– and also having a lovely day out in London!

Yes, I managed to escape for a day to the Big City and had a wonderful time taking in an exhibition, shopping and lunching. The catalyst was my oldest friend J. (who accompanied on my first visit to the Persephone Shop) as she had a free weekend in her very busy schedule and suggested we get together. I can’t remember which of us mentioned the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, although I know I had mentioned I wanted to see it, and so this seemed like an ideal time to go. J. also reminded me that I’d expressed a wish to pop into the “Slightly Foxed” bookshop on the Gloucester Road. And of course there is the lovely shiny new Foyles…..

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So the date was pencilled in and the tickets for the exhibition book. Pleasingly enough, Middle Child is also a bit of a Woolf-aholic, and so decided she would join us in London for at least the NPG section of our day – which was lovely!

The trains from here to London are usually pretty reliable, so I was able to get ‘into town’ by about 9.30 with no problem and headed off to Foyles in Charing Cross Road where J. was waiting and we had a pleasant reunion. The new Foyles itself is absolutely gorgeous – packed to the gills with wonderful volumes but, as Middle Child pointed out, very light and airy because of all the glass and the largeness and openness of the layout. One of the things I like most about the shop is its recommendations – shelves with unusual juxtapositions, books and publishers you wouldn’t necessarily know about or gravitate towards. And of course, they have many, many volumes of books by my favourite publishers like Hesperus and Pushkin – in fact, it was a little table of Pushkins I kept coming back to, and eventually purchased one:

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Middle Child joined us at Foyles after a few detours on the Tube and settled for a volume of Margaret Atwood’s poems – a good choice in my view! We very much approved of the new cafe, too, where we had a quick pit-stop before we had to head off down Charing Cross Road to the National Portrait Gallery. Frankly, I could have happily spent all day in Foyles, but we had time limits….. 🙂

The Woolf exhibition was entitled “Art, Life and Vision” and as the NPG website states: “Virginia Woolf was one of the most important and celebrated writers of the twentieth century. This extensive exhibition of portraits and rare archival material will explore her life and achievements as a novelist, intellectual, campaigner and public figure.” That sums up pretty well what the expo is – it’s deceptively small, taking up four small areas of a divided up room, but it’s actually packed and took us about an hour to go round properly. The portraits are an excellent selection – by and of artists like Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, and covering just about everyone in the Bloomsbury Group, including one of my favourites, a lovely pencil self-portrait of Carrington. The archive material was impressive – letters, manuscripts, photos, pages from albums and, movingly, Woolf’s last letters to her sister and Leonard (which had us feeling rather emotional). One of the most surprising (and chilling) items was a ‘black book’ belonging to the Nazis, produced in 1940; it was known as Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (which means Special Search List), and contained the names of those to be arrested immediately the Nazis invaded Britain. Amongst the list of over 2,300 politicians, activists and writers such as H.G. Wells, were the names of Leonard and Virginia Woolf… Despite my constant reading of and about Woolf, I don’t think I was aware of this before and it quite shook me.

I can’t praise or recommend this exhibition highly enough. It’s many years since I first discovered Woolf’s work, read everything she’d written plus her diaries and letters, and became a real Bloomsbury obsessive. That love of Woolf and her writings has never really gone away and it didn’t take me very long in the NPG to remember how much I loved her and how much I need to re-read her!

After recovering from Woolf, we headed upstairs for a quick look at a stunning portrait of Christabel Pankhurst which is on display, and which MC had heard about and wanted to see. It’s a remarkable painting by Ethel Wright of Pankhurst in a green dress and if you’re in the area of the NPG it’s most definitely worth a visit. Then followed a nice visit to the shop (postcards! Lytton Strachey fridge magnets! bookmarks! books on the Bloomsbury group by Frances Spalding!) before we sloped off in search of lunch.

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There are of course lots of eateries in the area, but one of us (not me, but I can’t remember who!) spotted a little Mexican place called Chipotle which had a veggie option so we were happy! I was also happy because I spotted the plaque marking the former site of Marks and Co, 84 Charing Cross Road – and insisted on a photo opportunity!

As I’ve just read Helene Hanff’s “Q’s Legacy”, spotting this was quite emotional

Middle Child had to leave us at this point so she had time to pop to the Tate before heading off home, so J. and I carried on to the Bloomsbury Oxfam Bookshop. This is always a treat, and you can be sure of finding *something* you need there. In my case, it was an Elizabeth Bowen book I don’t have:

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And in J.’s case it was “The Summer Book” by Tove Jansson! J. has been reading Jansson longer than me and this was one book she needed so it was a lucky find!

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The next stop was of course “Slightly Foxed” – a recent discovery for me as a journal, and of course this is their lovely bookshop outlet. It’s small but perfectly formed, containing choice selections of new books (with lots of lovely favourite publishers like Persephone, Pushkin, Hesperus and NYRB), as well as a generous collection of second hand works. We had a lovely browse – and I was very restrained and picked up nothing, despite there being many books which took my fancy. However, J. was keen on the book about Jan Struther by her daughter, and so went away with a lovely pristine copy!

It was still early in the afternoon and so as we didn’t have to get trains yet, we decided to go on an explore!! The subject of Thomas Carlyle had come up during the exhibition as Woolf wrote a piece about his house, and J. mentioned that she had been and we could go along – getting in free as she has National Trust membership. It was just a case of remembering where the house actually was…. J. knew it was in Chelsea but wasn’t sure what Tube was nearest the bridge she remembered it being close to. So we ended up Tubing to Pimlico and walking Quite A Long Way down the embankment until we finally stumbled on the place (with the help of a passing tourist’s guide and the various Boris maps dotted about on the bus stops.) We only had a short visit to the house, but it was fascinating – how dark Victoria houses were (wood panelling, furniture, fabrics), and how hard it must have been for the servants, going up and down the narrow stairs all day.

What was also quite exciting was that we were in quite an artistic area and kept spotting blue plaques all over the place – including this one of George Eliot which you can just see in the background of this picture of J.!


By this time, I confess we were absolutely exhausted! However, the friendly guide at the Carlyle House pointed us to a convenient bus which took us back to Victoria station for the parting of the ways – J. to catch her train home and me to Tube back to my station and homeward-bound train. It was a wonderful day – old friends, offspring, books, art, London – what more could you want? Definitely I need to visit London more often!

(Incidentally, I think I did quite well on the book front, restraining myself to 3 volumes – especially as at least a dozen more have come downstairs to leave the premises! Although there were many volumes I *could* have bought, I restricted myself to books I *will* read. Quite pleased with myself!)