Travel Through the Pages: London
When I was nine, a package of London travel brochures arrived unannounced to my house. No one had ordered them and my parents weren’t planning any foreign travel, but there they were all the same. Perusing through these brochures immediately became my favorite pastime. I eventually upgraded to an EyeWitness Guide of London, which was a treasure trove of inspiration for me. I pored over the book, taking notes on my favorite parts of the city I hoped to travel to. Eventually, I even wrote a whole journal of a pretend England trip, as if I was taking it, writing about my activities each day. In this way, London lived in my imagination long before I ever visited the city.
As a trip abroad was outside of my family’s budget as a kid, London grew for me through books and films. I fell in love with the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House by reading The Royal Ballet School Diaries series as a kid. I longed to visit the Portobello Road Market after watching Notting Hill as pre-teen. Maureen Johnson’s YA novels, which I read and re-read during my high school years, had me longing to visit the Courtauld, East London, and Harrod’s. As an English major in college, I happily read my way through British literary history. My late nights belonged to Nancy Meyers and Richard Curtis movies — the ultimate London comfort. London became an imagined place that was so vivid for me that I felt as if I had traveled there many times. When I was 20, I was finally able to visit the city for the first time. The trip was such a delight. Multiple years worth of imaginary trips, movie sets, and novel settings came forth before my eyes.
Flash forward to now. Based on my childhood dreams, it’s not surprising that I am a high school British literature teacher. I try to integrate my love of London into my classes so that students have the experience I had: seeing books not just as an amusement or scholarly experience, but as a way to travel to another place. It also gives me an excuse to constantly read about London, hunting down Brit Lit choices that will intrigue my students.
I was fortunate enough to spend six weeks this summer working in London. I had an amazing time touring the homes of famous writers, visiting so many bookshops, and reading in as many coffee shops as I could fit in my schedule. It was a great opportunity to discover new reads and authors, while also revisiting the films and novels that shaped my interest in the city. This list is a combination of those two experiences.
I’m already making plans for my next trip to London, while reading my way through the 12 (yikes!) books I just purchased on my trip abroad. I’m excited to see what new reads will join my list of London favorites, and especially which ones will imaginatively transport me back to the city.
Street Haunting , Virginia Woolf
I discovered this essay while in a Modernisms class in college. I love the way Woolf captures a winter’s walk throughout London. The stream-of-consciousness style works perfectly to guide the reader throughout. As someone who loves walking large cities, this essay is one I return to again and again when I yearn for a London wander.
The Parent Trap, Nancy Meyers
This movie was foundational in shaping my love for London. I wanted to be just like Annie James: living in a cute house on a square in Kensington, shopping with my mom at Harrods, and making calls to my twin at red telephone booths. The scene where Hallie drives through London while There She Goes plays and looks at everything was so inspiring to me. Still, I watch these scenes whenever I miss London the most. (I also highly recommend The Holiday (2006) for more Nancy Meyers indulgence… but it didn’t have enough London scenes to officially make the list.)
13 Little Blue Envelopes, Maureen Johnson
This is an indulgent YA favorite of mine that had a huge influence on my imagined London. It’s the story of a teen girl named Ginny who embarks on summer in Europe guided by notes written by her artsy, deceased aunt. Ginny spends probably a third of the novel in London, exploring places like Brick Lane and Covent Garden. It definitely transported high school me to London. I loved it so much that I shared it with my own artsy aunt.
The Clockmakers Daughter, Kate Morton
Honestly, any Kate Morton book will transport you to historical London. She is one of my favorite go-to’s for a cozy read. Her most recent novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, features a dreamy narrative of contemporary London as well a dip into London of the pre-Raphaelite painters. Hampstead Heath, Persephone Books, The Royal Academy, Tate Britain, and the magical streets of the Seven Dials all make very welcome appearances. It’s definitely a novel that I dip into whenever I want to feel like I’m having an ideal London day.
Notting Hill, Richard Curtis
I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve watched this movie. It’s the quintessential London film: a love story between an ordinary bookseller and a famous actress. I love the scene where Hugh Grant’s character walks through the Portobello Road Market throughout various seasons. On my first trip to London, I was sure to visit the market myself and take a cheesy photo in front of the blue door. On my most recent visit, I stopped by Hampstead Heath where Julia Roberts’ character films a Henry James movie near the end of the film.
The Lido, Libby Page
A warm and comforting read, this novel is ideal for summer. It takes place in Brixton where a young, anxiety-ridden journalist finds hope when she covers an article on the local swimming pool and befriends an elderly woman who is the spokesperson for the pool. It’s all about the importance of small communities and getting to know them. It definitely made me want to venture out from central London and explore the unique neighborhoods.
Ordinary People, Diana Evans
This Women’s Prize shortlist novel is a gorgeously written look at marriage in our contemporary world. Evans writes about London in such a beautiful way. I especially loved how she documents different bus rides that characters take. It made me feel like I was riding on a double-decker bus from South London to City Centre taking in each detail.
My Not So Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella
Sometimes you need a novel that will make you laugh from the very first page, but also include a few introspective thoughts about social media and how we portray our lives. This light and inspiring read is set in the world of branding and marketing in London. It also incorporates a lot of different London neighborhoods and suburbs, which opened my eyes to the idea of escaping City Centre to get to know unique London neighborhoods. In one of my favorite parts, the narrator and her romantic interest take a bike ride across all of London, which seems like a very thrilling idea!
About Time, Richard Curtis
Whimsical and moving, this is one of my favorite films of all time. It always makes me cry a bit, but also always makes me want to plan a trip to London. It is full of everyday London moments — lingering outside South Bank Centre after a show, walking down the street after a party, and even grabbing lunch at a Pret-a-Manger. It features one of my favorite montages ever simply made up of shots of the couple passing through Maida Vale Tube Station over the course of several months as their relationship grows.
It's hard not to love everything Monet. The entire Houses of Parliament series, painted during the artist's own sojourn and from the same angles but at varying times of day, always brings London to mind. They have the dreamy quality that you always want the city to have — golden hour, shimmering reflections, and blurry edges. I recently took a boat cruise along the Thames at sunset and recalled these paintings as we passed Westminster.
M. A. McCuen is a secondary English literature teacher based in Omaha, Nebraska. Originally from Michigan, she has a BA in English and French from University of Notre Dame and a M.Ed from Creighton University. Having previously lived in France and Ireland, she spends her scant free time plotting ways to travel the world on her teachers salary.