A walk around Bloomsbury

Leafy Bloomsbury was once a fashionable district for the well-to-do. Now it is dominated by the British Museum and the University College London, whose footprints have altered but not erased its residential past.

After reading the narrative why not get the itinerary here and walk it yourself?

The modernist style of the Brunswick Centre

Bloomsbury takes its name from Blemondisberi – the bury or manor of Blemond – after William Belmond who acquired the land in the 13th century. For the next 400 years, the land was essentially rural in nature; but then in the 17th century real urban development took off as constuction began of the first square as well as large stately houses.

On leaving Russell Square underground station, we head immediately to the Brunswick Centre, a residential and shopping complex built in a modernist style in the 1960s. Bizarrely, the residential section was only finally painted in 2002 during a refurbishment: when the local council first took control of the blocks decades ago, they couldn’t afford to paint them.

From the Brunswick Centre we approach the former estate of the Foundling Hospital, Britain’s first home for abandoned children, built in 1741 and established by Thomas Coram. The hospital itself stood on what is now Coram’s Field while Brunswick Square and Mecklenburgh Square were built on fields owned by the Hospital and leased to raise funds for the hospital. The story of the Hospital can be discovered in the Foundling Museum.

Literature fans may be interested in the Charles Dickens Museum just south of Coram’s Field. The author lived in a number of houses around this area; in this building he wrote a number of novels including The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The garden of Queen Square

Turning back from the eastern edge of Bloomsbury, we pass Great Ormond Street Hospital, which was England’s first dedicated hospital for children and contains a beautiful 19th chapel, to Queen Square. Originally, it was called Queen Anne’s Square because it was thought that the main statue in the garden was of her. It is now assumed to be that of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III who was treated for mental illness in a house on the square. The Queens Larder pub on the southwest corner takes its name from a legend relating that the queen stored food for the king there during his treatment. From Queen Square a short walk leads us to the largest square in Bloomsbury and one of the largest in London: Russell Square.

By the late 17th century the Russell family, ennobled as the Earls of Bedford, were already strongly established with many commercial interests in Covent Garden to the south-east. In 1669, William Lord Russell married Lady Rachel Vaughan, the daughter of the Earl of Southampton. As the sole heiress to the Southampton estate, including Bloomsbury, Lady Vaughan’s marriage resulted in the Bedfords acquiring a stake in the district. This was a tumultuous time in British political affairs, and William Russell was executed for treason for a plot against King James II and the Russell family fell from favour. However, the king was forced to flee to France and the subsequent ascent to the throne of William and Mary led the Earl of Bedford to be created a Duke. In 1723, Rachel Vaughan died and ownership of Bloomsbury passed to the Dukes of Bedford, who continued the major development of their landholdings. Russell Square itself however was one of the later squares to be laid: in 1801 on the site of the Duke’s former house. The square’s garden today resembles very closely the original after it was restored in 2002.

From Russell Square we turn south. Bloomsbury Square was one of the earliest London squares, developed by the 4th Earl of Southampton towards the end of the 17th century. His house – initially named Southampton then later Bedford House – originally occupied the whole north side of the square; terraced housing lined the other three, inhabited by the aristocracy and gentry. When Bloomsbury began to lose its allure with the upper classes, the 5th Duke of Bedford, now owner from the original marriage of the William Russell and Rachel Vaughan, demolished the house in 1800 to create further terraced housing.

The neo-classical front of the British Museum

When Bedford House was demolished, its chapel’s altarpiece was saved from destruction and can be seen a little further on in St George’s further on in our walk. St George’s is a noteworthy church, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, student of Christopher Wren and a renowned architect in his own right, in 1716-1731. The tower is especially striking, with statues of lions and unicorns and topped by King George I in Roman dress.

Leaving the grand Corinthian portico of the church behind, we walk north to the major tourist attraction in Bloomsbury. Taking up an entire block, The British Museum is accessible from Great Russell Street, where Charles Dickens lived for a while at No. 14. The museum opened here in Montagu House in 1759. As the number of exhibits mushroomed during the ascent of the British Empire it became necessary to demolish Montagu House to re-accommodate the collection in a larger structure; later on some of the surrounding houses were also levelled to make way for further wings. However, even these efforts were not enough to adequately contain the museum's pieces; so in 1881 the natural history collections were sent off to Kensington to found the Natural History Museum and in 1972 the printed books and manuscripts to Euston to form the British Library.

Although a visit to the museum is a walking trip in itself, entering the museum to see the undulating roof of the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court – the largest covered square in Europe – with the museum’s Reading Room at its centre is a worthwhile detour if the queue to enter is not too long.

Bedford Square, some of London's best preserved Georgian architecture

After the imposing hulk of the British Museum, our walk leads to Bedford Square, one of the best preserved pieces of Georgian architecture in London. It was designed to resemble four stately palaces facing each other across square’s garden, an illusion accomplished by pilasters and pediments on the centre houses of each side. Bedford Square can be considered one of the UK’s first gated communities: originally iron gates at the four corners preserved the privacy and exclusivity of the residents.

From 18th century to 20th century architecture, we move on to the imposing Art-Deco Senate House, the administrative centre of the University of London. The building was construct in 1932 to 1937 and was the first phase of a large but unfinished project to transform the area. At 64m (210 ft) high, Senate House was the second tallest building in London after St Paul’s Cathedral when it was completed. During World War II it was occupied by the Ministry of Information, upon which inspired the writer George Orwell to base the headquarters of the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, his dystopian novel of a near-future totalitarian state.

Senate House, inspiration for George Orwell's Ministry of Truth

Senate House is an immediately imposing example of the impact University College London has had on the area. The UCL is the oldest and largest of the 10 constituent colleges that make up the University of London. The College was founded in 1826 as London University and was the first entirely secular university in England, admitting students regardless of religion or gender. On most days of the week, the streets around here buzz with students and staff going about their intellectual business. UCL has nearly 27,000 students and around 4,000 staff and 650 professors, the highest number of any British university. There are a number of free museums that you can visit on the campus if you can spare an hour or so, including the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, which contains one of the world’s leading collections of Egyptian and Sudanese objects.

Heading south, we visit Torrington Square - a square in name only - then Woburn Square, whose southern half no longer exists. Both provide examples of the scale of architectural change that the University College London has made to the area: not all of it positive.

Gordon Square thankfully is mostly intact. Bloomsbury has housed many famous residents over the years and No. 46 provides a perfect example. John Maynard Keynes, one of Britain’s most famous economists lived in this house, as did the writer Virginia Woolf before him. They were both members of the Bloomsbury Group, an informal network of artists, writers, intellectuals and philosophers who lived, studied and worked together in the vicinity of Bloomsbury in the first part of the 20th century. Their views and works made lasting influences on their areas of expertise.

Our final major stop before finishing our tour of Bloomsbury is Tavistock Square, one of the scenes of the London terror attack in 2005 where a suicide bomber killed many passengers on a double-decker bus. As an uplifting juxtaposition to such senseless slaughter, the square is notable for the statues and memorials dedicated to peace residing in its garden: a statue of Mahatma Gandhi; a cherry tree planted in 1967 in memory of the victims of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and a stone commemorating "conscientious objectors all over the world and in every age".

From here, it is a short walk to our finishing point of Russell Square Underground Station.

Why not try the walk yourself?