In Pursuit of Dr Johnson

Whenever I’m in London I feel the strong urge to seek out something historical. Pulling into Waterloo station gives me that tingle of excited possibility, that feeling of visiting a place with deep historical roots. Unfortunately, it’s unusual for me to visit London solely for studious purposes these days, so I usually have to sneak a bit of history in as and where I can.

One such occasion was on Friday, having stayed with my brother after seeing Blur at Hyde Park I found myself mid-afternoon in St Pancras; what to do? Well, the British Library of course.

The big exhibition on at the moment is ‘Henry VIII: Man and Monarch’, but they also have a small, free exhibition on ‘Samuel Johnson and London’ at the Sir John Ritblat Gallery to celebrate the tercentenary of his birth this year.

Now, much as I love to read about our chicken leg noshing, serial killing, pope baying former monarch he’s not really the period of history I’m currently interested in, plus I’ve watched ‘The Tudors’, what more do I need to know? But Dr J. sits firmly in the Enlightenment and I know very little about him. In fact most of what I know about him comes from Blackadder:

So relying as always in my trusty steed on the Internet highway, my I-Pod touch, I looked him up and discovered that the museum at his former house was nearby, ‘Dr Johnson’s House’. Given that it was a fine, sunny day I decided to take the stroll.

This was actually my first visit to the British Library, so I was impressed enough as it was, but the Sir John Ritblat Gallery is a great place to spend a bit of time. The Johnson material was interesting, ‘Life of Savage’ by Johnson, which chronicles the life of his often homeless friend Richard Savage (1698 – 1743), is now on the ‘list of things to seek out’.

The walk from the British Library/St Pancras to Dr Johnson’s house takes about thirty minutes:

Dr Johnson’s house is a really good, quirky little museum. It gives you a good feel for the man himself and has fun with it, through nice pieces of abstract art as well as artifacts (mostly his books, duh) and avoids some of the fussiness of English Heritage. Plus they appear to have hidden two researchers in the basement, along with the toilets, I wonder if they are ever allowed out?

I did the walk from the British Library in a hurry because it was close to closing time at Dr Johnson’s house and afterward I wanted to get to St Paul’s to take a photo (which will feature in a later blog). But if I’d had some more time I would have taken in some of the other important historical sites along the way. I’ve marked them up on this google map . Looking at some old maps of the 17th Century it’s clear that that much of the route I took would have been familiar to our Early Modern pals:

Newcourt Map

Newcourt Map

Of particular note are Gray’s InnLincoln’s Inn: Two of the four Inns of Court. These two locations were not just key parts of  Early Modern political and judicial life but also the social life of the city as well.   They look like great places to visit, if not to visit the archives but to take in the grounds.

Other interesting things en route are:

Coram’s Field: Apparently a good place to go if you’ve got kids. It’s situated on the former site of the Foundling Hospital, which was established by Thomas Coram in 1739. In Johnson’s time it would have been known as Lamb’s Conduit Fields.

Also The Charles Dickens Museum.

So, it was an enjoyable couple of hours in London, drinking in the history. If you happen to be in the area I would recommend the walk (in either direction) and take a bit of time out to enjoy the other sites of interest on the way.

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