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How to plan a literary walking tour through north London

Admire Primrose Hill with William Blake, read Charlotte Brontë’s manuscripts and follow Mary Shelley’s love affair on a walking tour of north London’s literary history.

By Jasmina Matulewicz
Published 28 Nov 2020, 08:00 GMT
Keats House.

Poetry lovers can wander the rooms of Keats House where many masterpieces were penned, including Ode to a Nightingale.

Photograph by Keats House

London has been dubbed one of the world’s most literary cities. Awash with blue plaques commemorating famous authors and their creations, this is the hometown of numerous literary titans. And beyond the more obvious destinations for booklovers like the Charles Dickens Museum in Holborn, the city’s northern boroughs have plenty of lesser-known literary nooks. Kick off a self-guided tour in King’s Cross, before heading north to finish in Highgate Cemetery.

1. King’s Cross Station

Let’s start with a classic: Platform 9¾. King’s Cross is a magical place — it’s where literature’s most famous wizard first embarked on his journey to Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Here you can browse the (possibly bewitched) trinkets at the Harry Potter Shop. JK Rowling isn’t the only author to have found inspiration in the area: the station featured in Edwardian writer GK Chesterton’s works, and it was poet laureate John Betjeman who spearheaded a campaign that saved the neighbouring St Pancras from demolition in 1967.

There are almost 14 million books to admire in the British Library, the world's largest library. 

Photograph by The British Library

2. The British Library

Little compares to the historical wisdom held by the world’s largest library, standing proudly on Euston Road. The Treasures of the British Library gallery is worth a peek and, if you have some extra time on your hands, have a browse through its wider collections. From the manuscript of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and the original Beowulf to Shakespeare’s First Folio, there are almost 14 million books to admire. Aside from a cuppa, what more could a bibliophile want?

3. St Pancras Churchyard

The love story between Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley flourished during their secret meetings by the memorial of Mary’s mother, writer and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. Deeper into the grounds of one of England’s oldest places of worship, you’ll find an ancient ash tree surrounded by hundreds of overlapping gravestones, which was moved here by novelist Thomas Hardy, when rail works threaten to destroy it. ‘The Hardy Tree’ has featured in both its saviour’s writing and that of others.

4. Primrose Hill

‘I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill,’ wrote Romantic poet William Blake. And no wonder he found his slice of heaven on the peak of Primrose Hill — the view of London’s skyline beyond the greenery is breathtaking. Soak in the views and set up a picnic (British weather permitting) under Shakespeare’s Tree, an oak planted to mark the 300th anniversary of the playwright’s birth.

If you search long enough in Highgate Cemetery, you might just be able to spot the resting places of poet Christina Rosetti, author Douglas Adams and George Eliot, who, like many 18th-century writers, valued Highgate’s quasi-rural setting.

Photograph by Highgate Cemetery

5. Keats House

Explore 18th-century Romantic poet John Keats’ former dwelling, nestled beside picturesque Hampstead Heath. Literature lovers can wander the rooms in which many of Keats’ masterpieces were penned, including Ode to a Nightingale; relish the historic atmosphere with seasonal exhibitions; and take the opportunity to get up close and personal with Keats’ manuscripts, letters and most treasured possessions.

6. Highgate Cemetery

You might recognise the magnificent Victorian mausoleums of Highgate Cemetery from the 2009 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. And, if you search long enough, you might just be able to spot the resting places of poet Christina Rosetti, author Douglas Adams and George Eliot, who, like many 18th-century writers, valued Highgate’s quasi-rural setting. Keep your eyes peeled as you explore, especially as it grows dark — countless stories in the 1970s were inspired by the ‘Highgate Vampire’, a dark figure who supposedly roams these paths.

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