LONDON — Walking toward the George Inn on a drizzly evening, yellow light from its bustling Parliament Bar spilling out on wet cobblestones, it’s easy to imagine the ghostly footsteps of the past.
Is that a double-decker bus rumbling down the Borough High Street? Or a four-in-hand carriage sweeping into the inn’s cobbled yard? And those commuters hurrying toward London Bridge — could one be an anxious Nancy bravely spiriting Oliver Twist to safety?
London is the kind of place where past and present, fiction and real-life swirl together in an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Which is why a fun way to explore the nooks and crannies of this sprawling city is to take a novel approach and look for places featured in your favorite books, or for the real-life hangouts of writers you admire.
Your choices are as varied as the many authors linked to London, but here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Look up a lexicon legend
“If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” wrote author, critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, whose many pithy quotes also include “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
But did you know that Johnson worked as a hack writer to support himself before making it big with A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755? You’ll learn about that and more — including his fondness for cats — at Dr. Johnson’s House, a small but charming museum set in the 300-year-old townhouse where he lived. A statue of one of Johnson’s cats, Hodge, sits in the courtyard in front of the house, while inside the collection includes 18th and 19th century prints as well as paintings, several manuscripts and porcelain from the period.
If you are in need of refreshment, stroll around the corner to the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub on Fleet Street. Don’t be thrown off by the name, which sounds a little like the kind of place you might find in the food court of an American mall. This is the real deal: A tavern has been on the property since 1538, and what’s there now was rebuilt after the previous one burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. It’s associated with several literary figures, including Dickens.
Dickens of a time
Charles Dickens might be the quintessential London author. He lived here, worked here, campaigned for social justice here and set many famous scenes here.
A good starting point is 48 Doughty St., the house where Dickens lived and wrote from 1837 to 1839. His first two children were born here and this is where he wrote “Oliver Twist” and “Nicholas Nickleby.” The house, near the Russell Square Underground station, is now home to the Charles Dickens Museum, which recently reopened after a major renovation. There are audio guides, a learning center and cafe and numerous artifacts, including the author’s writing desk and chair.
About a 20-minute walk from Doughty Street is St. Paul’s Cathedral, mentioned in several books and the place where David Copperfield took Clara Peggoty to show her the view of London from the top. Renovation work is closing the Golden Gallery at the top of the dome from Jan. 7 to March 28, but you can climb as far as the Whispering Gallery and try out its famous acoustics. You can get here by the Tube, taking Russell Square to St. Paul’s, which requires a change from the Piccadilly to Central line at Holborn.
From St. Paul’s it’s about a 15-minute stroll to London Bridge, which spans the Thames River. In Dickens’ Great Expectations, Pip crossed the bridge in great despair after learning that Estella was to be married to Drummle. In Oliver Twist, Nancy met with Mr. Brownlow on the bridge to conspire for Oliver’s safety. Of course, if you want to stand on the actual bridge from the 1830s, you’ll have to go to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., where it was relocated, piece by piece, more than 40 years ago. The current London Bridge dates back to ye olde 1973.
Finish up your tour by crossing the bridge to the George Inn, which Dickens visited when it was a coffee house and mentions in Little Dorrit. This building, the last remaining galleried coaching inn in London, is a replacement, too, built after a fire destroyed the previous inn. But in this case the “new” building was put up in 1676.
See the final chapter
The Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey memorializes many of British literature’s greatest names.
It’s a tradition that started out slowly. Geoffrey Chaucer was buried in the abbey when he died in 1400 because he had been Clerk of Works to the palace of Westminster, not because of his Canterbury Tales. But more than 150 years later, a bigger monument was erected to honor Chaucer, and in 1599, the poet and author Edmund Spenser was buried nearby.
Other writers buried here include poets John Dryden, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, and authors Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy. A number of other writers are buried elsewhere but commemorated at Poets’ Corner including John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, T.S. Eliot, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.
Some writers had a tougher time than others making it into the corner. Shakespeare was buried at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616, but didn’t get a monument until 1740. And the poet Lord Byron, a scandalous figure of his time, died in 1824 but didn’t get a memorial until the Swinging Sixties, 1969 to be precise.
Two of the graves are a fitting end to your literary tour. Johnson, who died in 1784 at age 75, is buried here, his grave marked by a plaque and a bust. And Dickens’ grave is also here, marked, at his instructions, only by a simple plaque inscribed with his name and the dates of his birth and death, Feb. 7, 1812, and June 9, 1870.