It was inevitable that I would buy this tea towel. It is a map and it is of Bloomsbury. Why was that inevitable? I love maps, probably stems from my background in geography and that, contrary to all myths about the ability of women to map read, I am really good at it. I like road maps, ordnance survey maps, big maps of countries and continents, maps of the London Underground, Paris Metro or London bus route maps; I like old maps, small maps of villages. I like wrapping paper and notebooks covered in maps. But Google Maps (or similar), especially when they talk to me, don’t do it for me. But a map on a tea towel, that’s a whole different ball game.
I was born and brought up in London, didn’t leave until I was 18, but my ‘territory’ was West London, Ealing, Acton, Shepherds Bush, Gunnersbury Park, Brentford; I wasn’t familiar with Bloomsbury. If you had asked me where Bloomsbury was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Actually there are no clear boundaries to Bloomsbury but it is roughly between Euston Road and Holborn Road; it is an old area of London, mentioned in the Domesday Book for it’s vineyards and ‘woods for 100 pigs’. Needless to say, it was an area affected by the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-16th Century (lets face it, I haven’t found anywhere in England that wasn’t affected by the Dissolution of the Monasteries). It was developed in the 17th and 18th Centuries as a fashionable residential area, notable for its array of Garden Squares, literary connections (like the Bloomsbury Group), and its cultural, educational and health-care institutions: British Museum, Foundling Museum, Dickens Museum, Great Ormond Street Hospital, HQ of the BMA, London Homeopathic Hospital (now called Integrated Medicine) and so much more.
Bloomsbury is the place for Blue Plaque spotting. Anybody who is anybody has lived in Bloomsbury: JM Barrie, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Ricky Gervais, Bob Marley, Virginia Woolf, WB Yeats, Catherine Tate, Dorothy L. Sayers and so many more.
Since 2003, Bloomsbury has become a familiar stomping ground of mine, spending at least two days a year there. I have regular hospital appointments at the London Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery in the heart of Bloomsbury; hospital appointments don’t often take long so I use my regular trips to London to get the most of my day. I have a ritual, which I thoroughly enjoy, which has given me a great love, and growing knowledge, of Bloomsbury. I travel by train from Leicester to St Pancras; I can usually find a ‘deal’ that will allow me to travel first class at about 10am. I walk out of St Pancras, turn right onto Euston Road and left down Judd Street. Judd Street is an interesting mix of small independent shops and cafes, residential properties, the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) and other businesses; there are some small gardens and rarely do you see properties boarded up, closed down or for sale. It is a multicultural community with street cafes where a myriad of languages are spoken. Half way down Judd Street, on the right, is Deux Amis, a small French patisserie. There is usually two wrought iron tables, with chairs, on a terrace in front of the shop; I’ve never actually seen anyone sit at those tables but they always look inviting. I am sure people use them if you are there at the right time of day. Peering through the window, there is an amazing display of French pastries and tarts; they draw you in. As you walk past the counter, catching a whiff of sweet pastry and fresh French bread, is a small tea room with about 5 tables, with tablecloths, quite cramped. I always stop here. Depending on the time of my train, I will have either an almond croissant or a ham and emmental baguette and a pot of Earl Grey tea. The clientele is ecletic: a mother with her pushchair, a student with their laptop, business men having an informal meeting and locals dropping by for a quick coffee. Although small, you never feel rushed or hurried. I get up to move on to my next ‘stop’ which is the Brunswick Centre – a shopping and residential centre. This is a Grade II Listed building; would Prince Charles have described this as a ‘carbuncle’? Probably. It sort of seems out of place amongst the Georgian and Victorian buildings but it also has a concrete quirkiness, possibly ugliness that could probably be described as ‘brutalist’ or even ‘concretopia’. I am sure that my Uncle Chris would be able to put me right on the terminology. In the Brunswick Centre are a weird mixture of shops – Waitrose, Office (where I bought my favourite Fred Perry canvas shoes), Robert Dyas (where I once bought two tea towels), Carluccios (where I have had my lunch)……
It is then a short walk through the jitty to Queens Square, my final destination and a typical Bloomsbury square, although technically rectangular in shape. Queens Square is the home of the London Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery, a big red-brick, Victorian building with an imposing entrance. Surrounded by wrought iron railings and entered by a gate on either side, Queens Square is delightful, full of trees. Two lawns divided by a path across the centre and with a perimeter path lined with benches, this is a place where people congregate: there are people arriving too early for their out patients appointment, people waiting for the results of their tests, doctors taking a break, nurses having their lunch on the lawn, people having a crafty smoke, students revising; it doesn’t matter what season of the year it is, it is a great place for people watching. On the opposite side of the park from the hospital, is a short pedestrianised street called Cosmo Place; here is my favourite china shop in the whole world (possibly a slight exaggeration) called Cosmo China. I found Cosmo China on my first visit to the hospital in 2003; I was exceptionally early for my appointment and was looking for something to do. It was heaven. The shop front looks Victorian with a pained-glass, bow window full of hand-painted, bone china. You step into the small shop and at the back, behind the counter you can watch artists painting pots. They must have thirty or forty different ranges of hand-painted china, from animals to flowers, from children’s sets to more elegant patterns, vibrant colours, unique and quirky. On my first visit I bought two mugs (not matching) by Mary Pierce; I like the fact that each piece is signed. My second visit entailed a teapot with wonderful black and white chickens by Josie Firmin. Josie was one of the founders of Cosmo China which has been in Cosmo Place since 1990. Josie is one of six sisters who are all artists born to Peter Firmin who worked with Oliver Postgate to illustrate Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and many more; her mother knitted the Clangers!! You can see why china with illustrations for children are a big theme. With all that pedigree, no wonder it is such a great shop. I remember going in one November hoping it would be the sort of shop that has an early Christmas display because I wanted some Christmas mugs. Nothing on display but I asked on the offchance if they had any. “Just a minute; I’ll go and see”. The woman disappeared down some stairs and came back with this huge box of jumbled Christmas mugs, not wrapped up and was told to look through to see if there was anything I wanted. It was an Aladdin’s Cave. I found exactly what I wanted. I have also commissioned a plate to celebrate Jean’s 60th birthday and another for David and Dorothy’s 60th Wedding Anniversary. There hasn’t been a visit to the hospital where I haven’t called in to Cosmo China; I haven’t always bought something but it is a joy to walk round. In 2011, I saw this tea towel. It was inevitable.
After my appointment, I often return a different way to St Pancras, passing down Cosmo Place and thought to Southampton Row; sometimes I walk, sometimes take the bus. My end of day treat will always be to walk through the concourse at St Pancras, wandering around Hamleys, Paperchase, Cath Kidson and John Lewis, pausing at Foyles Bookshop, before having a cup of tea and a ‘little something on toast’ at Fortnum and Mason, trying to avoid the tea towels but quite often not managing it. I always hope there will be someone playing the piano on the concourse, a good musician to end my day nicely. I love Bloomsbury and every time I use this tea towel my mind goes back to Deux Amis or Cosmo China and I can, bizarrely, look forward to my next hospital appointment.
Click below to return to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum