Book tourism: A literary travel guide

Image credit: C. G. P. GREY

What places are some must-visits for any book-lover? Depending on how far afield you’re willing to take your literary pilgrimage, you might find yourself in the midst of all manner of wonderful surroundings to explore. Whether you’re looking for places that sell books, lend them out, or that simply hold literary significance of another sort, here are a few suggestions that aren’t too much of a trek, and might make for some exciting summer adventuring:

  • Bath, the home of all things Jane Austen is famous for its annual Jane Austen festival, but did you know that the Jane Austen Centre abounds in wonderful activities and sights for every Georgian literature enthusiast? Authentic tearooms can be booked, or there are exhibitions including waxworks, guided tours, and even the opportunity try on Regency costume are available. Oh, and of course, there’s a brimming gift shop!
  • And while you’re in the West Country, why not explore some famous literary settings? From Daphne du Maurier’s iconic Cornish backdrops, to the eerie moors of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, the South West is undoubtedly a roaming ground for many a writerly muse.
  • The next time you find yourself in London, why not go on a trip to Bloomsbury and scout out the Gay’s the Word bookshop? Britain’s first and only gay-and-lesbian-centred bookshop, this brilliant little place was founded in 1979, and served as an information centre and friendly hub for many members of the LGBTQ+ community for whom safe spaces such as these were a true rarity. The best thing is, it’s still going strong now, offering monthly discussion groups, free gay newspapers, and most of all, a huge variety of queer literature.
  • So you’ve just been to London – but don’t go home yet! A small extension of your trip down to the Garden of England won’t hurt! In fact, if you’re particularly fond of Dickens, you’ll have an absolute field day down in the Medway towns, especially during Rochester’s Dickens Festival every June. Rochester High Street also happens to have a wealth of old book treasure troves, including the Baggins Book Bazaar, which prides itself on being "England’s largest rare and second-hand bookshop". But for something a little less bright and a little more brooding, the small town of Cooling is a bit further along the estuary. It was this very marshland that Dickens used as inspiration for Magwitch’s prison ship break in Great Expectations. There’s even a slightly creepy churchyard nearby. Y’know. If that’s what you’re into.
  • You may or may not want to hear this, but of all the most iconic destinations for the avid book tourist, Cambridge is pretty high up there in terms of density of material. I can’t even begin to list the amount of world-class literature that has come from the University, and while that list is by no means conclusive, what there is to see can be summed up by the Cambridge Literary Festival, held biannually at different spots around the university. And if you fancy a trip to the Other Side, Oxford has a literary history just as rich. For a more modern instance, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series begins in an alternate Oxford, full of a mystical intrigue that can still be sensed in its non-magical, 21st century streets.
  • More recently for me, another trip to the British Library in London has reignited my own enthusiasm for libraries as a whole. It took me back to my primary school days, when we’d visit our local library every day after school, and go on a little tour of all the other libraries in the area on our holidays. It reminded me that, between the grand, big-city exhibitions I saw that day, and the beloved, musty, labyrinthine bookshops of my hometown, libraries always represented the closest kind of comfort and solace in reading.  

Book tourism doesn’t have to mean solemnly traipsing to the final resting place of Victor Hugo, or frolicking in the fields of Dorset just to breathe the same air that Thomas Hardy once did. It can be any place—anything poignant and inspirational and immersive, that makes you forget your pedestrian shuffle along this mortal coil and let your imagination, if only for a brief time, truly come home.

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