blogging about the trip given the time since, self-conscious of being too late or irrelevant. The UK is a treasure trove of literary loci and we barely scratched the surface in the cities we visited. But I wanted to share because maybe you’re a reader who’s planning your own trip and are looking for a few ideas. I can talk myself into most anything if I think it would be helpful.

It seems to me that the best place to start is with what I read; the paperback that weighed down the purse on my arm as I passed through the turnstiles onto the tube. Because as any good reader knows, no trip is complete without at least one book in your carry-on.

What Did I Read?

This time around, I wanted to read a contemporary UK story and chose to re-read Zadie Smith’s NW.

NW’s characters navigate aspects of class, gender and race as they intersect in their lives and communities in London’s northwest neighbourhood of Willesden. Our path ended up overlapping at times with the character Natalie Blake’s as she studies law and begins her career as a barrister. As a law student, Natalie frequents Middle Temple Lane and the Seven Stars pub, not far from where we stayed for a few nights in Southwark. Later in her life, she commutes on the Jubilee line between Kilburn and Canary Wharf, the same we took as we travelled between accommodations and sights. It added an extra dimension to our time in the city and infused the novel with sights and sounds that would be harder to reproduce in my imagination if we hadn’t been in London.

Book cover of N W by Zadie Smith


Natalie Blake hurried up the steps and past the clerks’ room to avoid any other briefs. She stepped out into the slipstream of Middle Temple Lane. Everyone flowing in the same direction, towards Chancery Lane, and she fell in step, found two friends, and then two more. By the time they reached the Seven Stars they were too large a party for an inside table.

Foyle’s and Hatchards Bookstores – London

Hatchards’ Fiction Section

One of the best things about going to the UK is suddenly having easy access to books that haven’t been sold into Canada. London is thick with bookstores, and we didn’t pop into nearly as many as I hoped we would. We were only there for four days, after all . . . but I didn’t let that stop me.

Foyle’s flagship store on Charing Cross Road was our first stop, as I could search their stock online and knew all the books I wanted were there. This independent bookshop first opened in 1906 and has since expanded its stores and modernized over the decades. The Charing Cross location is four floors of white walls, glass railing, tall shelves, and friendly staff. I did take photos of the interior, but a mysterious glitch wiped them from my phone’s camera. (Perhaps something supernatural was afoot?)

Shine by Candy Gourlay, Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford edited by John Blair, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, Snowdrift and other stories by Georgette Heyer, and The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla.
Bookshop Spoils

I picked up a couple of books I had offered to bring back for family: the supernatural YA novel Shine by Candy Gourlay and a new anthology of Georgette Heyer stories. For myself, I bought The Good Immigrant, an anthology of essays edited by Nikesh Shukla.

We also stopped in the oldest bookstore in London. Hatchards was first established in 1797 and has been at 187 Piccadilly for at least 200 years. It boasts three royal warrants and a shop of dark wood shelves and tables teeming with titles, upholstered antique chairs to linger in, and a grand staircase that connects its multiple floors. While I had everything on the list that I needed already, I couldn’t resist buying something and opted for one I’ve been meaning to read for a while, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. I’ll likely be tucking it away until Halloween.

The British Library – London

The train we took to Cambridge left from King’s Cross St. Pancras station. We decided to forego the long lineup of Harry Potter fans at Platform 9¾ and spend what little time we had before departure to visit the British Library nearby. The library houses its impressive collection of over 150 million items in a ginormous brick and concrete building that totals 14 floors (5 of those below ground). For a £5 donation, we visited their climate-controlled Treasures Gallery where items on display included illuminated manuscripts, maps, illustrations, and handwritten papers by famous historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Jane Austen, Johann Sebastian Bach, and The Beatles. I was especially fascinated by a handwritten copy of Tess of the d’Ubervilles that Thomas Hardy edited for the serialized version of the novel. Not only do I enjoy Hardy’s writing (though Tess is still on my to-read list), but I also like finding real-world examples of line editing (a skill that I am still learning).

We weren’t able to do nearly enough exploring inside the beautiful library before we had to head back to the station, but I think my wallet was saved considerable damage by missing their excellent shop. I will definitely be revisiting this place when I find myself in London again.

Radcliffe Camera & Medieval Bodleian Library – Oxford

I did myself a great disservice in bringing the wrong shoes on this trip, and it meant we couldn’t explore for very long before I was in serious pain from the knee down in both legs. I did end up buying an extremely comfy pair of Ecco boots once we got to Cambridge, but for Oxford, it was all pain. Thankfully some of the coolest Bodleian Libraries are just north of the High Street.

We slipped around St. Mary’s Church and were immediately presented with Radcliffe Camera. This ridiculously photogenic building was originally constructed to house the Radcliffe Science Library and first opened in 1749. Now it is one of the Bodleian Libraries and appears to house history and English texts. I write “appears” because only those in possession of a Bodleian Reader Card are allowed inside. So we watched as students locked their bicycles to the metal gate ringing the building and peered in longingly as they went about their studies inside the equally grand interior.

Realizing we were creeping too hard and looking for another way to get a library fix, we signed up for a short tour that included Duke Humphrey’s medieval library. This library dates back to 1478 and was built above the Divinity School to house a generous donation of manuscripts from the first Duke of Gloucester. We marvelled at the old tomes that were once chained to their dark wood shelves and the large windows that would allow scholars to read by daylight for as long as possible. From the construction of the shelves (which allowed only the librarian to access the entire second level) to the king’s personal reading room, we were really impressed at how precious books were in medieval culture. Photos aren’t permitted on the tour, but believe me when I say it’s worth the visit. The room is accessible to Oxford students too, and I can imagine how magical it would be to tuck myself between the shelves there to pore over my work.

Oxford University Press – Oxford

Employee entrance of Oxford University Press.
Oxford University Press employee entrance off Walton Street.

I came upon the Oxford University Press after a 15-minute walk north of the tourist bustle in the high street. I was meeting with an acquaintance there and our chat quickly turned into an informal tour of the premises. I’m always curious about the inside of other publishing houses, so it was a real treat to duck through stairwells and pass lines of busy desks. The OUP has been in its current location since 1830 and is now a veritable compound, with multiple entrances, 2 courtyards, dining areas, and several internal libraries and archives. It even has its own museum, complete with artifacts and photographs through the press’ history. The museum is open to the public and free of charge, but must be booked in advance through the OUP Archive department. If you’re into publishing like I am, I would recommend making a stop there.

It was difficult to fit everything into a week and a half, especially when considering travel time from one city to the next and poor shoe choice. I’m sorry to have missed out on Daunt Books and the London Review bookshop in particular, and I would have fit in more library visits in Oxford. You’ll notice there aren’t any Cambridge locations above, either; our one, full day there was spent touring the backs of King’s College and its grand, vaulted chapel. I console myself with the reminder that this is not the last time I’ll visit the UK, and that there will always be more bookish things to search out and explore.

If you’ve travelled to any of these cities before, I’d love to hear how you indulged your inner bibliophile. Where did you go? Do you have any recommendations? We’ve spent all our vacation days before the Christmas holidays, and are contenting ourselves to short weekend trips closer to home during the summer. I’m happy to do so, but I admit it’s a weird feeling to stay put in July and August. Are you the same way, or are you taking off somewhere? Let me know in the comments!


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