Travel Guide to Southwark

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Southwark's Literary Heritage
Southwark has a fine literary heritage with many important writers having lived in the Borough at varying times. The two best known are Shakespeare and Dickens however they are far from being the only literary links that Southwark enjoys.

Another great name associated with the area is that of Geoffrey Chaucer (?1340-1400). Chaucer travelled through Southwark many times, destined for Europe, during his career serving the crown. Chaucer, now regarded as the father of English poetry, also writes about Southwark in his most famous work, 'The Canterbury Tales'. Southwark was then an important starting point for pilgrims wishing to visit the tomb of St Thomas A Becket at Canterbury.

"Byfel that, in that sesoun on a day
In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wender on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage"
Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer describes how the pilgrims met at The Tabard Inn on Borough High Street. The landlord is responsible for the suggestion that the pilgrims, ranging from a knight to a ploughman, tell tales during the journey. Chaucer also tells us of their first stop, at St Thomas A Watering, a site now occupied by the Thomas A Becket pub on the Old Kent Road. On the return journey the pilgrims would have passed what is now Southwark Cathedral. It was here Chaucer's friend, and the next most outstanding poet of his generation, John Gower (?1350-1408) lived in his latter years. His tomb can still be seen in the Cathedral to this day.

Two of the other outstanding poets and authors to have lived in the area have medical connections. Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) was a physician at Bankside before his fame as a poet and author grew through works such as 'She Stoops To Conquer' and 'The Vicar Of Wakefield'. John Keats (1795-1821) entered Guy's Medical School as a student in 1815 and gained his practical medicine certificate the following year. That same year he gave up medicine and is now accepted as one of the great English poets. Keats wrote several poems whilst at Guys.

Other poets with connections to the area are Robert Browning (1812-1889) and Lord Byron (1788-1824). Browning was born in Camberwell and educated in Peckham and wrote his earliest poems in the area before leaving England. His works have had a great influence on Twentieth Century Poetry. Byron spent two years as a troublesome pupil at Dr Glennie's Acadamy at Dulwich. It was there that he began to read many of the classics which so influenced him. Byron is recognised as one of the great English romantic poets.

John Ruskin (1819 - 1900) spent nearly all his life in Southwark. He acquired fame as an artist, writer and social philosopher. He began his artistic career by copying the pictures at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Many of the social reforms he suggested, such as pensions and the nationalisation of education, have now been implemented. Dulwich College also has a couple of distinguished old boys who went onto great literary feats, CS Forester and PG Wodehouse.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1754 - 1797), the pioneer of women's rights, spent much of her life in the area. She was living here at the time she wrote some of her greatest works. Her greatest, 'Vindication of the Rights of Woman', was published shortly after she moved from Southwark. Her daughter Mary, (1797 - 1851) married the poet Percy Shelley (1792 - 1822) and attained fame in her own right by writing 'Frankenstein'. The Shelleys lived together at Blackfriars for a while.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784) has links with the area through his friendship with the Thrale family. They were involved in brewing and were owners of The Anchor at Bankside, which remains a popular pub to this day. Johnson himself is known to have frequented the pub. He was the leading literary scholar and critic of his generation but is best remembered for his 'Dictionary of the English Language', the first English dictionary. It seems somehow fitting that the creator of the English dictionary should have links with the area as it was Chaucer who popularised the use of English in literature whilst Southwark was also the home of the first bible printed in English. This was printed in 1537 at a 16A Borough High Street.
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