A reader’s tour of London (on a writer’s budget)
By Stephanie Alderton
London is a book lover’s paradise. Most of the writers who shaped the canon of Western literature, from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling, used this city as a hangout, a training ground or a backdrop for fictional adventures. They left their fingerprints everywhere: statues, theatres, pubs, hotels and dozens of inconspicuous landmarks made immortal by association with great literature. A true bibliophile could spend weeks just touring literary attractions in London.
There’s just one problem: many fans of great writing are also writers themselves, and people who write for a living don’t usually have a lot of disposable income.
Fortunately, though, many of London’s reader-friendly attractions are also wallet-friendly. Even flying and staying there doesn’t have to empty your bank account. If you’re a struggling writer, or just an avid bibliophile with a limited budget, here is your guide to having a great week in London.
Unless you’re planning to spend time at a lot of five-star restaurants or hotels, the plane ticket will be the most expensive part of your trip. You can cut down on the expense, however, by using websites like airfarewatchdog.com to look for cheap tickets. Often, finding a ticket for less than $1000 will require a certain amount of flexibility with flight times. This means it’s best to buy a ticket and then plan a trip around it, rather than vice versa.
Beth Platz is a 23-year-old Colorado woman who has traveled to Europe many times on a low budget. The last time she went to London, she spent less than $3000 on the entire trip, including air fare.
“If you want to fly cheap, off-season is always the way to go,” Platz said. She and her sister Jamie went to London in March. “We found out we were leaving on February 15,” she said. “So that was like a month to plan, I guess.”
It was enough time for the two to plan a week-long vacation that was, Platz said, the cheapest she’s ever done—even with a trip to the ballet at the British Coliseum. And for an indoor-loving reader, the cold, gloomy months might be the perfect time to go.
The cheapest way to stay in London, assuming you don’t have any generous friends or family in the area, is in a hostel. Some cost as little as $30 a night. However, it’s very important to research both the hostel and its surrounding neighborhood before making a commitment, since many of the cheapest hostels are badly run or located in unsafe areas. Lodging is one thing on which it might be worthwhile to spend a little more, especially if you’re traveling alone.
“Try to find places close to the railway, try to find somewhere close to the bus,” Platz said.
The cheapest way to get around is to walk. In fact, most hotels in London have brochures for London Walks—self-guided tours of notable places in the city, several of which are literary-themed. In addition to the popular Jack the Ripper walks, Dr. James Aubrey of Metropolitan State University of Denver recommended the Charles Dickens and Shakespeare walks, which he found when researching the city’s sights for a London Semester class.
For the sites that can’t be reached on foot, the easiest way to access London’s public transportation is by buying an “oyster card”—a smartcard that allows you unlimited journeys on the train and bus system for a 24-hour period. These are available at the airport or online.
Platz said, “When you have [an oyster card], you have your transportation basically figured out.”
What to See
There are so many literary-related sites in London that it’s impossible to list all of them in one article. But here are some particularly fun ones that you can visit for less than $50.
Westminster Abbey Poet’s Corner – You could easily fill a library with the works of all the writers who left a permanent mark in this cathedral. So obviously, it has to be the first stop on any reader’s tour. Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Lord Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, the Bronte sisters, C.S. Lewis and Shakespeare are just a few of the writers buried or memorialized here.
“There are these lovely old ladies who will show you anything that you want to see and tell you all the stories behind it,” Rebecca O’Neill of MSU Denver said. The entry fee is eighteen pounds for an adult, or about $36.
The Sherlock Holmes Pub – Yes, it’s an entire pub devoted to celebrating Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his great detective! The food doesn’t exactly go for McDonald’s prices, but you don’t need to order anything to enjoy the scenery: rooms designed to look like Holmes’ study furnished with familiar fixtures from the stories. Mollie Moltzau, who lived in England for several years, said she enjoyed eating here the last time her family was in London.
“It was fun to see the memorabilia of all the TV shows made,” she said.
The Globe Theatre – As amazing as his written words are, Shakespeare was meant to be seen, not just read. And this reconstructed theatre is the one place you can see his works as the audiences of his day saw them: from the pit, just a few feet away from the stage. Yes, of course you can also sit in the balconies, but “yard” tickets are dirt cheap, and Aubrey said the view is better from there anyway. When he took a British literature class to the city for a London Semester, he said, “We saw a play every night.”
The British Museum – The wonderful thing about London is that, just like in Washington, D.C., all the best museums are free. The British Museum is a fascinating stop for any tourist, but readers with a taste for history will be particularly interested in the Rosetta Stone, papyrus scrolls from ancient Egypt, a frozen man from the time of Beowulf and other artifacts from the history of the written word. This is another place Aubrey took his students to supplement their British literature readings.
The British Library – Again, although you have to buy tickets for special events and tours, the permanent galleries in the British Library are free. And the treasures they contain are enough to make any book lover giddy.
“We saw numerous Bibles, like the Gutenberg Bible, and a portion of the Gospel of John written on papyrus from the third century,” Platz said of her visit. “We saw handwritten manuscripts from Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll.”
The Library also displays ancient copies of the Quran, the oldest known printed manuscript in the world and handwritten music by Handel and the Beatles. Plus, lots more Shakespeare.
A reader’s tour doesn’t have to be limited to major tourist attractions. Literature is so much a part of the London landscape that it’s possible to find dozens of fascinating places on an ordinary day’s walk.
“Everywhere you turned, there was where these amazingly famous writers lived and breathed,” O’Neill said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, here’s a plaque—oh, this is Dickens,’ or ‘here’s where Oscar Wilde’s play opened.’”
Here are a few completely free attractions you can easily incorporate into a day’s travel:
The Peter Pan Statue – This lovely piece of art, commissioned by J.M. Barrie himself, stands in Kensington Gardens, where Barrie’s fictional boy lived with the fairies, and near where the author lived himself. The statue is located right on the spot where Peter landed when he flew out of his nursery in the story The Little White Bird.
Kings Cross Station – This was once just one train station among many in London. Then J.K. Rowling wrote “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”—known as “The Sorcerer’s Stone” in America—and suddenly it became an essential pilgrimage destination for millions of Harry Potter fans. There’s even a plaque designating the location of Platform 9 ¾, though of course we Muggles can’t get through the barrier.
Blue Plaques – Ever since the nineteenth century, the Royal Society of Arts and other groups have put up blue plaques all over London, at every site where a famous historical person once lived. These are the plaques O’Neill referred to above, and they are indeed everywhere. These plaques make it easy to find the former homes of Agatha Christy, Ian Fleming, Virginia Woolf and many other great writers, even if they haven’t been turned into museums or pubs.
The Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park – This spot, now marked by a large gazebo, has for many decades been a traditional place for anyone to speak their mind publicly about any topic. Some of the more famous speakers to occupy the corner have included Karl Marx and George Orwell. Nowadays it’s usually used by less famous and more colorful characters.
For Further Reading
London has many more literary sites that didn’t fit in this article, so here are a few resources to help you find them:
For an in-depth tour of the best writer-related places and their history: A Reader’s Guide to Writer’s London by Ian Cunningham
For more about the Blue Plaques: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques/
For more about Kensington, Covent and other famous gardens: http://www.royalparks.org.uk/
For more travel tips: Pocket London by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw or http://www.ricksteves.com/tours/england-ireland-scotland/london
Happy reading! Happy traveling!