A BOOK CLUB TOUR OF LONDON'S LITERARY GREAT'S
221B Baker Street is a fictional address in the City of Westminster that was the home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character, Sherlock Holmes. Awkwardly placed between the real 237 and 241 Baker Street, it is now the Sherlock Holmes Museum and has become a literary landmark.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum, 221B Baker Steet, Marylebone, London NW1 6XE. Phoner: 020 7224 3688
The Langham Hotel, 1C Portland Place, Marylebone, London W1B 1JA. Phone: 020 7636 1000
On a perfect summer’s eve, my book club mates and I met at Baker Street by the 7ft tall statue of Sherlock Holmes. For that particular month, we were reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, so 221B Baker Street (where Holmes lived) was the obvious choice. One of the members remarked that they had never actually done a literary tour of Baker Street despite having lived in London all their life. That, in my opinion, is a mark of a true Londoner, or anyone who has lived their entire life in one city – they almost never tend to the see the big “tourist” spots unless they happen to go out with actual tourists. It seemed apt, then, that our first real jaunt of this gigantic tour de force of literature happened during a book club meet.
We sauntered towards 221B, which was, of course, closed – don’t all tourist spots in the UK close at 4 p.m.? – but we took some pictures by the door and read the inscriptions outside, that ubiquitous shiny blue plaque that is dotted across Central London.
But this was to be a literary tour, and a tour by definition requires you to visit more than just one place. So we then made our way to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s medical practice at No. 2 Upper Wimpole Street. It was here that he set up his (failed) career as an ophthalmologist and where he wrote the majority of Sherlock Holmes works while waiting for his patients (interestingly, it continues to be offices shared by medical professionals today). On our way to the medical practice, we happened to spot a plaque dedicated to Isaac Asimov, who was a member of the “Baker Street Irregulars”, one of the oldest and largest organisations devoted to Sherlock Holmes fandom.
Yet another surprise (again, before we had even reached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s practice) awaited us in the form of a mural of Charles Dickens and his most popular characters, marking the space in Marylebone where he lived for a considerable amount of time. Here we were, a bunch of Sherlock Holmes geeks who thought Baker Street and its surroundings were solely devoted to the detective who some people think actually did exist – how naïve of us to ignore London’s great literary past, Asimov and Dickens – two giants who don’t quite feature in “tourist” guides when referring to Baker Street. What was meant to be a Sherlock special book club meeting turned into a true literary walk. So much of 19th and 20th Century literature marks different spots of London, it’s almost impossible to keenly seek them out.
We ended this particular meet at Upper Wimpole Street after seeing where Doyle created the works that made his most famous character the icon he currently is. And since this was such a success with everyone in the group, we decided that we had to do it again for our next book, which was, in a way, connected to Sherlock Holmes. We decided to read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and meet at The Langham Hotel just by Oxford Street. The connection? Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously dined at The Langham with the publisher of Lippincott's Magazine, which led to the commissioning of The Picture of Dorian Gray and one of the best loved Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Sign of Four”. If you happen to wander past Oxford Street, take a slight detour to The Langham Hotel to read the blue plaque that commemorates this meeting – a small piece of literary history tucked in a corner of one of London’s most bustling areas.