Local’s View: bookshops, bakeries and bohemians in Bloomsbury
This quiet corner of London has always been a honeypot for artists and intellectuals, in part thanks to its wealth of cultural institutions. But there are pleasures aplenty for those just pottering. Allow our handy guide to introduce you
- George Upton
One could get the impression that little has changed in Bloomsbury over the past century. Strolling through the stately garden squares and picturesque Georgian streets of this pocket of central London, it’s easy to imagine falling into step with Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes or any of the clutch of artists and intellectuals who, as Dorothy Parker so wittily quipped, ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’: the Bloomsbury Group.
It’s because of the Bloomsbury Group, along with the concentration of museums and universities here, that this surprisingly quiet and residential part of London has garnered its reputation as the city’s intellectual heartland. Don’t be fooled, however, for Bloomsbury’s anything but dry. Look a little harder and you’ll find that its learned history goes hand in hand with a vibrant creative and contemporary energy, with a wealth of fantastic restaurants, watering holes and surprising shops to boot. Need a guiding hand? We’re here to help. Read on for a Local’s View of this cultural corner of London. …
L. Cornelissen & Son, 105 Great Russell St, London WC1
The scaffolding was barely down from Robert Smirke’s façade at the British Museum when, a short walk down the road, L. Cornelissen & Son opened its doors for the first time. Although this artists’ supply shop has occupied the same handsome green-painted premises since 1855, it’s far from a dusty remnant of old London. Marshalled on the centuries-old shelves and in neatly numbered drawers are up-to-date ranges of paints, brushes and miscellaneous materials, while the shop’s knowledgeable staff – “Artist’s Colourmen” – continue to draw on their extensive expertise to make some of the best pigment powders, binders and rabbit-skin glues around.
Jarndyce, 46 Great Russell St, London WC1
Down the street is the antiquarian bookseller Jarndyce. Named after the interminable legal case in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the shop has spent 50 years building its reputation as a specialist in English literature and history from the 17th to 19th centuries. Housing teetering stacks of leather-bound tomes, it has the air of a 19th-century bookshop, perfectly preserved, though fledgling bibliophiles shouldn’t be intimidated. While a Dickens first edition might set you back several thousand pounds, the vast majority of Jarndyce’s stock requires markedly more modest investment. If you’ve any doubts, the shop’s team is on hand to help you start your own library.
Pentreath & Hall, 17 Rugby St, London WC1
Ben Pentreath and Bridie Hall might not have set out to be shopkeepers, but their small, considered collection of “good things for the home” on Rugby Street has become something of a destination for those seeking unusual antiques, homewares and decorative objects. Pentreath – an architect and interior designer – originally took on the handsome Georgian building as an extension to his office, opening a small shop downstairs with his friend, decorative artist and maker Bridie. Their colourful and contemporary take on classic British style quickly grew in popularity, and the shop displaced the office. Soon Ben and Bridie – who share their inspiration in weekly blog posts on the Pentreath & Hall website – were heralded as the town’s true tastemakers.
DINING AND DRINKING
Noble Rot, 51 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1
Taking its name from a type of fungus that affects grapes and creates particularly concentrated sweet wines, Noble Rot was established in 2015 by food and drink writers Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling. It opened after the success of their magazine of the same name, which drew note for the way it positioned pioneering chefs alongside film stars, musicians and writers. Accompanying the à la carte menu of fine ‘Franglaise-style’ cooking is a cellar so large that the wine list has to be viewed on an iPad. We’ll toast to that.
Fortitude Bakehouse, 35 Colonnade, London WC1
First-timers at the Fortitude Bakehouse, tucked away on a cobbled mews behind the Kimpton Fitzroy London hotel, might find themselves surprised by the experimental array of baked goods on offer. Fermented date and chocolate sourdough, anyone? We’re particularly partial to the Moroccan honey cake and the bara brith, a traditional Welsh tea bread, as are the many regulars who find the bakery’s unassuming setting rightly charming. Take a moment of calm to enjoy the latest delicacy (a speciality is sourdough cake) and single-farm coffee.
The Coral Room, 16-22 Great Russell St, London WC1
When interior designer Martin Brudnizki reimagined the Lutyens-designed Bloomsbury Hotel in 2018, it was his vibrant 1920s-inspired saloon bar, The Coral Room, that made the headlines. In homage to the room’s elaborate Murano glass chandeliers, marble bar and bright walls, the cocktail menu is full of colour, spirit(s) and – the bar’s strong suit – English sparkling wine. Come for mixologist Giovanni Spezziga’s English-inspired concoctions, featuring Kentish cobnuts, Bramley apples and rhubarb; stay for Luke Edward Hall’s specially commissioned artworks featuring the history and landmarks of Bloomsbury.
The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1
Established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, the Foundling Hospital was the first institution in Britain dedicated to housing abandoned and orphaned children. Though the hospital moved and the original building was destroyed, its pioneering legacy is remembered in Coram’s Fields, a large green space only open to adults accompanied by a child, and the Foundling Museum, both occupying the site of the institution. The museum, built in a similar style to the hospital and with the same Rococo interiors, displays the charity’s collection; highlights include Handel’s manuscripts, which he left to the hospital in his will, and artworks by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Hogarth.
Charles Dickens Museum, 48-49 Doughty St, London WC1
The Charles Dickens Museum – found in the distinctly un-Dickensian Georgian house on Doughty Street that the author lived in between 1837 and 1839 – offers a glimpse into the private world of one of the most widely read writers in the English language. As his only surviving London home, in which he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and completed The Pickwick Papers, it’s a special relic, its rooms restored to how they would have looked when the young Dickens family lived here.
Petrie Museum, Malet Place, London WC1
There are nearly 200 museums in London and it can be easy to miss the city’s lesser-known gems. Among them is the Petrie Museum, established in 1892 as a teaching resource for the Egyptian archaeology and philology department at University College London. A cornucopia of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese objects, it also includes the world’s largest collection of Roman portraits. Formed initially around the collection of pioneering explorer and writer Amelia Edwards, it has since grown to encompass some 80,000 objects. And, as long as you can find the entrance (tucked away on a side street), entry is free in the afternoons, Tuesday to Saturday.
British Museum, Great Russell St, London WC1
There are few places in the world that you can find a double-headed Aztec serpent, a Piranesi vase and an iron ship to the afterlife made by Grayson Perry just a few steps from one another. While it would be remiss not to acknowledge the British Museum’s contentious ownership claims (it’s not just the Parthenon marbles), the institution is still remarkable, holding one of the most comprehensive visual records of human history, from a 2-million-year-old stone tool to a modern computer chip.
With their neat rows of stately townhouses and manicured private gardens, Bloomsbury’s ten Georgian squares are a popular destination for architecture buffs and blue-plaque hunters alike. Our highlight is Mecklenburgh Square, which offers a vicarious view of the intellectual and artistic hothouse of interwar Bloomsbury. Remarkably, as chronicled in Francesca Wade’s feted book, Square Haunting, Mecklenburgh was simultaneously home to the modernist poet HD, detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power and author Virginia Woolf. Wouldn’t that be a fun garden party?
… and the other squares too
Mecklenburgh wasn’t the first of the garden squares. That title appropriately belongs to Bloomsbury Square, which was first developed in the late 17th century. Its central green plot is one of a handful in the district open to the public – as is that of Russell Square, the largest in the area. If you’ve a moment to linger there, look out for the Kimpton Fitzroy London (formerly the Hotel Russell), with its thé-au-lait façade, so-called for that milky terracotta colour. But it’s not all glitz and grandeur: we’ve just as soft a spot for the distinctive, diminutive green Victorian cabmen’s shelter built for the city’s hansom drivers.
Do you consider yourself a regular Roger Fry? Have you ever fancied the bohemian life of the Bells, the Woolfs et al? Or do you simply think that central city living is the tops? Whatever your view, Bloomsbury couldn’t be better. And, happily, Inigo just so happens to have a couple of choice homes on the market that may well pique your interest.
Channelling the nonconformist spirit of the Group, the owner of Russell Court, a one-bedroom Art Deco apartment, designed the flat as a tropical London folly. “I thought it’d be such fun to do a take on a palm house,” he told us when we interviewed him for the Almanac. “Like one the Bloomsbury Group might have sat in, drinking and chatting.”
Meanwhile, culture vultures could consider Museum Street, its name a clue to its position: the flat’s five arched sash windows overlook the British Museum’s Greek Revival façade. And if looking’s not enough, the always-brilliant Abbott & Holder, purveyor of fine paintings, prints and drawings, is just downstairs, should you feel the urge to start amassing a collection of your own…
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