My Mother’s London

When I win the Lottery, I can go to Italy on my own terms, and choose my own company.”–Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters

Seven Sisters margaret drabbleIn Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters, the narrator, Candida, wishes she could win the lottery and go to Italy.   One day she receives a letter:  she has come into some money.

Like Candida, I recently received a letter. I  learned that my mother left me a tiny amount of money nobody knew about: it will pay for a trip to London!

I have never been so excited.

I  come from a family of aerophobes.   My mother never got on a plane.   She seemed wistful about my travel experiences.  (I am not an aerophobe.) Even a trip by car  from Iowa City to Des Moines seemed long to her.  Near the end of her life she’d say, “I’ve never flown.”   She wished…  And she knew that my living with another aerophobe had made it impossible to cross oceans on family trips.

And so I’m planning my own trip, without the aerophobes.   Suggestions, anybody?


1. Reread a lot of Dickens so I can be overprepared for a Dickens walking tour.   Or should I just stick to the Dickens museum?

2.   I love looking at art.  Good art, bad art, old art, new art.  So I’ll be spending time at museums.  Do you have any favorites?  Any off the beaten track?

4.  Bookstores?  Used bookstores especially?  (And should I bring an extra suitcase, or mail the books home?)

4.   Can’t-miss plays, concerts, etc. for 2014?  Or theaters I should tour?  Or whatever….

Heart of LondonAnd now here, in exchange for your suggestions, is a list of


1.  London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

2.  The Heart of London by Monica Dickens

3.  Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

4.  The Needle’s Eye by Margaret Drabble

5.  The Provincial Lady in London by E. M. Delafield

6.  Lucia in London by E. F. Benson

7.  Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

9.  The Portobello Road and Other Stories by Muriel Spark

10.  The Four-Gated City by Doris Lessing

18 thoughts on “My Mother’s London

  1. I loved The Seven Sisters. It’s one of the Margaret Drabble novels I find so satisfying. My advice is to get the London magazine that lists everything going on that week you have come. Then decide for a couple of things a day, always watching they are feasibly apart.

  2. I haven’t been to London since 1970 so I’m not one to ask, but if I were going, the Persephone Bookshop and every Oxfam and thrift shop I could find. I would have to mail all the books I bought. The London Transit Museum has terrific posters that I check out online. I’m jealous.

  3. Walk. There are inexpensive walking tours (the tourist people have brochures) with very knowledgeable guides. I agree about Harrod’s. You probably won’t buy anything (I could only afford some tea bags) but the tiles are wonderful. Museums: British Museum (see the Reading Room) and the Victoria and Albert. Walk. The parks. Every novel set in London visits a park at some point, especially Regent’s and Hyde Park. Take a ride on the top of a double decker bus. Walk, including the pedestrian bridge over the Thames near St. Paul’s. St. Paul’s. Everything you see you will see again when you read both new and classic English novels.

    I wish I could come along.

  4. My friend Joel sent this comment:

    Joel Dressler
    December 14, 2013 at 12:44 am | Reply | (Edit)

    Kathy, London is one of my favorite cities (the others are Toronto and Seattle). Do be sure to visit the British Library (it used to be called the British Museum) and take a look at the Friezes (msp) of the Parthenon which we were stolen by Lord Elgin sometime in the 19th century, I think. I wish I could recommend a cheap place to stay. Your best bet is Fodor’s London or the Blue Book (it has great floor maps of all the tourist sites). I still have a friend there and I shall try to find her address and telephone number. …She lived in the suburb of Brixton when I stayed at her place in August, 1981 on my way to Greece and again in 1982 on my way back to the U.S. You would like her very much as she is very independent and sort of a feminist … but not radical. This is the first time that I’ve ever replied to a blog.

  5. I am so grateful for these suggestions! My mind is a blank, but will begin to work soon, I think.

    Rhonda, Charing Cross! How could I not have thought of that? And of course they’re always shopping at Harrods in the novels I read. Now where are the tea rooms, or are those all Starbucks now?

    Ellen, thanks! Will look for the London magazine.

    Cynthia, bloggers are always going on about Oxfam but I had completely forgotten there would be books there. And the Persephone shop needs a visit from me. Thanks!

    Nancy, I love your suggestions, especially about the walking. Aren’t Margaret Drabble’s characters and the witch in A Discovery of Witches always doing reseach in the British Museum?

    Joel, thank you so much for commenting! I do need a guidebook and appreciate the suggestions. I am jumping up and down at the prospect of seeing the Elgin marbles, visiting the British Library, etc. The guidebooks we have around the house here are all guides to the wilderness and bike trails. Finally, a city!

  6. Hi Kat – I’m a long-time reader but infrequent commenter. Delighted to hear about your trip to London! I know the city quite well, so these are my suggestions for you (but regardless of what you do, you’ll have a wonderful time because London is that sort of city). Hope the following isn’t far too much information
    1. Get an Oyster card. If you’re flying into Heathrow, avoid any special trains and get the Tube into the city centre (it’s very very cheap and convenient). When you’re travelling around the city, it’s often quick to walk above ground rather than take the Tube from place to place, but if you don’t have a great sense of direction, or if it’s raining, the Tube is really handy and an Oyster card saves you lots of money and hassle (also, going on the Tube is fun. That sooty smell! The thought of Victorians taking the first journeys and of people sheltering in the deep stations during the Blitz!)
    2. this is a good site for advice and planning (including tips on cheap theatre tickets etc)
    3. Museums and galleries are, usually, free: the British Museum, the British Library, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Britain, the Courtauld, the V&A and the Natural History Museum are all wonderful. For something a bit less obvious, there’s the Freud Museum and the Foundling Museum, or a tour of the Globe Theatre (no plays on at the moment, but if you’re there in the spring/summer, you can go as a groundling for a fiver!)
    4. Sadly, a lot of the great second-hand bookshops have closed down, but there are still enough around Charing Cross to tempt you to spend lots of money! And Oxfam is brilliant. There are specific Oxfam bookshops now: I recommend this one – not far from the BM, and I’m sure you’ll want to see Bloomsbury anyway!
    5. Finally, I usually stay here – but it’s not for everyone (no t.v. in bedrooms, etc) and there are probably cheaper places around – I find the pleasant atmosphere there and the great location are ideal, though.
    Hope some of that is useful!

  7. How wonderful for you. Yes, definitely the British Library and the British Museum (they are two separate buildings now) if you have time – wander round Bloomsbury and pick up the vibe of Woolf’s haunts. Skoob Books, Any Amount of Books and Henry Pordes are good – plus the Oxfam bookshop just round the corner from the BM. And Persephone is essential! Pop into Foyles in Charing Cross Road too – it’s lovely! If you think you will buy a lot of books, it may be worth considering mailing them – though UK mail charges are not cheap……. You will have a wonderful time!!

  8. Daughter books in Marylebone is an excellent bookshop
    Daunt Books,
    83 Marylebone High Street,
    London W1U 4QW.
    United Kingdom.

    Near them, further up the street is a good Oxfam bookshop which has a section of first editions. There stock is always worth checking.

  9. Catherine, what a wealth of information. I was already worried about how to take the tube. An oyster pass will make it much easier. (My friend Ellen can tell you how we kept getting inexplicably separated at the gates at the Metro in D.C. when my card didn’t have enough money left on it, or another time became demagnetized.) One card! Great! I appreciate the list of museums and bookstores and the Pen club, too. I’ve always been confused about the Oxfam thing: every blogger goes to Oxfam! I had pictured this wrongly as a Good Will or Salvation Army store! And I am sure I will visit quite a few of these museums–what a nice list!–so thanks again!

    Karen and Clare, I am busy writing down the names and addresses of all the bookshops. I have a special London notebook now, whose essentials will eventually be transferred to another notebook.

    Obviously I will have to get hold of a map!

    • The London A to Z is a must. It has maps of the streets, Underground (Tube) and shows Museum locations. It is I. Book form and fits the pocket or purse). Additionally, be streetwise and keep your bag closed etc., like most big cities it has its share of thieves and pickpockets. You’ll have a great time.

  10. Yes, get a map and always have it with you. On our last visit we also had a bus map and bought a daily bus pass. Slower than the tube, but you get to see so much from a bus. With a good map you can see clearly what is close to what else. For example, we found ourselves near the Inns of Court and so we walked through the area I have revered ever since the days of Rumpole of the Bailey.

  11. Delighted that you found the suggestions useful! One of the great things about London is that it gets so many visitors (with varying fluency in English) that most people are used to giving directions or explaining how the Tube works and do it quite cheerfully. I’d be happy to advise with any other bits of the planning, if that would help. Looks like you’ll have a full notebook of great ideas and tips by the time you fly out!

  12. Wow. Reading the coments between Catherine and you makes me think about 84 Charing Crossroads..
    I would love to go to London again..
    Thank you for the best books set in London list.. I have only read two or three of those.
    Hopefully you’ll share your bookstore findings.

  13. I love that book! Of course it had slipped my mind till I read these comments. I bought no books in Wash, D.C., but will visit Charing Cross in London.

    I’m not sure all my books on my list are “the best,” but they’re all very good in different ways.:)

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