Walking Where Jane Austen Once Walked

The poet Shelley stayed here when he was sent down from Oxford.

I set aside one of my days in London to follow the path of Walk 5: Soho to the British Museum from Walking Jane Austen’s London by Louise Allen. I started from Paddington Station, but the Bakerloo line was closed for maintenance so I walked to the next station and got off at Oxford Circus.

Oxford Circus is a busy shopping area with a Top Shop, Marks and Spencer’s, and street performers, people raising money for charity, and tourists. It is hard to imagine Jane Austen might have once walked here. I walked towards Poland Street and glanced down Argyll Street before crossing. I spied the Liberty Stores and took a detour (see earlier post).

IMG_0166I rejoined the walking tour and entered Soho. The book gives a variety of historical facts not all of which are directly related to Austen but from the same time period. Occasionally, there are tidbits like, “The house of Doctor James Stanier Clarke, the Royal Librarian who showed Jane around Carlton House, was on the north side of No. 37. In December 1815 he wrote to her to offer the use of his personal library and to assure her that there was always a maid in attendance. There is no record of Jane’s response to the shocking invitation to visit an unmarried man’s home.” (p61)

I got to the brink of Chinatown and I was beginning to flag. I realized I was also a few blocks from the famous Foyles bookstore. I left off the walking tour and went in search of books, a loo and some hot tea. Little known fact, the creator of the mystery series Foyle’s War named the lead character Christopher Foyle for his favorite bookstore. There a number of outlets but 107 Charing Cross Road is the flagship. I started on the 5th floor at the cafe and then leisurely worked my way through every floor.

I rejoined the tour and walked to Bedford Square where I discovered not every blue historic marker is so special. On to the British Museum. The British Museum’s collection is first rate. The empire gave them the opportunity to haul a lot of cool loot back to London. I was disappointed that a few things have changed since I my last visit. I do not remember so much junk for sale in the center reception area, plus cafes. The museum is free of charge (although a 5 pound donation is suggested). I was not interested in a sandwich wrapped in plastic so I moved on to find a place for dinner.

The most direct way to get back on the Tube at Tottenham Court Road was also closed so it took a little longer to get back. By this time my ankles and feet were not responding to the signals from my brain so I went back to my room at the Hilton and put my feet up. I had yarn and stationary to sort through from the Liberty stores.

IMG_0192There are 8 walks in all to appreciate Jane Austen and the rich history of London. It also helps to pay attention to the layers of detail all around.



Jewel of a Tenement Museum and other NYC Delights

My mom Karen with Tenement Museum guide Laura.
My mom Karen with Tenement Museum guide Laura.

My mom turned 80 in August and to celebrate we planned a long weekend in New York City to enjoy as much theater as possible. We arrived very early the morning of September 11. The television was dominated by coverage of the reading of the names of the victims in New York City on that fateful day. It made for a somber start. The National September 11 Museum was having a grand opening, but we decided to visit on a less crowded day and instead hopped in a cab to visit the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side.

My friends Harriet and Brian raved about the Tenement Museum and on their recommendation we purchased tickets to the “Hard Times” one hour tour. We arrived a few minutes late, so one of the docents escorted us to 97 Orchard Street. Laura, our tour guide and storyteller, was still explaining the history of the building when we joined.

The museum has carefully preserved the building and its apartments. They have reconstructed families’ stories to share with visitors. In this particular tour Laura told us about a German Jewish family who lived in the building during the recession of 1873 and then an Italian family who lived in the front apartment during the Great Depression. We learned about the various waves of immigration arriving on New York City’s shores and the laws that shaped opportunities. Immigrants are generally the most vulnerable in a economic downturn. And for these families there was no safety net from the government or from charity.

The small space and basic accommodation was a reminder of how much the dream of a better life in America sustains people. Afterward we talked to our tour guide Laura about her family experience coming to America from Cuba and mom shared how our ancestors immigrated to the Minnesota prairie and lived in sod houses. Immigration became something of a theme for this trip.

Mom’s impressions: 

The first family we visited were Jewish. At that time they had only water and out houses in the courtyard. No heat except the kitchen stove. The apartments were three rooms: a kitchen, a living space and a bedroom. 

The second family had about the same space but by then they had cold water in the kitchen and a john in the hall. They were Italian. By then the Jewish families were doing better an had moved uptown.

Feast of San Gennaro
Feast of San Gennaro

Afterward we walked toward SoHo and stumbled upon the Feast of San Gennaro (September 10-20). It was a combination street fair and carnival with a distinctly Italian flare.

We walked on to Houston Avenue and caught a cab to the hotel. My mom has the spirit of a 40 year old and the knees of someone her age. I was going to realize later that there is only so much we can walk.

The Hard Times tour tickets were $25 each and available in advance from the website. Tickets may also be purchased at the corner museum shop at Orchard and Delancey in the Lower East Side.