My favourite places to write in London

The days are gloriously long again, and invites to this and that are starting to appear. This means, money and weather permitting, I can start writing in London again. I’m aiming to go in once a week in July and August ideally. At the moment I’m annoyingly restricted to places with plugs, because my laptop has just been diagnosed with a hardware fault which means it runs impossibly slowly when on battery power (more than likely related to me spilling coffee on it a couple of months back – I’m waiting to hear if accidental damage insurance will cover it on top of the repair they’ve already paid out for. Riveting I know…)

Anyhow, plug issues aside, these are some of my favourite London writing spots, and spots I like in general where I’ve never attempted to actually write but would like to. Many of them are initially sentimental to me because of associations with certain people/conversations, but have taken on a life of their own. Do feel free to share, and tell me yours.

All photos are my own. Snaffle them if you like, but credit would be appreciated.

View from the South Bank, c.2005
View from the South Bank, c.2005
People cooling off near the South Bank Centre, last year
People cooling off near the South Bank Centre, last year
  • The South Bank

Fairly obvious; pretty much where everything big and creative goes on in London. The more times you walk over Hungerford Bridge towards the Royal Festival Hall and the South Bank Centre, the more charming and less like an aircraft hanger it looks (You think the South Bank’s ugly? I raise you Dunelm House…).

Pros: The South Bank Centre has free wi-fi. There’s lots of space if you don’t mind crowds (if the South Bank Centre is busy, try the bars and cafes at the National Theatre). The summer views across the river are beautiful, and there’s a good mix of indoor vs outdoor space, and plenty of street food (the National Theatre sells pizza from a 1950s Citroen van).

Cons: It’s usually heaving, with every type of clientele from tourists to student hipsters to precariously-employed freelancers (ahem).

  • The Guildhall Library, St Pauls

    Original Police phone box near the Guildhall Library
    Original Police phone box near the Guildhall Library. Wonky, sorry…

My favourite public library in London, a short stroll from St Pauls Cathedral and the Bank of England. Situated in a square and close to offices with attractive gardens. The staff are helpful but not intrusive, and I’ve never yet been sex-pestered or had offers of religious salvation, which is always a perk in a library.

Pros: Free wi-fi, quiet, not too crowded, no weirdos.

Cons: Quite stuffy when it’s warm; no outdoor seating and it closes at 5 on the dot (but there are cafes nearby you can write in until about 6, including one whose name escapes me that I’ll add here if I remember).

I can count the number of times I’ve bought breakfast in London on one hand, and they’re probably best saved for the memoirs. But the one time I had a proper, planned, civilised, not-tired, not-hungover breakfast was at J&A’s. It’s a lovely little place, tucked in a rabbit warren near Great Sutton Street in Clerkenwell (full of warehouses, art galleries and such).

Pros: Does great, cheap breakfasts, indoor and outdoor seating.

Cons: Relatively small – get there early. It’s Clerkenwell – hipsters ahoy.

  • Embankment Gardens
    Embankment Gardens

    Embankment Gardens

Just beyond Charing Cross and next to Embankment Tube are Embankment Gardens. They’re one of my favourite spots to ponder, relax and gather ideas in the sun. If you like the ambience of Hyde Park without getting lost or having to pay five quid to sit down, you’ll love Embankment.

Pros: Spacious but not too big, green, near the River, near Tubes, not too hipstery or touristy, and nice ice cream/pancake stalls. If you have a writing partner who’s so inclined, there’s a ping-pong table. It’s also close to Gordon’s, London’s oldest wine bar. Tip: Avoid the worst of the crowds from Embankment Tube by cutting through the side streets to get back up to the Strand.

Cons: For stretching-out-on-grass days only, as there’s limited seating, unless you don’t mind perching on a bench. No plugs or wi-fi. For savoury lunch options, head to Villiers Street/John Adam Street/The Strand and avoid the cafe, unless greasy-spoon food at gastropub prices is your thing…

  • Starbucks on Conduit Street, Mayfair 

A very recent discovery, and God knows what took me so long. One of the first ever Starbucks to open in the UK (apart from the one on the King’s Road, and, really, unless you’re married to Vladimir Putin’s less-nice cousin, who in their right mind wants to go down there?), this place is probably the most built for writers a coffee shop could ever be. Its flagship status is pretty obvious. It’s spacious and welcoming. Best of all, the basement has several huge tables and comfy seats with nearby plugs.

Pros: Atmosphere. They play music but it was pretty decent music when I was there (a mix of Motown and Britpop). If like me you find writing to music very difficult, noise-cancelling headphones can help (Fact fans: Any employer of mine is legally obligated to let me wear them in an office because I’m dyspraxic…). Food is reasonably-priced, and the writing areas in the basement are right opposite the loos.

Cons: You can’t sit outside and most of the big tables and plugs are in the basement – annoying if it’s a nice day. Still, it’s a short hop from St James’s Square if you want some fresh air before or after work.

  • Cafe Nero on Long Acre, Covent Garden

Covent Garden is the area of London I first got to know on my own, and where I did my first teenage bits of journalism. I don’t go there as much as I used to, but now and then I like to stick my head around, in a “Screw you, sixth-form self, I’m a proper grown-up now!” kind of way. This branch of Cafe Nero is the scene of an Awkward Meeting during The Gap Year Of Doom. I still sometimes feel a tiny hit of the butterflies when I walk in but nowt I can’t handle.

Pros: Nero’s is probably the best coffee with the best ambience of all the chains. Comfy seats if you can nab them.

Cons: Can be quite claustrophobic at peak times, no outdoor seating, queues at the till can get very long, limited choice of snacks.

  • Canary Wharf
    Canary Wharf

    Canary Wharf

    Canary Wharf
    Canary Wharf

London’s financial district. If Mayfair is like being in a cartoon of England, Canary Wharf is like being inside a dystopian novel. It’s a town within a city; many of the banks, and the mall, are basically designed so that the workers never have to leave, with restaurants, salons, health centres and shops of every imaginable kind. It’s also one of the few modern spaces that still has analogue clocks (this PR firm’s website has a photo).

Pros: Spacious, far more greenery than you probably think, lots of photo opportunities if you like tall buildings, lots of places to eat, and lots of people-watching and overhearing potential. If you can bear sticking around, it looks amazing at night. (as you can probably tell, that shot was taken with an iPhone; one day I’ll go back with a proper camera…).

Cons: As with all outdoor areas, wi-fi is patchy (you might expect it to be less the case in such a major financial centre – not so). The place utterly reeks of money, in a very sterile way. Unlike, say, Mayfair or Kensington, which are wealthy but historic and characterful, the Wharf is just a phenomenally – almost literally – depressing place to be if you’re skint. To their credit, the banks based there take the issues around hidden disability quite seriously and I can be asked there to do talks and deliver training events with my diversity hat on…

St James's Square Gardens
St James’s Square Gardens
  •  St James’s Square 

Not to be confused with St James’s Park, which is a 15-minute walk away, St James’s Square is near Mayfair and Piccadilly, just down from Haymarket. Landmarks of the Square are the London Library (see below) and Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and the origin of the Chatham House Rule). If you just want to write a novel or something creative, as opposed to anything which needs wi-fi (or blitz an article after you’ve done all the research) this really is the place to come.

Pros: Secluded, quiet and very fine-looking. Lots of sun and shade in equal measure on summer days.

Cons: No plugs or wi-fi. It’s close to the headquarters of a lot of businesses you probably wouldn’t want to send a Christmas card to, and a Gentlemen’s Club (to be fair, I’ve never seen any gentlemen anywhere near it, and the only display of wealth I’ve ever noticed around the place was a Porsche with a bankruptcy notice attached…).

 

Browns Hotel Mayfair
Browns Hotel Mayfair

PLACES I LIKE BUT HAVE NEVER WRITTEN IN, AND FANCY TRYING IT ONE DAY

  • The London Library, in St James’s Square (see above). I came here on a whim last summer hoping for a day pass and discovered a) It doesn’t do them and b) A subscription costs half a mortgage. In a parallel universe where I had more money than I knew what to do with, I’d get one and see if it was worth it. I’m not sure what the perks are besides unlimited work space: I’d imagine some special events are thrown in too.
    • The Donovan Bar at Browns Hotel, Mayfair The first time I walked into this place, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, I felt like I was in a Bond film. And that was before I started drinking…. Six weeks later, life went from resembling a blockbuster to resembling a Mike Leigh box set, but there we are. Browns Hotel is famously where Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, made the first call from, and many famouses from Winston Churchill to Agatha Christie have stayed there. The Donovan Bar is named after the photographer Terence Donovan, photos of whose adorn the walls, and famous for its cocktails and jazz. It’s dark and windowless, in a way which brings to mind that anything which happens here must be dead-serious, dead-sexy or both (some of Donovan’s ruder photos are on display in a corner, aptly called “the naughty corner”…). I went back recently, on another weekday afternoon, and drank a Donovan Martini alone (reasons, innit). The staff were a little over-attentive for my comfort, and I fear it may be too dark to write comfortably in, but I could have fun trying. There are some more exterior pics of Browns at my Instagram page.

      Donovan Martini
      Donovan Martini
  • The Connaught (Mayfair), The Goring (Victoria) and the Landmark (Marylebone) Similarly grand hotels in the centre of town. I had the most awkward afternoon tea of my life in the Landmark, age 19, a few days before leaving for university. That hasn’t stopped me fantasising about emptying my bank account and booking a room whilst waiting for the train at Marylebone station. As I last sat in the tearoom in 2003, I don’t know how well they take to laptops.
  • Kenwood House
    Kenwood House

    Hampstead Heath and Kenwood House I spent Millennium Eve on the Heath and am hopefully going there for a picnic lunch on my 30th birthday. In short, I love it. Kenwood House is the stately home on the Heath featured at the end of Notting Hill, during the scene where Julia Roberts’s character films a Henry James adaptation. The first person I interviewed for a piece of journalism had her wedding reception there (not, as I’d assumed, in the house itself, but in the old kitchen in the servant’s quarters…slightly less grand than I had in my mind…). I went to Kenwood last November when it reopened after refurb and felt a bit awkward. They thought I was press, ticked me off for taking too many photos when I said I wasn’t, then when I tried to write in the house I was told I wasn’t allowed to sit there and that the best writing spot was in the cafe. The cafe is indeed very nice but quite small, very expensive (the house is free) and with very few if any plugs. Probably somewhere to stop by for a quick creative burst rather than make a day of. Some of the photos I took in November are on my Instagram page

  • Primrose Hill Another popular film location, famous for its wonderful views of the London skyline. I started coming for walks here with friends when I grew out of Camden Market. It’s the last place I saw my friend alive on the implausibly hot Easter Saturday of 2011. When I feel in a sufficiently fit state to do anything work-related there, I will…
  • The Wellcome Collection, Euston There’s a lovely cafe and giftshop attached to the museum. It seemed a bit crowded for writing the last time I was there but I loved the rest of the place so much I’m open to giving it a go.
  • The British Library You have to be a member to access most of its resources, but the seating areas are free and it’s a beautiful setting.
  • Anywhere in West London I was born in North Ken. Despite remembering sod-all about it from the time (my parents moved out of London when I was three) it has a strange sentimental pull. Any recommendations greatly appreciated.
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