City Guide

Four hours in London - Bloomsbury

12 Aug 2008 by Sara Turner

Sara Turner samples a slice of Bloomsbury living and enjoys a good dose of cultural nourishment thanks to its great thinkers, glorious architecture and compelling museums.


1. St Pancras International

With the opening of the new St Pancras station, King’s Cross found itself on the international map, rising to the challenge with an abundance of flair and good old London charm. The area has plenty to offer the Eurostar wayfarer looking for a few hours to lose. The station itself has plenty of interesting shops and a grand history – the Barlow train shed (designed by William Barlow in 1863) for many years held the record for the largest enclosed man-made space in the world, and the intricate façade was saved from demolition in the Sixties by the architecture enthusiast and Poet Laureate John Betjeman. Today, a statue of the great man can be found in the station, gazing up at the impressive roof. Visit stpancras.com.

2. The British Museum

A ten-minute walk will take you into the heart of Bloomsbury, where the British Museum houses a treasure trove of antiquities from around the globe. If you don’t have much time, simply view a single collection. The Assyrian galleries offer some inspiring examples of Middle Eastern sculpture from around 800BC. The Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II built the magnificent palace at Nimrud (now in northern Iraq), and the detailed reliefs in room seven, which originally stood in the throne-room, depict the king leading military campaigns, engaging in rituals with protective demons and hunting. One scene, entitled Triumphal March, shows his soldiers playing football with the heads of slaughtered enemies. Open daily 10am-5.30pm with late openings Thurs-Fri. Entry is free except for special exhibitions. Visit britishmuseum.org for more details.

3. The Brunswick centre

Always peaceful, the Brunswick Centre is a world away from nearby Oxford Street, offering a mix of high-street brands and small restaurants and cafés. Skoob Books has recently reopened in the centre, to the delight of many booklovers. This secondhand bookshop, founded in 1979, always has something to enliven your imagination, and with a warehouse of 59,000 books in Oxford, if they don’t have what you’re after, they’ll get it. Pick up a copy of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, part of the Bloomsbury group of artists and thinkers who took their name from the area. Visit skoob.com, brunswick.co.uk.

4. Russell Square

With plenty of large trees to offer shade or shelter from the rain, Russell Square used to have a reputation for being one of the seedier areas of London but, since the gardeners got their hands on it, the place has turned into a tranquil haven from busy London living. Leaf through your new book or just ponder the meaning of life. It’s a popular place for great minds – look at the walls around the square and you’ll see plenty of blue plaques commemorating famous people such as TS Eliot and George Williams, the founder of the YMCA.

5. University College London

UCL has been a centre of learning for more than 190 years, and has played host to international students for almost as long. If you go through the main Gower Street entrance and head to the South Cloisters in the far right corner, you’ll find the deceased philosopher Jeremy Bentham, clothes, bones and all. Before he died in 1832, he asked for his skeleton to be preserved for eternity in the manner in which he sat when engaged in thought. If that’s not macabre enough, the university’s Grant Museum of Zoology is packed full of bones and pickled things including the brain of a dog, complete with eyeballs and optic nerves. Visit ucl.ac.uk.

6. Tottenham Court Road

If you still have a bit of time before your train, Tottenham Court Road is a good sidetrack. Lined with electronic stores and homeware, you can usually find whatever your house might be missing. Heal’s, selling everything from silk cushions to silicone spatulas, has been a local landmark since the early 19th century. If you’re hungry, head to Planet Organic at 22 Torrington Place, a wonderland of healthy titbits, while for some chill-out time, the Radisson Edwardian Grafton at 130 has a great lounge offering cocktails, teas and free wifi. Visit planetorganic.com, heals.co.uk, radissonedwardian.com.

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