Did you know how the expression “to be at sixes and sevens” originated? Or that Dorothy Sayers put in bits and pieces of her life in her various Peter Wimsey novels? Or what a triffid is/was? And how about the crystal phallus? This and other bits of arcania – as opposed to trivia as these factoids are arcane not trivial in my opinion – and trivia are the kinds of things one finds out about if you take a London Walk.

Before I go on, a caveat. Many people and groups giving walking tours. I’ve been on some in Rome and Florence. They were not bad. A nice alternative to the cookie-cutter guided tours. BUT, now that I’ve been on some of these London-walks tours I have to say… they’re a cut (and then some) above any other walking tours I’ve been on. And so while here at least don’t settle for substitutes or imitators. Check these guys out here: http://www.walks.com/

So far I’ve been on two London walks. And if I can get my act together hope to get at least one more before I leave town. (I did I did but will tell you more on that later). The first one I went on was a Literary Bloomsbury and Old Museum Quarter Walk (well, yes, remember I’m the nerd by inclination and profession, thank you very much!) on Tuesday afternoon. It’s where I learned about Dorothy Sayers and the triffids among other things. Of course the Bloomsbury staples of Virginia Woolf et al were mentioned but they were not the star attractions. As the writeup tells you, on this walk we got to explore the “other” Bloomsbury (see a little photo essay about this trip from the walks website by clicking on my photo of our walking group).

First stop on the walk was Red Lion Square. In the days of the 17th century (think Roundheads etc) this square was the site of the Red Lion Inn, which was rendered famous, infamous or notorious in its day (depending on point of view) by serving as the venue for holding the body of Oliver Cromwell, some 3 years after his burial at Westminster Abbey when it was exhumed for the sole purpose of hanging Cromwell for treason. Sorry making that hanging and beheading. Rather a bloodthirsty lot the royalists were back then. Whether or not it was Cromwell’s body that was hanged and beheaded – rumours abound as to the identity of the body that merged from the Red Lion, someone’s certainly was, while someone else’s body apparently was buried in secret at the inn. The head was displayed on a pike outside Parliament to others inclined to regicide, until it rolled into a storm gutter from whence a Cambridge student with the desire to take a piece of London back to Cambridge, took it and buried it in a “secret” place in Sidney Sussex College, where it lies still, vaguely marked by a commemorative plaque that says that the head lies “near to this place.”

So this was the story told to us by much gusto by our guide Tom, repeated as faithfully as I can from memory. I share responsibility for any factual errors. Also around this square was a plaque dedicated to Harrison of the navigational clocks fame (if you haven’t, do read Longitude by Dava Sobel and watch the BBC series with Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons) for he lived here long before the houses were renovated, another plaque to mark the residence of members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and also an odd building housing the Ethical Society of which Bertrand Russell was a member. Actually there’s also supposed to be a bust of the great man in the Red Lion Square park, which Tom out of deference to him chose not to show us as it has been defaced by graffiti.

From the Red Lion we headed to Bedford Row, an important address in its time and from where are visible a lane where Dickens lived for a while and probably wrote The Pickwick Papers (which we did NOT visit) as well a parallel street where Dorothy Sayers, the first woman to attend Oxford incidentally, lived from 1921-29. Quite a lady she was, and I learned a whole lot more about her after Tom was done speaking about her, and promptly went and bought her kindle-ready novels (only one so far I’m afraid but more are on their way, I hope) after the walk. Around the corner (more or less) we stood across the street from the house (Number 18)  which Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had lived in when they first got married. The house is featured in a poem  by Hughes, read to us in sonorous syllables by Tom (the text is in the photo essay for those interested). Across the street where we stood and gazed on #18 was London’s tiniest street, Emerald Court, and one could almost imagine Sylvia (superimposed unfortunately by Gwyneth Paltrow’s face due to that movie) dragging her bike there, as well as a French dairy shop-converted to a jewelry shop where among the pieces of artistic pieces was displayed a gem of an altogether different sort – a book of Auden’s poetry!

Onward to Russell square and all that surrounds it. In all its part-gothic and all-garish glory, the Hotel Russell waving flags etc at us, on the other corner SOAS with T.S. Eliot (the American master’s) former press site, and just behind overlooking it all, the other ghoulish structure, the tower from the University, which was featured in (and finally I get to it) The Day of the Triffids, by a John Wyndham. This sci-fi offering from the 1950s was one I knew nothing about until Tom told us about it, but since it was available in a Kindle edition, I bought it and have promptly read it. Interesting postapocalyptic vision.

So we ended at the back entrance of the British Museum, in whose Reading Room so many of the intellectuals had spent so many fruitful hours. Very apropos. With very little time to closing all I had time for was a peep at the real Rosetta Stone and after looking at it carefully, I have to reconsider John Swanson’s tale (in greater detail in a previous post) that its color (black) is actually a London Grime covering for rose (pink) granite. Particularly since other more-exposed pieces of pink granite monuments from Egypt also in the museum have retained their pink just fine! So until further evidence I’ll believe the black basalt story. Also since that would have made it easier to transport these edicts.

So I was going to summarize my second walk here too, but no can do. This post grows long and the hour late. So I’ll end with a slide show of this walk (click on photo below) and a promise to return in the not too distant future with accounts of the second walk and answer some of the questions from my teaser – about sixes and sevens and crystals body parts. Oh and now there’s a third London walk to talk about! But until I do write, I prithee, fare thee well.