Words Patrick Hamilton Courtney
Bloomsbury has long been hallowed ground for London’s student population. The district is home to over 15 educational and health care institutions including UCL, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Institute of Archaeology, and the School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. This combined with its museums and cultural heritage – Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey galvanised the area’s literary credentials as the Bloomsbury Set in the first half of the 20th century – has made it a mecca for the artistically inclined.
Developed in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Russell family and the 4th Earl of Southampton, Bloomsbury became a smart and desirable residential area. Perhaps most significant to the area’s charm is its proliferation of garden squares. Leafy inner city oases amongst the smog of adjoining roads, they have made the neighbourhood one of London’s loveliest. We spent a few hours seeing what’s what…
Start the day off with an energising pit stop at one of Bloomsbury’s many independent coffee shops. This is one of the few areas of London where there are probably more independent cafes than chains. Our favourite at the moment is Fork Deli Patisserie. Open from breakfast until late afternoon, they serve proper coffee and a frequently changing deli menu. Think butternut squash and feta salads, homemade quiches, sourdough sandwiches, and freshly baked cakes.
Now we’re refuelled, it’s time to shop. Head on over to Lamb’s Conduit Street, a partly pedestrianised road to the side of Great Ormond Street Hospital. This beloved little shopping lane is home to a number of independent brands and restaurants. Folk Clothing, Universal Works, and Oliver Sweeney offer stylish contemporary clothes, while Pentreath & Hall will help kit out your flat with their colourful homewares and prints. The People’s Supermarket sells groceries from independent farms, and Albion Wine Shippers supply fine wines and artisanal spirits.
Most special of all though is independent publishers Persephone Books. Echoing Bloomsbury’s literary history, they are dedicated to publishing out-of-print forgotten classics and new writing by women authors. You will almost certainly find your next favourite book here.
In the summertime there are few public spaces nicer to relax in than one of Bloomsbury’s garden squares. You’ll see groups of students with their reading material, sunbathers luxuriating on blankets, and culture vultures enjoying a picnic before their next museum stop. There are many to explore – Tavistock, Gordon, Bedford – but the best is also the most well-known, Russell Square. It has its own little café, a fountain for cooling off in, lush spongy grass, and an abundance of shade. The perfect spot to read the first chapter of your new Persephone book!
Stop for lunch at Bon Vivant. This new French restaurant is bringing a slice of the good life to Bloomsbury. It serves classical French food such as tartine, canard, and raclette, in a cosy setting on Marchmont Street. Choose from sitting in the smartly decorated restaurant, or, if the weather’s good, their outdoor terrace – perfect for lazy summer lunches.
A favourite Bloomsbury haunt of ours is the Contemporary Ceramics Centre on Great Russell Street. Run by the Craft Potter’s Association, it is a commercial gallery that displays and sells a selection of curated studio ceramics. The work on display is seasonally rotated, and they hold regular exhibitions so there’s always something new to see. Names on show include artists such as Ashraf Hanna, James Outibridge, Sarah Jenkins, and Ben Arnup.
No trip to Bloomsbury would be complete without a wander around the British Museum. You could easily spend an entire day exploring its world class collection of ethnographic, archaeological, and artistic material. We particularly love the glorious Chinese artefacts in the Sir Percival David Collection, Magdalene Odundo’s pot in the Sainsbury Africa galleries, and Norman Foster’s overwhelming ceiling in the Great Court. Best of all, entry to the permanent collection is free.
Complete the day with afternoon tea at The Montague on the Garden. Bloomsbury’s most luxurious hotel serves a charming Safari themed tea on a terrace overlooking the manicured gardens. The hotel also runs regular promotional events on their terrace, seasonally turning it into a cosy alpine lodge or even a Bahama themed beach shack.