When deciding where to walk in London I thought that the area of Bloomsbury would hold lots of hidden history and interesting places to explore. I wasn’t expecting to then focus my blog on so many squares but as I walked around the area I was intrigued by how many there were and couldn’t resist looking into them further to find out what they were about. However because there were so many squares I chose to focus on a select few which, for me, held some interesting significance that I would not have otherwise known about.
I began my walk around Bloomsbury in Tavistock Square just down the road from Euston station. Construction for Tavistock Square began in 1803 and according to the information board in the gardens it was originally a private space for the surrounding terrace houses; however, like many of the other squares in Bloomsbury, it was opened to the public by default during the Second World War when the gates were removed to be re-used for the war effort. After the war the gardens were officially opened to the public allowing more people to access them. The effect of the gardens being turned into a public space seems to have influenced the way it is used. The main thing I noticed when walking around the garden was the amount of monuments and statues that advocated peace and reflection on the negative side of violence. In the centre there is a statue of Mahatma Ghandi, with the Conscientious Objector Stone to the left of it and a Cherry tree planted to honour the victims of Hiroshima. This all gave a relaxing and reflective feel to the square, offering a space of peace that distracted from the busy surroundings of the city. I also later found out that a memorial is being created to commemorate the 7/7 bombings which affected Tavistock Square when a bus exploded on the corner. This act of violence contrasts with the serenity of the square now and whilst standing in the gardens it was hard to imagine the chaos and destruction that the people who were there would have experienced.
After exploring the gardens and various monuments I walked down Bedford Way, between the back of the Royal National Hotel and one of the UCL buildings, to get to Russell Square. Plans for Russell Square began in 1800 when the 5th Duke of Bedford, Sir Francis Russell, wanted to develop Bloomsbury into a high quality residential area. The Duke was successful in doing this at the time as many of the residents were judges and lawyers. However, now many of the buildings surrounding the square are either hotels, offices or linked to the University of London. One of the most prominent of these was Senate House Library, which, because of the time of year, stood out as when standing in the centre of the gardens you could see it through the trees. Despite the surrounding hotels and academic buildings the square still had a residential feel to it, especially because of the café in the gardens. However, I couldn’t help comparing the atmosphere of the gardens on a cold autumnal Wednesday afternoon to that of a summer afternoon when I last went to Russell Square and it was full of people sitting at the outdoor tables for the café and the children running around and playing. This contrast between the number of people will most likely have been due to the time of year and day but it shows that although it can sometimes be a bustling area for people to relax, it can also just be seen as a fairly pretty green space to just walk through to get from one place to another. The roads around the square also alter the atmosphere as according to St James’s Magazine it is ‘a very nice place to walk and if those troublesome railway vans and goods wagons would not come lumbering and clattering on their way to King’s Cross it would be as cosy and tranquil as ‘La Place Royale’ in Paris’. I thought this was an accurate description of the square even today, if you just replaced the vans and wagons with cars and buses.
Once I had walked around Russell Square I was thinking about going towards the British Museum, however after discovering the amount of squares in Bloomsbury I decided to go and see one that I hadn’t been to before. I walked down Montague Place at the back of the museum to Bedford Square, which is considered to be one of the best preserved squares in London. The main thing I noticed about the square was that the gardens were private and that only key holders had access to them. I thought this was interesting because although I knew from reading the signs in the other squares that they had once been private, it seemed odd to me that this was still the case in some places, especially in a square that now mainly seems to be occupied by offices and not residences.
After my short walk around the outside of Bedford Square I walked past the front of the British Museum towards Bloomsbury Square, one I was more familiar with but had never actually looked into the history of. This was one of the first squares to be designed in London and was built in 1657. Like some of the other squares it also became public after the First World War after the railings were removed. Something I had never noticed about the square was the statue at the north side of the gardens of Charles James Fox (1749-1806). Fox had been a Whig politician who strongly opposed and campaigned against the slave trade. Because of his political attitudes it was fitting for his statue to be in Bloomsbury as at the time it was the home to many people who shared those same values.
What I liked most about these squares is that they were built for the people who lived near them, their purpose was to be somewhere for everyone to live, work and relax and for communities to gather together. I think that even though the majority of these squares are no longer private and explicitly for the residents of the area, if anything, this has increased the feeling of community and them being a place to socialise and gather together to escape from the busy city.