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Book Review: Bloomsbury – A Square Mile by Edward Arnold

Bloomsbury is home to the British Museum and numerous educational institutions, including the University College London and the University of London. The location is also known for being the home of the Bloomsbury Set, a group of famous British intellectuals, including author Virginia Woolf and economist John Maynard Keynes. However for many visitors to the area, despite the Georgian streets and attractive garden squares, Bloomsbury is not really considered a place to explore.

A new book by Edward Arnold entitled Bloomsbury, A Square Mile challenges many assumptions about Bloomsbury and explores the area’s rich past and its dynamic present. The author in his introduction considers the book as a history and present day guide of the Bloomsbury area. The book is also a personal journey for the author who was born and spent his early years in the area.

One of the early questions in the book is where is Bloomsbury? This is a good question because like many London neighbourhoods, there are often debates around boundaries. The author decides to create his own boundaries with Euston Road in the north, Gray’s Inn Road in the east, Holborn to the south and Fitzrovia to the west.

The book features a short history of the area that gives some insights into its unique development. For centuries, Bloomsbury was a rural area before development started in the 17th century, the Russell family in particular owned considerable parts of the estate. The founding of the British Museum in the 18th century and the development of education and medical institutions in the 19th century gave the area its particular character and attracted residents from the upper or middle classes. The book includes a section on the Bloomsbury Group who fascinated and shocked British social attitudes at the beginning of the 20th century.

The main part of the book takes the reader through various distinct areas within Bloomsbury to explore some of the well known and not so well known stories. The fascinating story of the Foundling Hospital includes the Sad Tale of the Marchmont Street Tokens. Sections on the development of the Great Ormond Street Hospital and other medical institutions illustrate the pioneering spirit of the area, it is hardly surprising that Charles Dickens lived and prospered when he lived in Doughty Street.

The author makes the valid point that the entire central part of Bloomsbury can be described as one large university campus with the various education institutions including the University of London and University College London. Where there are students, there is usually a lively social scene and the book includes a number of pubs and shops of interest.

Modern Bloomsbury is not ignored, with sections on the Brunswick shopping centre and many of the quirky bookshops in the area.  Many of the famous squares in the area that are welcome oasis of peace for students and visitors have their own interesting stories.

One of the strange aspects of Bloomsbury is that it is familiar yet little understood, this fascinating and informative book gives the reader considerable insight into one of London’s more enigmatic areas. This comprehensive book with plenty of illustrations and photographs is useful to those who want to explore the area for the first time and seasoned London explorers who wish to find many of its hidden delights.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information and buy a copy, visit the Amazon website here

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