Thursday, 2 June 2011

Hidden London: Craven Street, WC1

You're likely lost, or looking for the College of Optometrists, to stumble upon this unprepossessing street, hemmed in as it is by Charing Cross station, the Strand and Embankment. But a few plaques commemorate the literary minds that have passed through.

For nearly 20 years from 1757, Benjamin Franklin lived at No 36, during which time he wrote extensively (including starting his autobiography in 1771), attempted to mediate between Britain and America, was postmaster for the colonies, and pursued scientific and medical discoveries, including charting the Gulf Stream. Franklin returned to America in 1775 in time for revolution, and his Georgian home is now a museum (above). Bones found during the conservation and thought to belong to an anatomy school on the site are on show in the basement.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Herman Melville toured Europe to negotiate publishing contracts, when he stayed in a boarding house at No 25 (above). In spring 1827, 29-year-old German poet Heinrich Heine (his date of birth appears to be wrong on this plaque, below) stayed at another hostel at No 32 when he travelled to England to escape controversy following the publication of a second volume of his popular travel journals, Reisebilder. (The year had also seen the publication of his Buch der Lieder, one of the most successful poetry books ever published in Germany.)

Heine had a mixed experience of the capital, reflected by visitors to this day no doubt: 'It is snowing outside, and there is no fire in my chimney... I am very peevish and ill to boot,' he wrote to a friend. 'London has surpassed all my expectations as to its magnificence, but I have lost myself. Living is terribly dear, so far I have spent more than a guinea a day... It is so fearfully damp and uncomfortable here, and no one understands me, and no one understands German.'

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