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Reading the streets of London

August 11, 2015 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

London, just like many other capitals, has a unique status among the big cities of the world. Cities like London are the melting pots of many cultures, languages and stories and their multicultural existence tells us that they are able to keep changing and embracing their colourful cultural and social scenes. Becoming familiar with a city like London feels like getting to know millions of people over many centuries. You have so many departure points and routes to take that the city itself become a series of possible adventures . Districts, roads and squares have developed their own identities, they tell their own stories and keep surprising us, just like the people who have shaped them. Cities are in a constant transformation process and their people respond to this through their buildings, spaces, artwork and writings. Architecture, poetry and prose writing, photography, street art, civil engineering are just a few important fields which help us live in these places.

A map of London from the culture course Talking Culture written by Maria Cleary. © Helbling Languages

A fascinating historiography can be developed through reading the literary works about the city or following the steps of its authors. How much has your own hometown changed over the last ten years? You can hear about past places through the stories of your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. ‘This place used to be a theatre.’, ‘This is where I met my first love.’, and so on. Old places are constantly present in our everyday life through the stories we hear, see and experience. Mapping a city also means mapping the traditions and history of its people. What about mapping its literary world? What can we learn about cities from the old classics and how have modern and contemporary writers responded to them? What can we learn about a place by following in the steps of our favourite authors and fictional characters? Let novels and poems show you around the cities, time travel with them, learn their histories, language and experience in the atmosphere created by them.

How can we bring a city into our language classroom? Learning English also means learning about English places and people. The best way to start this journey is going on a tour of the literary London. Let’s see some of our favourite places, novels and some activity ideas for your classroom.

Whose London would you like to explore? Shakespeare’s London in the Elizabethan Age? Perhaps you would like to explore the city with one of Dickens’s characters? What about some sightseeing while solving crimes with Sherlock Holmes? How about moving to Bloomsbury with Virginia Woolf and her circle of friends? How about walking and talking with Oscar Wilde? You might want to be more modern and hang out with Dylan Thomas in a pub? How do you feel about reflecting on the state of the city with Nick Hornby, Monica Ali or Julian Barnes? Even better, let’s take a train from Platform 9 3/4.

Places to visit

Here are our top 10 places in London that we would visit on our basic literary tour of the city. 

  1. Bloomsbury, the meeting place of the Bloomsbury Group, whose members included Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster.
  2. The British Library, where you can visit a free exhibition and see exciting manuscripts.
  3. Shakespeare's Globe
  4. Charles Dickens Museum
  5. Sherlock Holmes Museum
  6. The Fitzroy Tavern, because Dylan Thomas and George Orwell used to visit this place.
  7. George Inn to visit a place that Charles Dickens visited.
  8. Keats House
  9. King's Cross Station Platform 9 3/4
  10. Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey

We also think that exploring a city is best done by wandering its streets, finding unusual buildings, interesting details. Grabbing your favourite novel set in the city and following its steps can also be a great adventure. After visiting the most famous attractions, find your own spots and write your own stories of them.

How can you visit these places when you are in school all year?

Classroom projects and presentations

Plan classroom projects for the term. Ask your students to choose a theme and prepare a project (presentation, map, poster) by the end of the term. You can organise a great London exhibition by the end of the term. Here are some ideas.

  1. Choose an author who was born or lived in London. Present his or her life through important places in the city. Tell us stories about the places and find stories of the author which describe the city. For example, on the website of the Virginia Woolf Society you can read about all the places where Woolf lived.
  2. Choose a novel, a play or a poem which is set in London and present the city through the story. Why are certain places important in the story? How are they described?
  3. Choose a historical age or cultural theme and explore the city through that. For example, what was London like in Shakespeare's time? How did authors and artists live in the 1920? Why did Virginia Woolf move to Bloomsbury?

Prepare MAPS of the city marking these important spots using Google Maps or drawing your own designs.

Book Club: themed sessions

If you run a Book Club, you can decide to have thematic weeks or reading sessions. Choose your favourite cities and read books which are set in them. For example one month you can read a book set in London or anyone can choose one they like, and then the following week or month you can read a book set in or about Dublin, Edinburgh or New York.

Our must-read London authors

Classic authors

  • William Shakespeare
  • Charles Dickens
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • Wilkie Collins
  • George Eliot
  • Virginia Woolf
  • E. M. Forster
  • George Orwell
  • William Makepeace Thackerey
  • Sylvia Plath
  • W. S. Maugham

Contemporary authors

  • Martin Amis
  • Monica Ali
  • Zadie Smith
  • Helen Fielding
  • Peter Ackroyd

Novels set in London


  • Oliver Twist, Bleak House and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Sherlock Holmes Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Post-1945 novels 

  • The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
  • The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  • Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
  • High-Rise by J. G. Ballard
  • Metroland by Julian Barnes
  • The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
  • White Teeth and Brick Lane by Zadie Smith
  • High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
  • Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
  • The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Literary walks in London

You can read books, visit websites, follow Google Maps and join themed walks in London. A nice challenge would be to create your own literary walk based on your reading experience. Your students can also research interesting places in London and create their own literary walks. We have collected some websites where you can find information about literary walks in London.

Did you know that you can even apply for an MA degree programme to study English: Literary London? Check out the programme on the website of the University of Greenwich.

You can also join The Literary London Society and follow them on Twitter.

Check out these lesson plans and resources on this Blog