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by Bob Brooke

London is alive with new construction and restoration projects, transforming buildings of every sort into beautiful restored examples of Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian masterpieces that they once were. One of the most successful examples of this renaissance is in Bloomsbury, the district which evokes memories of London's early 20th-century literary life.

Located in the city's famed West End, best known for its theaters, itís actually north of Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly and centers around Bloomsbury Square just off Great Russell Street. Itís an area long known for its writers, including Charles Dickens, James Boswell, Henry Fielding and Virginia Wolfe. Later on, its theaters attracted a different sort of person as playwrights and actors chose to live near their stages.

Bloomsbury is an elegant area of green squares and gardens. Originally, its houses were some of the finest in the city. Each residence backing on to a square had a key to the fence that surrounded it, and servants could be seen in the late afternoon setting up tables and chairs in the gardens so that their employers could have tea amid the trees and flowers.

Bloomsbury square, the centerpiece of the area, is a quiet retreat from the noise of Shaftbury Avenue, one block away. Along one side on Great Russell Street is the row of houses used in the film, "Oliver Twist." Their Edwardian exteriors are like others in the area. In fact, without signs, itís difficult to realize that you are in a large city, since the feeling here is more like that of a suburban village.

The most famous landmark in the area is the British Museum, one of the biggest and best of its kind in the world. Priceless collections, focusing on much of the world's great art, are housed in a massive building dating back to the mid-19th century. Itís best to take a guided tour to get your bearings, especially if you have limited time.

Be sure to see the Elgin Marbles, the famous friezes from the Parthenon brought to England by Lord Elgin. Another must see is the splendid Egyptian collection snatched from Napolean Bonaparte after the Battle of Aboukir, in which Nelson defeated the French fleet in 1798. Actually, if you haven't the money to visit all the ancient places, a tour here would be just as good.

Everywhere you look some sort of restoration is going on. Elegant townhouses from the Edwardian and Georgian eras, shabby with time, are receiving new faces. Instead of fine old English families, their interiors now house luxurious apartments and professional offices. The neighborhood is quiet now, except for the constant drone of traffic on Shaftsbury Avenue and Oxford Road.

Just across the street from the British Museum is the Marlborough Crest Hotel, the centerpiece of all the renovation. Over the last year or so, it has been transformed from a dark, seedy, sometimes transient hotel known as the Ivanhoe into an Edwardian marvel. In fact, it was the hotel's rebirth that triggered the exciting restorations in Bloomsbury today.

An elegant building with a grand Edwardian facade, the Marlborough Crest is inviting as well as sophisticated. The interior is filled with rich dark paneling and thick carpeting and brass so shiny that you can see yourself. It's rooms are varied and sumptuous, featuring complimentary tea service, hair dryer, trouser press, and terrycloth bathrobe--amenities found only in higher priced establishments. Currently, the price is about $150 for a double room including tax.

A contest among London's taxi drivers helped renamed the hotel. Cabbie Ted Mitchell, the winner, said he chose the name because it conveyed an image of dignified elegance. You can use this hotel or several othersĖthe Kenilworth, Russell Square, or Bloomsbury CrestĖas a base while you're in London. Everything you'll want to see is within walking distance and the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London are a short taxi or subway ride away.

Four blocks from the Marlborough Crest is Covent Garden, once London's fruit, flower and vegetable market and one of the city's most colorful areas. On the way, stop at the Museum Tavern on Museum Street, just off Drury Lane, for a pint of ale.

Covent Garden
Nostalgia fills Covent Garden. Here the heroine of Shaw's "Pygmalion" and the musical "My Fair Lady," Liza Doolittle, peddled her flowers to patrons of the Royal Opera House. The London Municipal Government moved the original market to the south side of the Thames, and now a trendy shopping arcade has taken its place. The Central Market, a triple pavilion housing fashionable boutiques, unusual shops, unique restaurants and intimate bistros, has become the focal point of this new development. Here you'll find a stand selling nothing but socks, another beautifully hand-made puppets, another Victorian dresses. You can also sit in one of several cafes and just watch the changing scene.

But the Royal Opera House, home to the Royal Ballet and the National Opera Company, remains the center of Covent Garden . If you're in town when theyíre performing, you should make sure you see one of their performances. Nearby stands the London Transport Museum with its fine collection of buses, trains and trams.

Historic Haunts of the Famous
Throughout the area, you'll see blue plaques on the houses. These mark the historic homes of famous people, even though they may now be occupied by someone else. Bow Street across from the Opera House boasts no less than seven homes of writers in its two short blocks! One of them, Henry Fielding, author of the eighteenth century novel, Tom Jones, became one of English literature's all-time greats.

One of Bloomsbury's most famous residents was Charles Dickens. You'll find his only remaining home and museum at 48 Doughty Street, five blocks east of the Marlborough Crest. It was here that he wrote his most famous novel, Oliver Twist. Plaques mark all of the other homes he occupied throughout his career in the Bloomsbury district.

North and east of Covent Garden on Houghton Street is the Old Curiosity Shop. It isnít certain whether Dickens based his novel of the same name on this antique shop, but he knew it well.

A walk down Russell Street from your hotel will bring you to many of the coffeehouses of the 18th century. Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, his biographer, first met in a bookshop at No. 8 in 1763. You can now take time out and have a cup of coffee in this famous shop.

As far as restaurants go, Bloomsbury offers a glut of eateries. Here, you'll find everything from traditional English fare to the most delicious novelle cuisine. Stop in at the White Hart at 191 Drury Lane to sample their extensive range of bar food at lunchtime. First licensed in 1201, itís the oldest pub in Covent Garden and perhaps even in London.

In the evenings, there's always the theater. Whether you prefer the Broadway style of musicals or the rich depth of traditional English plays, you'll find more than you can imagine in Bloomsbury. However, today, the cost of seats for some performances rival those along New York Broadway.

Youíll find Bloomsbury one of the safest neighborhoods for after-theater strolls. Since few people actually live there anymore, thereís virtually no crime and the streets are well lit. What a romantic way to end your stay in London.

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