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Travelogue G22

January 22, 2016

I could not help but experience one Bloomsbury row, now standing in for all others in my mind, as rather oppressive. To either side marched a line of townhouses, of whitewashed base and brick heights, to the end of my line of sight. Several shallow steps ran between the front door and the pavement, and a black, wrought-iron railing set each and every one off from both street and its neighbors. Looking more closely at one such railing, I imagined for a moment that I could better understand the prospect of unending uniformity which had gripped one survivor of the Great War, as depicted by Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway, and the promise that such a railing had represented for the man. Thrown from a window high up, he met an end upon the points of a fence not unlike the one before me.

A short walk south brought me to Bloomsbury Square. Though now synonymous with London garden-squares, Bloomsbury would have been better known to a 17th century visitor under the name Southampton Square and as the forecourt of the Southampton manor adjoining. Only after changing hands, from Southamptons to Bedfords, for unexplained reasons, did the name Bloomsbury Square establish itself in the first half of the 18th century.

Transplanted to that time, I might never have left Russell to seek out Bloomsbury as, per contemporary illustrations, the garden consisted of little more than an even grass expanse broken up by cruciform and diagonal paths. Then again, I would likely never have found myself in Russell Square, which had earlier made up the rearcourt of the manor and was formally closed to non-residents. Therein lay the futility of such transposition exercises.

Only with the beginning of the 19th century did one Repton, a prominent landscape artist, propose new, more sumptuous layouts for Bloomsbury, as well as Russell. Yet the Bloomsbury design proved rather out of keeping with the more Romantic landscape gardens of the time and foresaw only the addition of shrubs to each side, oval flowerbeds to each corner and a linden tree circle at the square’s center, as well as a neoclassical statue of a contemporary statesman on the north side.

In other words, the new layout altered little of the existing frame; it merely overlay the old lawn and paths with more impressive vegetation. In Repton and his layout, I thought to see the last bastion of the a more restrained and less sentimental school. For this school, there could be no catastrophe of feeling, no unforeseen storm, so the moment had not yet arrived to break more decisively with the frame already provided them.

An iron railing came to enclose Bloomsbury Square, closed to non-residents like Russell, and would only leave with the Second World War. For, at that time, desperate for materials, an organization left unnamed by the information panel took the railing away to be melted down for munitions. Although I might have asked myself where and on whom the railings-become-munitions fell in the end, the question seemed a rather facile one. So, I preferred to leave it merely at whether the munitions, once fallen and exploded, scattered and again collected, had returned to railing. Perhaps that question was just as facile as the first.

With railing gone, in came residents from farther afield, and local authorities at last set down in law public access to the square. Faced with increasing urbanization, those same authorities had an underground car park built beneath the square in the 1970s. Whether from work top-side or from a simple desire to modernize, the decision was made as well to alter the 19th century layout of the park. The decision, as the text left me to understand, proved somewhat unpopular with residents or passersby, and so efforts began shortly thereafter to restore at least some of the original features while also adding more modern facilities for children and citydwellers.

My time to roam was near its end, so I entered the last stretch before my destination. Still intrigued by university memories, I worked my way around the square clockwise, as I had in Russell, with half a mind to find a plaque for Woolf like that which I had chanced upon for Eliot. No such luck came to me, and I resigned myself to finding her in another time, in another way.

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