Death, Dentists and the Devil: Open House Weekend

I’m always on the lookout for new spots in London to sit and write.  My criteria for a  ‘good writing space’ seems simple – free wifi, coffee, a chink of daylight, quiet-ish patrons and attractive surrounds – but oh, how difficult it is to track down such a place in a built-up city of more than 7 million! 

Today, however, I discovered the ultimate writing spot just off Piccadilly – The London Library – where great writers and intellectuals like Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie and Sebastian Faulks have sat to read and write.  Hearing of the illustrious patrons of past and present was (almost) enough to make me pull out my Visa card and stump up the £430.00 annual membership fee on the spot (I forgot to add the criterion of ‘free’ to my list of ‘good writing space’ features above). 

The London Library

The grand staircases create a domestic feel reminiscent of the building that once stood on this site

St James's Square: the library's exclusive address

The London Library is London’s oldest independent lending library, occupying buildings from the 1890s, 1920s-30s and 1990s.  The growth of the library over time has created a delightful rabbit warren of bookstacks that open suddenly onto opulent reading rooms garlanded by high walkways containing even more books.  The collections are equally quirky, with a thematic catalogue system that places unrelated old and new tomes (such as books on death, dentists and the devil) alongside each other.  According to our guide, it’s a system that has seen many a writer make novel link between disparate ideas.  The smell of those hundred-year old books alone was enough to inspire me (I don’t even have to open a book – just being near so many is enough to make me turn all academic), so much so that I didn’t want to leave after the 45 minute tour.  It would have been all too easy to lag behind the tour group and hide out for the rest of the day, but I had an appointment at the Wellcome Trust to get to, and reluctantly departed.

The book stacks hold their own weight, from the basement up!

Don't look down! Light and air (and perhaps a few of the thinner books!) travel through the flooring.

It was lucky I did, because I discovered a second writing spot quite by chance, with a friend who works at the Wellcome Trust.   She took me on a quick tour of the Wellcome Library, a grand 1930s room containing far more than medical texts: we passed a man reading a book on Magic in Ancient Egypt and saw a book stack labelled ‘Alchemy’.   It was a private space off to one side that captured my interest though: the members’ club room!  

Populated with bright modernist furniture and designed to look like an old-fashioned parlour / living room, it’s a spot where a writer wouldn’t look out of place clutching a martini after a long day of literary activity.  At present, it’s deathly quiet (local uni students took advantage of the £20 membership fee and overran the place in their breaks, so it’s on a hiatus of sorts).  Next April, however, the space reopens to new members – there’s no fee required, just a willingness to network with professionals interested in the intersection of Science and the Arts.  I might not know a lot about Science (my Dr. friend had to explain a DNA art piece in the museum downstairs after I got my X and Y chromosomes mixed up), but since I love the Arts and am starting an MA around the corner at Birkbeck in three weeks, I’ll be sending in my application! 

Wellcome Trust Members Club


The members' club

The London Library is located at 14 St James’s Square, SW1Y 4LG.  Tours run every Monday night.  Membership is £435.00 per annum, but temporary day passes are issued for those who need to research a specific topic.

The Wellcome Trust is located at 215 Euston Road, NW1 2BE.  Membership for the Club Room is currently closed, but will reopen in April 2012.

2 Responses to “Death, Dentists and the Devil: Open House Weekend”
  1. Love it :) I seek out the same criteria for writing spaces – have you been to London Review Bookshop yet? Maybe a bit of a coffee/writing session could be organdized!

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