From JK Rowling to William Shakespeare to Jane Austen, the United Kingdom is world famous for the literature its citizens have produced over the years. Not only that, some of the most famous books are set in various cities around the country. This month, I thought I’d give you a whistle-stop tour of the UK as a literary country, so you know where the best spots are to bring your favourite books to life.
No blog about literature could pass by without a reference to the Bard, aka William Shakespeare. After all, it is the birthplace of the most famous writer in the world. And you can even visit that exact birthplace itself, as this restored 16th century half-timbered house where the man himself spent his childhood years is a tourist hot spot. Millions of tourists flock to the UK every year because of Shakespeare, with many of them choosing to while away the hours with a show at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s riverside theatre in Stratford. Other don’t-miss Shakespeare attractions in Stratford include his wife Anne Hathaway’s cottage, surrounded by idyllic countryside, and Shakespeare’s grave at the Holy Trinity Church.
Besides the Bard, Stratford is an all-round great town to visit if you want to experience Britain’s quaint, old-timey character. The timber architecture and riverside setting makes it a must-see destination in the summer, but it still has a magical air about it in winter too. Another literary-theme activity I recommend is paying a visit to The Chaucer Head Bookshop, named after another famous English writer from medieval times, this bookshop specialises in selling antique books, so you could find something really special in here as a memento of your trip.
Edinburgh is a popular tourist destination for many reasons, but this is due in no small way to its literary heritage. The Scottish capital is a feast for the eyes, with stunning architecture, and breath-taking views from ancient volcano Arthur’s seat. But we’re here to talk books, and honestly, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Edinburgh. It’s the place of birth of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde writer Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as Sherlock Holmes mastermind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and you can learn all about these authors and their works in The Writer’s Museum, which contains personal belongings and portraits as well as their literary works.
Not only that, Edinburgh inspired something even more magical. That’s right, J.K Rowling was famously inspired by the city in her Harry Potter series, and with its castle, church spires and cobbled streets, it’s not hard to see why. You can even grab a cup of coffee in The Elephant House café, where Rowling would sit and write make notes on her manuscripts 20 years ago. Who knows, maybe it will bring out the writer in you too! If you wanted to venture a bit farther and extend your Harry Potter tour around Scotland, head to the Glenfinnan viaduct near Fort William, the famous bridge where the Harry Potter movies were filmed. If you arrive at the right time, you can even watch the original Hogwarts express chug past.
If you want to track down even more authors, Lewis Carroll studied maths at Oxford, and this was where he met Alice Liddell, the daughter of the then-dean of Christ Church who inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. If you’re thirsty after all that author-hunting, then pop down to The Mad Hatter, a quirky cocktail bar themed on the book.
I couldn’t miss the capital city off this list. While Shakespeare was born in Stratford, he spent most of his working life in London. You can visit Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstruction of the original Elizabethan playhouse where the Bard wrote his plays, and where they were performed. You can catch a Shakespeare play here all year-round, although it is open-air, so we’d recommend the summer! If you’re an architecture fan, the Globe happens to be the only thatched-roof building in London. Slightly later on the literary timeline, you’ll find Charles Dickens. London was a vital location across Dickens’ novels which depict the industrial revolution, and The Charles Dickens Museum, in the novelist’s former Holborn home, is well worth a visit if you’re a fan. There are too many greats to name here, but a visit to Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey would tick a few off your list at once. Medieval legend Chaucer is interred here, and other famous writers are commemorated by memorial stones, with names including Robert Browning, Rudyard Kipling and the Bronte sisters.
Bath is one of my favourite cities in the UK. Just half an hour from Bristol, this city is known first and foremost for its Roman history, with its namesake baths situated in the centre. It’s also the home of arguably Britain’s most iconic female writer, Jane Austen. Austen visited Bath often throughout her life before eventually moving there in 1801. The city actually features as a location in her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. I can vouch that a mooch around the Jane Austen Centre which will give you a whirlwind tour of her life and works is well worth it. You can even dress up in regency clothing to fully immerse yourself in the period. Other well-loved female writers who drew their inspiration from Bath include Anna Sewell in Black Beauty, and Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. Why not take a scary trip around House of Frankenstein, which promises an immersive experience through the dark world of Mary Shelley, complete with an escape room, if you fancy it.
I’ve saved the best for last, obviously. The early 20th-century Chinese poet Xu Zhimo, whose poem On Leaving Cambridge draws tourists to the city each year, once studied at the University as a visiting scholar. The poem itself can be found on a stone along the bank of the river Cam behind Kings College. Zhimo is considered one of the leading voices of modern Chinese poetry, in part due to his breaking from traditional Chinese poetic structures, as seen in On Leaving Cambridge. Cambridge has housed many poets over the years, including Robert Brooke and Virginia Woolf, both of whom enjoyed taking tea in The Orchard Tea Garden in Grantchester village. It’s just south of the city centre, and it’s a pleasant walk, or punt down the river, to get there.
While I’m not able to name every writer or every city with a rich literary history, I hope the enthusiasts out there have enjoyed reading this. And let us know on our social media channels if you decide to go on your own literary tour. Until next time!
Allegra Goodwin, Student Experience Manager