The Time-Traveler’s Guide To London (and Oxford): Being a list of notable places mentioned in Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

The view from the dome of St. Paul's.

The view from the dome of St. Paul’s.

[update: I had a marvelous time, and now I’ve updated this post with pictures from my travels!]

Background: I’m going to London for the first time next month, and that seemed like as good a reason as any to reread Connie Willis’ marvelous time-traveling-historical-WWII-heroism-timey-wimey masterpiece duo, Blackout and All Clear.
And not just reread, but reread for the 5th time in three years. Because guys, I love these books so much. If you like London, or time-travel, or Shakespeare, or boys who will go to the ends of the earth to rescue the girl they love, you should probably read these books.

And along the way, I thought it would be pretty great to try to go to as many significant spots mentioned in the books as possible. (Wearing my green coat, of course.) So I started making a list.
This is in no way an exhaustive list, and I suspect I’ll be adding to it with subsequent re-readings of Blackout/All Clear – and visits to England!

Due to the complexities of the text, I’ve used the name the character was using in the place/time referenced, rather than sticking with their “real” name. And needless to say, HEREIN BE SPOILERS.

If you spot things I’ve gotten wrong (I’m sure there are many), or find something that should be added, comment and I’ll update this list.
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Oxford
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Behind the Bodlien.

“You’re in Oxford, she told herself … suddenly jubilant. You’re in Oxford. There’s no blackout, no rationing, no Lady Caroline, no Hodbins…” (Eileen)

In 2060, the lab and other essential sites are located in Oxford.
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Doorway at the Bodlien.

Historians do research at the Bodlien library; Polly spends time studying there.

Transport is located at Oriel.

Dunworthy’s rooms and office are in Balliol.
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Catte Street.

Early in Blackout, Polly walks “out Balloil’s gate, up the broad, and down Catte St.”

Eileen and Polly walk along High St. to King Edward St. while talking about their assignments.
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A lane near Christchurch in Oxford.

Dover (area)

Mike arrives on the beach near Saltram-on-Sea (fictional town, “30 miles from Dover”)

Dunkirk

In 1940, Mike assists in the rescue of men from Dunkirk.
Dulwich, Surrey 
Mary is stationed at an ambulance post here in 1944.

Orpington

In 1940 Mike is taken to the War Emergency Hospital for injuries sustained while at Dunkirk.

Croydon

Mary (stationed at the ambulance post in Dulwich) and Fairchild respond to a V1 incident at a newspaper office in 1944.

Kent

Ernest’s work in 1944 spreading misinformation to the Germans is based in Kent, where he writes fake newspaper articles and personal ads, inflates rubber tanks, and confuses German prisoners.

Manchester

Mike visits Daphne and her husband in Manchester to try to track down what he thinks is the retrieval team.

London:

Sir Godfrey chooses the Phoenix Theatre for the troupe’s pantomime; it is here that he is injured and Polly saves his life.

The Phoenix is near the Alahambra (“off Shaftsbury Ave”), where Polly is in ENSA as Air-Raid Adelaide. Unfortunately, the internet tells me that the Alahambra was demolished in 1936, so unless there was another theatre bearing that name in the 1940s, this must just be an error or fictional stretching of the truth.

After the Phoenix is destroyed, the pantomime is moved to the Regent Theatre (I can’t find info on whether this was a real theater or not – anyone know?)

Holborn Tube Station – Polly spends one of her first nights here observing contemps; receives an Agatha Christie novel from the lending library.

Notting Hill Gate station: Polly hears her name being called, thinks it’s the retrieval team – but it’s Lila and Viv. This is the station the troupe & historians shelter in most regularly.

Embankment: Eileen stayed with Alf & Binnie here to keep them from going to Bank, which was going to be hit that night.

Whitechaple: district where Alf & Binnie live (on the fictious Gargery Lane.)

Stepney: district where Theodore lives.
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Spire of St. Martin-in-the-Field.

St. Martin in the Fields: Polly stares at the spire and thinks “… You’re wrong about my getting through this, unless my retrieval team pulls me out before my deadline. An historian can’t be in the same temporal location twice. And they should have been here yesterday. Yesterday. This is time travel.” 

14 Cardle St – Mrs. Rickett’s Boarding house; fictional, but near Notting Hill Gate tube station (“just three streets over”). There’s a Callcott street in about the right spot – could it have just been given a fictional name?

Polly’s drop is on Lampden Road, which also seems to be fictional – but there’s a Campden Road in about the right spot.
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Nelson statue at Trafalgar Square.

Her first day in 1940 London, Polly takes the Bakerloo to Piccadilly Circus, then a bus to St. Paul’s via Trafalgar Sq.  “Five years from now it would be crammed to bursting with cheering crowds celebrating the end of the war, but today even the pigeons had abandoned it.” 

Oxford Street:  John Lewis (gutted when she sees it first), Townsend Brothers, Peter Robinson – Polly walks by all of these department stores. She gets a job at Townsend Brothers.
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National Gallery steps.

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The lion didn’t have a broken nose, but I had my green coat!

Trafalgar Square: Polly (standing on the National Gallery steps) sees Merope in a green coat by the lion ‘with part of his nose missing’, standing with Binnie and Alf. (1945) Alf throws a firecracker that almost hits Colin, who is looking for Polly.
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The Albert Memorial.

Kensington Gardens – Polly goes to wait for the retrieval team, meets up with Mike and Eileen. She waits near the Peter Pan statue, sitting in a bench across from it. After Mike joins the girls, they walk past the Albert Memorial. Mike’s comment is, “Jesus, what IS this thing?” Polly answers, “The Albert Memorial. Possibly the ugliest monument in all of England.” They sit on the steps of the memorial and discuss Polly’s deadline.

Kensington Palace: Mike delivers someone to a state dinner here and worries about running into Polly and Eileen, since it’s in their neighborhood.

St. Bart’s hospital: Mike is taken here after a wall falls on him, Eileen, Alf and Binnie make ambulance runs to here, they meet Agatha Christie.

After Mrs. Rickett’s blows up, they move to a house on Millwright Lane in Bloomsbury, near Russell Square.

Modern day London:

Imperial War Museum – Colin meets Binnie in 1995.

British Library – Colin meets Ann Perry in 1976 while researching.

  St. Paul’s:

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My first glimpse of St. Paul’s. I cried.

“Polly stepped out into the nave. And gasped. Mr Dunworthy had said St. Paul’s was unique, and she’d seen vids and photographs, but they hadn’t begun to convey how beautiful it was. Or how vast.”

“…the audible hush St. Paul’s always had. The sound of space and time” 

Mentioned often in the books: Light of the World painting, Nelson’s tomb, the Firewatch Stone.

“The floor where we are standing – ” 
Is where the Fire Watch stone will be,” Polly thought.

Geometrical Staircase – boarded up when Polly first sees it.

In winter 1941, they hold Mike’s “funeral” here: the vicar, troupe, Alf & Binnie, Miss Snelgrove, firemen, and others. “Coo, this church is fancy!” Alf said. The memorial service is held in the Chapel of the Order or St. Michael and St. George off the south aisle.

Dunworthy gets lost in the “rabbit warren of confusing lanes and maze-like passages.” He also serves as a Fire Watch volunteer in the church.
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The view down from the dome down onto the church roofs.

Great West Door: Polly slips through here while Mike and Eileen distract the ARP man

Wellington’s Tomb – A chorister minding the shelter leads Polly past this to the shelter in the west end of the church’s basement/crypt. “He led her into a sandbagged arch at the end of the church…” 
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Just a personal note on St. Paul’s: my sacred architectural first love is always various forms of gothic, and I expected to fall in love with Westminster Abbey and just appreciate St. Paul’s, built in English Baroque style, for it’s role in Blackout/All Clear.

I was wrong.

I landed at Heathrow early in the morning and spent a few hours killing time at the British Library waiting for my rented flat to be ready to occupy. When it was, I dropped my stuff off, bought a few groceries, and then hopped on the Tube and went straight to the St. Paul’s stop. When I emerged on the surface, I spun around, disoriented, trying to find my bearings … and saw the dome of St. Paul’s, white and gleaming, peaking out from among the modern buildings surrounding it.

Reader, I cried.

It’s just the Blackout feels, I thought. Inside won’t be that impressive.

I was wrong again.

When I walked through the doors into that vast, light-filled space, when I was hit by that “audible hush” – my knees went weak.

I cried again during pretty much every service, when that huge space (so tall as to be almost incomprehensible, not the least when you think about when and how it was built, and by whom, and when) filled with ringing voices lifted in worship. I defy anyone, no matter their religious bent – or lack thereof – to remain unmoved.

I ended up going back to St. Paul’s every day, sometimes two or three times. I went for morning services, for evening services. I had breakfast on the steps in the rain. I took the official tour. I climbed to the very top of the dome and looked down from a dizzying height – thinking about Mike, caught in the fires on Fleet Street, thinking about Mr. Dunworthy and all the real life Firewatchers – old men and young boys, those who couldn’t be soldiers – who didn’t stay hidden in the relative safety of the shelters during those long nights of bombings, but rushed around on the roofs, putting out fires, ultimately saving St. Paul’s from destruction. Thinking, too, about Christopher Wren and his impossible building, and about how St. Paul’s rose from the ruins of the Great Fire to become one of London’s most iconic buildings.

Westminster is older, has been arguably more notable historically, has more royal connections. But St. Paul’s will be my first and last stop any time I’m in London.

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The view from St. Paul’s down Fleet Street.

Books for August

What I read this month:

1. Voyager, Diana Gabaldon

This was the book I think I remembered least, so it was especially fun to rediscover it. It’s lovely (and a little heartbreaking) to see Clare and Jamie rediscover each other as middle-aged people, brings back a character long-thought dead, and and includes some exotic people and places. Honestly, I’m a little sad to see them head off to America in the next book.

2. Wool, Hugh Howey

An underground silo that contains an entire world of people: people who have lived in this contained space so long that they’ve forgotten what the larger world outside was ever like. Their silo is their entire world.

Usually when library patrons recommend a book, I’m vague in my promises to seek it out. I have way too much on my own to-read list to start adding the favorites of other people! But there are a handful of folks whose recommendations I trust implicitly, and this came from one such person.

I like sci-fi in theory, but I don’t actually read much of it. Most modern sci-fi leaves me cold and I find it difficult to connect with emotionally. Wool is not the best-written stuff you’ll ever find, and I was initially really put off by the jumping from character to character, but it sure packs an emotional punch. I did really wish for more details about certain things: how many people live in the silo? How big is each floor (all we know there are hundreds of floors and it takes days to take the stairs from top to bottom). Speaking of stairs, how did they lose the technology for things like, yanno, elevators?

3. Running Blind, Lee Child

I don’t particularly like murder mysteries/thrillers that seem to try to include the most grisly/horrific/unusual manners of death possible (I remember one – a Kellerman book, maybe? – that I flipped open randomly only to find a description of a death by means of super gluing the person’s eyes, mouth, and nose shut. Srsly??) This book veered just a little too close to that line for me to be totally comfortable with it, and I also had some serious questions as far as believability, but both the cause of death and the killer managed to catch me totally off guard, so.

4. The Winter Prince, Elizabeth Wein

I just wanted to sob over this book – I ended up reading this series completely backwards, which was possibly a mistake, but oh, what a beautiful and tragic figure Medraut makes. I really appreciate Wein’s reshaping of the Arthurian landscape – this is probably the most sensitive and well-rounded treatment of these characters that I’ve come across.

5. Suite Scarlett, Maureen Johnson
6. Scarlett Fever, Maureen Johnson

New York City, old hotel, crazy family, crazier neighbors, even crazier hotel guests. I loved that the love interest isn’t neatly wrapped up in either book and isn’t the whole focus,  Also, bonus points for not making the “kid who beat cancer” into a perfect child. I appreciate some of Mrs Amberson’s wit but good grief am I the only person that sees what a rude and demanding person she is?! I feel like we’re all supposed to love her, and instead I was always ticked off her lack of respect for other human being’s schedules and lives and wishes.

Incidentally, I really identified with Lola – although obviously I neither have a rich boyfriend named Chip nor a perfect makeup routine.

And I’m pretty sure I liked these better than the Shades of London books.

7. Give It Up!, Mary Carlomagno

So basically, the author is an immature New Yorker who can’t figure out how to socialize with her friends without drinking, has never used the subway because it’s “confusing” and has basically lived such a privileged that life that she doesn’t even realize how privileged she is.

She gave up one thing a month for a year – coffee, chocolate, elevators, taxis (which meant – gasp – walking and using the subway) – and wrote a book about it, as one does. I’ve enjoyed many other such books, but this one was remarkably shallow and uninspiring.

8. Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff

Modern technology is ruining everything … sort of.

I’m not nearly so pessimistic, but he has some good points, and it’s certainly interesting reading.

A particularly important reminder that things are probably not nearly as bad as they seem on the news:  “information overload might not have increased the rate at which disasters occur, but it has exponentially increased the rate at which they’re witnessed.”

And then there’s this food for thought: “…the more forcefully we attempt to stop the passage of time, the less available we are to the very moment we seek to preserve.” I struggle with this, especially when traveling: how much do I record/write about/photograph the moments, and when do I sit back and just enjoy them? I forget the details so very quickly if I don’t preserve them, and yet by the act of preserving, I take myself out of the moment and may never fully get to live them.

(hint: I lean towards the preserving end. I can’t help it. DOCUMENT ALL THE THINGS.)

And I loved this idea that mental stress is the result of unresolved loops – “every individual thing we haven’t figured out sits on our awareness like a live, ticking clock. Every unanswered question and every task we haven’t yet scheduled stays in the most active part of our brain, waiting for an answer.”
So the trick to reducing stress is to close as many of these loops as possible – not necessarily do them all, but make a plan for getting them done. His example was that if you know you need to go buy milk, but do nothing further about it, that’s an open loop. But by deciding when you will go to the store, and which store you will go to, you are closing the loop. You now have a plan, and not just an open-ended “I need to buy milk.”

9. Echo Burning, Lee Child

Another great book (and the writing just keeps getting better, which is good, although there are still too many sentence fragments), but it rang just a bit false to me – possibly because Child is an Englishman, and this book is set in Texas. Some small details are spot-on in a way I wouldn’t expect someone who hasn’t live there to get, but others seem a little … stereotyped?

10. Sorcery & Cecelia: or, the enchanted chocolate pot, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

I know a lot of you really really love this book, so let me preface this by saying: I think if I had discovered it at a different time (younger, perhaps, or during a regency kick) I would have liked it a lot better. I found nothing wrong with it, I just didn’t love it the way that you did. It’s me, not the book.

May I say though, how absolutely delighted I was to discover after the fact that the authors actually wrote it in letters, without knowing ahead of time what the other would write? So clever!