Bloomsbury

Immediately north of Covent Garden - though worlds away in look and atmosphere -is Bloomsbury, a leafy quarter and the academic and intellectual heart of London. Here you will find the University of London and its many faculties and campuses scattered along the streets. And shaded by many trees and surrounded by Georgian and Victorian town houses is what must be one of the world's best museums: the British Museum. The beautiful squares were once colonised by the 'Bloomsbury Group', a group of artists and writers which included Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, and the stories of their many intricate love affairs are as fascinating as their books. Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw also lived here or hereabouts, as attested by the many blue plaques dotted around. Today Bloomsbury continues to teem with students, bookshops and cafés, while remaining relatively uncommercial. At its heart, London's largest green square, Russell Sq, is looking better than ever with an excellent refit and tidy up a few years ago. It remains a wonderful place for lunch and people-watching. Nearby is Brunswick Centre (www.brunswick .co.uk), a wonderful 1960s complex that consists of apartments, restaurants, shops and a cinema. A £24 million project saw it turned from a dreary, stern space to a lovely, cream-coloured airy square in 2006, and the centre is now packed with people seven days a week. The original architect, Partick Hodginson, worked on the renovations and claimed that the centre now looks like what he'd planned in the '60s, but that the design was stunted by the local council.

BRITISH MUSEUM Map PP92-3

@ 7323 8000, tours 7323 8181; www.thebritish museum.ac.uk; Great Russell St WC1; admission free, £3 donation suggested; S galleries 10am-5.30pm Sat-Wed, to 8.30pm Thu & Fri, Great Court 9am-6pm Sun-Wed, to 11 pm Thu-Sat; -e- Tottenham Court Rd or Russell Sq; ® One of London's most visited attractions, this museum draws an average of five million punters each year through its marvellous porticoed main gate on Great Russell St (a few go through the quieter Montague PI entrance). One of the world's oldest and finest museums, the British Museum started in 1749 in the form of royal physician Hans Sloane's 'cabinet of curiosities' - which he later bequeathed to the country -and carried on expanding its collection (which now numbers some seven million items) through judicious acquisition and the controversial plundering of empire. It's an exhaustive and exhilarating stampede through world cultures, with galleries

BRITISH MUSEUM HIGHLIGHTS

The first and most impressive thing you'll see Is the museum's Great Court, covered with a spectacular glass-and-steel roof designed by Norman Foster in 2000; It Is the largest covered public square in Europe. In Its centre Is the world-famous Reading Room, formerly the British Library, which has been frequented by all the big brains of history: George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

The northern end of the courtyard's lower level houses the terrific new Sainsbury African Galleries, a romp through the art and cultures of historic and contemporary African societies.

Check out the 1820 King's Library, the most stunning neoclassical space in London, which hosts a permanent exhibition 'Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the 18th Century'.

One of the museum's major stars Is the Rosetta Stone (room 4), discovered in 1799. It Is written in two forms of ancient Egyptian and Greekand was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. Another majorstar Is the Parthenon Sculptures (aka Parthenon Marbles; room 18). The marbles once adorned the walls of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, and are thought to show the great procession to the temple that took place during the Panathenalc Festival, on the birthday of Athena, one of the grandest events in the Greek world. They are better known as the Elgin Marbles (after Lord Elgin, the British ambassador who shipped them to England in 1806), though this name is bound in controversy due to the British Museum's dispute with the Greek government, who want to see the pieces back in Athens. The battle continues, but you can read the museum's side of the story on a leaflet entitled 'Why are the Parthenon Sculptures always in the news?'

Prepare for a bit of gore in the Mexican Gallery (room 27), at the foot of the eastern staircase. The room features the 15th-century Aztec Mosaic Mask of Tezcatlipoca (The Skull of the Smoking Mirror), which has a turquoise mosaic laid over a human skull.

On a calmer note, rooms 33 and 34 host the Asian collections with the wonderful Amaravati Sculptures (room 33a), Indian goddesses, dancing Shivasand serene cross-legged Buddhas in copper and stone.

The story goes that bandits tried to steal the Impressive Oxus Treasure (room 52), but the British rescued the collection of 7th- to 4th-century BC pieces of Persian gold which originated in the ancient Persian capital of Persepolls, and brought it to the museum.

The Lindow Man (room 50) Is a Ist-century unfortunate who appears to have been smacked on the head with an axe and then garrotted. His remains were preserved in a peat bog until 1984 when a peat-cutting machine sliced him in half.

devoted to Egypt, Western Asia, Greece, the Orient, Africa, Italy, the Etruscans, the Romans, prehistoric and Roman Britain and medieval antiquities.

The museum is massive, so make a few focused visits if you have plenty of time, and consider the choice of tours. There are nine free 50-minute eyeOpenertours of individual galleries throughout the day, and 20-minute eyeOpener spotlight talks daily at 1.15pm focusing on different themes from the collection. Ninety-minute highlights tours (adult/concession £8/5) leave at 10.30am, 1 pm and 3pm daily. If you want to go it alone there is a series of audioguide tours (£3.50) available at the information desk, including a family-oriented one narrated by comedian, writer and TV presenter Stephen Fry. One specific to the Parthenon Sculptures (aka the Parthenon Marbles or Elgin Marbles) is available in that gallery. You could also check out Compass, a multimedia public access system with 50 computer terminals that lets you take a virtual tour of the museum, plan your own circuit or get information on specific exhibits.

DICKENS HOUSE MUSEUM Map PP92-3

@ 7405 2127;www.dickensmuseum.com;48 Doughty St WC1; adults/under 16yr/concession £5/3/4; S 10am-5pm Mon-Sat, 11am-5pm Sun;

Russell Sq

The great Victorian novelist lived a nomadic life in the big city, moving around London so prolifically that he left behind him an unrivalled trail of blue plaques. This handsome four-storey house is his sole surviving residence before he upped and moved to Kent. Not that he stayed here for very long - he lasted a mere two-and-a-half years (1837-39) - but this is where his work really flourished: he dashed off The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist despite worry over debts, deaths and his ever-growing family. The house was saved from demolition and the fasci nating museum opened in 1925, showcasing the family drawing room (restored to its original condition) and 10 rooms chock-a-block with memorabilia. In the dressing room you can see texts Dickens had prepared for his reading tours, which include funny notes-to-self such as 'slapping the desk'. The said slapped desk is on display, a velvet-topped bureau purpose-made for his public readings.

NEW LONDON ARCHITECTURE

@ 7636 4044; www.newlondonarchitecture .org; Building Centre, 26 Store St WC1; admission free; S 9am-6pm Mon-Fri, 10am-5pm Sat, closed Sun; ■©■ Goodge St

An excellent way to see which way London's architectural development is going, this is a frequently changing exhibition that will capture the imagination and interest of anyone who loves London. A large model of the capital highlights the new building areas, showing the extent of the 2012 Olympics plans and various neighbourhood regeneration programmes. Photographs and details of individual buildings make it easy to locate each new structure, so that you can either go and see it in real life or spot it as you go along.

PERCIVAL DAVID FOUNDATION OF CHINESE ART Map PP92-3

@ 7387 3909; www.pdfmuseum.org.uk; 53 Gordon Sq WC1; admission free; S 10am-12.30pm & 1.30-5pm Mon-Fri; ■©■ Russell Sq

Although it feels like a fusty old institution, the friendly staff, lack of crowds and quirky collection here make for a rewarding visit. With some 1700 pieces, it's the largest collection of Chinese ceramics from the 10th to 18th centuries outside China. Sir Percival David donated it to the University of London in 1950 on the condition that every single piece be displayed at all times. Among the highlights are the David Vases (1351), the earliest dated and inscribed blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, named after Sir Percival himself.

PETRIE MUSEUM OF EGYPTIAN ARCHAEOLOGY Map PP92-3

@ 7679 2884; www.petrie.ud.ac.uk; University College London (UCL), Ma let PI WC1; admission free; S 1-5pm Tue-Fri, 10am-1 pm Sat; -e- Goodge St

If you've got any interest in things Egyptian, you'll love this quiet and oft-overlooked museum, where some 80,000 objects make up one of the most impressive collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. Behind glass - and amid an atmosphere of academia - are exhibits ranging from fragments of pottery to the world's oldest dress (2800 BC). The museum is named after Professor William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), who uncovered many of the exhibits during his excavations and donated the collection to the university in 1933. The entrance is through the University's Science Library.

POLLOCK'S TOY MUSEUM Map PP92-3

@ 7639 3452; www.pollockstoymuseum.com; 1 Scala St W1; adult/child £3/1.50; S 10am-5pm Mon-Sat; ■©■ Goodge St

Aimed at both kids and adults, this museum is simultaneously creepy and mesmerising. You walk in through the museum shop laden with excellent wooden toys and various games, and start your exploration by climbing up a rickety narrow staircase where displays begin with framed dolls from Latin America, Africa, India and Europe; upstairs is the museum's collection of toy theatres, many made by Benjamin Pollock himself, the leading Victorian manufacturer of the popular sets. Up another set of stairs and you see tin toys and weird-looking dolls in cotton nighties, and as you carry on the higgledy-piggledy trail of creaking stairs and floorboards, the dolls follow you with their glazed eyes. After you've climbed three flights of stairs, you'll descend four and, as if by magic, be led back to the shop.

THE SQUARES OF BLOOMSBURY

Map pp92-3

At the very heart of Bloomsbury is Russell Square. Originally laid out in 1800 by Humphrey Repton, it was dark and bushy until the striking face-lift that pruned the trees, tidied up the plants and gave it a 10m-tall fountain.

The centre of literary Bloomsbury was Gordon Square where, at various times, Bertrand Russell lived at No 57, Lytton Strachey at No 51 and Vanessa and Clive Bell, Maynard Keynes and the Woolf family at No 46. Strachey, Dora Carrington and Lydia Lopokova (the future wife of Maynard Keynes) all took

turns living at No 41. Not all the buildings, many of which now belong to the university, are marked with blue plaques.

Lovely Bedford Square, the only completely Georgian square still surviving in Bloomsbury, was home to many London publishing houses until the 1990s, when they were swallowed up by multinational conglomerates and relocated. They included Jonathan Cape, Chatto and the Bod-ley Head (set up by Woolf and her husband Leonard), and were largely responsible for perpetuating the legend of the Bloomsbury Group by churning out seemingly endless collections of associated letters, memoirs and biographies.

ST GEORGE'S BLOOMSBURY Map pp92-3

@ 7405 3044; Bloomsbury Way WC1; S 9.30am-5.30pm Mon-Fri, 10.30am-12.30pm Sun; -e Hol-born or Tottenham Court Rd

Superbly restored in 2005, this Nicholas Hawksmoor church (1731) is distinguished by its classical portico of Corinthian capitals and a steeple that was inspired by the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. It is topped with a statue of George I in Roman dress.

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