No matter their budget, health, age or location, book nerds like myself are always travelling the world without actually getting out of bed. So how about adding a literary staycation UK to your travel bucket list? With the right author and book, you can go wherever you like, from gilded castles to golden beaches, deserted islands to capital cities. There is so much to do and see in the UK, meandering your way from Scotland all the way down to Cornwall and across to Northern Ireland, and here are the best books to use as a map on your imaginary adventures.
Want to find these books at your local bookstore, rather than online? Check out uk.bookshop.org.
London: From Soho to East London and the characters within
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a guide to the historical places to visit in England must include a trip to London. (I got that quote right, right?) Within that history is its literary history, and London is easily a literary capital of the world. There’s certainly no shortage of things to do in London for book lovers, from visiting Virginia Woolf’s bust in Tavistock Square to the charming and flower-adorned restaurant Dalloway Terracein Bloomsbury, dedicated to the namesake of Woolf’s literary powerhouse Mrs Clarissa Dalloway.
This universal truth extends further in that any reasonable tour of London must include a tour of the district of Soho, a hub for culture, shopping and dining as well as the historical heart of bohemian and creative London. The best tours, however, are never the ones that simply distinguish the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue from the flagship shops on Oxford Street, but rather those that really get under the skin of it.
London-born Richard Scott’s poetry anthology, Soho, does this by using this area as a lens through which he grapples with both love and his experience of gay shame. After a lifetime having shame forced on him, Scott writes passionately and unashamedly about Soho’s presence in the history of the LGBTQ+ community in central London and the home Soho became in the absence of an accepting one. This is never so powerful as in his triumphant final poem, Oh My Soho!
The Perseveranceby Raymond Antrobus is another poetry anthology. It tells his story about growing up deaf, and so often misunderstood or ignored, and also of growing up British-Jamaican, and the ways in which these elements forged his identity growing up in East London.
I like the symbolism that can be drawn from the fact that my first two key recommendations of literature that transport you to London are poems. It speaks to the nature of London – the scope, the always-moving but controlled chaos, the energy, the life that comes from its inhabitants, and how the many often juxtapositioned thoughts or places come together, be it in an anthology or the city.
If you’re looking to furrow further into London life, Live A Littleby Howard Jacobson also ought to do the trick. It’s a love story about two people in their 90s, Beryl Dusinberry and Shimi Carmelli, which is the kind of love story we’re seldom told. They live in North London on Finsbury Road, and Jacobson acts as a cartographer in his literary world. A sense of place is important, you see because Shimi has had to map out his daily walks to match his inconvenient bathroom schedule…
Scotland: Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Ruth Jones’ Never Greener
Next, we journey up north until we reach Glasgow. Though Edinburgh is considered to be one of the UK’s most literary cities, and certainly the most literary city in Scotland, Glasgow definitely can’t be ruled out.
In fact, the way Glasgow is overlooked in this regard makes the setting for Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fineeven more meaningful as it’s emblematic of Eleanor’s experience. The story is about Eleanor Oliphant: a young woman working a regular 9-5 office job in Glasgow who, in her mind, is doing just fine. Of course, she’s not.
At its core, Eleanor Oliphant is a story of loneliness and its manifestations, of repression, depression and most importantly (especially during this pandemic), of the value of kindness. While books such as Soho can necessarily show us the underbelly of a place, those like Eleanor Oliphant instead give a picture of the everyday, like corporate monotony, bikini waxes, a trip to the big Tesco, a Magners at the pub, and which bus is needed to get to them all.
While giving Glasgow some airtime is important, one can hardly overlook the Scottish capital. Edinburgh is home to Sir Walter Scott, Edinburgh’s radical bookshop Lighthouse Books, The Writers’ Museum and many more literary landmarks.
It is also the setting that Welsh writer and actress Ruth Jones chose for her debut novel, Never Greener. The story is about an affair, a broken but still loving marriage, and the nuances of love (as well as perhaps a commentary on our ability to love more than one person and for that to be a perfectly normal thing). It also shows Ruth Jones’ ability, as was made evident in her writing and acting in Gavin & Stacey, to bring out the character of a place as well as a person with ever-present humour and sensitivity.
From Cornwall to the Scottish Borders: Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other
I won’t get too deep in a diatribe about how Girl, Woman, Other should have been the sole winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, I reserve that for one glass of wine into any literary discussion. However, I will say that I think she was robbed of the prize and should not have shared it with Margaret Atwood.
Girl, Woman, Other is a brilliant book, which showcases modern Britain in a meaningful and thoroughly entertaining way. The story follows twelve women whose complex histories and origins, from Guyana to Malawi, seem overshadowed by the one word that is used as a catch-all to describe their existence in Britain: ‘black’. This book shows us the UK through a much-needed POC perspective, as well as that of the LGBTQ+ community.
In London, we visit the National Theatre, we explore the history of prostitution in King’s Cross and the gentrification of areas all over the city, specifically Peckham and Brixton. But our characters also take us on a full literary tour of the North: Hebden Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed, the Yorkshire Dales.
We meet the characters one by one, and slowly their lives and relationships to one another are revealed. Each character has a complex history, and Evaristo has infused each of these characters with a kind of fiery magic that envelopes you. We don’t just learn about a character or the place in Britain in which they reside, but are rather shown how character and place are intertwined, of how a sense of place and belonging can impact a sense of self.
West Yorkshire: The Brontë Sisters
Other than the pull of Stratford Upon Avon in the West Midlands to visit the birthplace of none other than William Shakespeare, West Yorkshire is often the first port of call for a literary holiday, given that Haworth is also known as ‘The Brontë’s moors’ or ‘Brontë country’.
Haworth is the village where Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë lived and wrote their novels (although at the time, they wrote as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell because, well, patriarchy). Their home from 1820 to 1861, Haworth Parsonage, is now one of the UK’s best literary hotspots, the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where their lives are unpacked and their work contextualised.
All Brontë books give an incredibly vivid depiction of the moors and reading them instantly transports you there. Be it through the misty moors where Cathy haunts Heathcliff in Emily’s Wuthering Heights (… sing it with me now…), the way in which the natural elements mirror the dangers Jane is blind to in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, or the direct relationship between Helen and the landscapes she paints in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
This is just to name one example of each, but diving headfirst into a Brontë novel makes you instantly aware of how influenced they were by ‘their’ moors. It also gets you in the spirit for a real visit on top of the literary staycation UK you’re enjoying from home. It’s a win-win because once you arrive you’ll feel as if you already know it.
The Black Mountains: Richard Gwyn’s The Blue Tent and Chris Kinsey’s A Dish Best Served Cold?
Of course, there’s no denying the evocative, transportational abilities of poets such as Dylan Thomas when it comes to great Welsh authors. However, Thomas specifically arguably speaks to the universal human existence more than offering a sense of place in Wales.
The Blue Tent, on the other hand, set in The Black Mountains (or Mynydd Du in Welsh) is a novel of magical realism that brings to life the luscious hills across parts of Powys and Monmouthshire in southeast Wales. In fact, this book is absolutely perfect for the approach I’m taking to this literary tour because the storyline is about a magic blue tent that has the power to move its inhabitants from place to place. Forgive me the cliché, The Blue Tent is the blue tent for a reader’s visit to Wales.
If there’s somewhere you want your literature to transport you to for natural beauty and scenery, then you won’t be disappointed by anything set in The Black Mountains. A Dish Best Served Cold?is another prime example of this, and basically the story of the Welsh mafia. If you like fast-paced crime-thrillers set between the rolling hills of South Wales and the bustling Welsh capital of Cardiff, then I think I just found your new favourite book. Remarkably, the story is based in part on the author’s life, which, when you read the traumatic experience of the death of his mother and his experience in the care system, is quite something.
Northern Ireland: it’s me that needs the recommendations!
I must admit that until writing this, I’d have said with absolute certainty that I’ve read a few books set in Northern Ireland, but the truth is it’s just the one: Milkman by Anna Burns. It is harrowing and breathtaking in equal measures and taught me so much about the Troubles in Northern Ireland while also highlighting just how little I knew about this historical period in UK history.
Ironically, there are neither character names nor place names in Milkman, so its ability to give such a clear sense of place is testimony to Burns’ writing prowess. We are not just transported to Northern Ireland, but rather into the head of the character whose narrative we follow, meaning we are everywhere she is, we have become a part of the scenery through bookends.
But one is simply not enough, so I leave this one up to you, dear reader. What’s the best book you’ve read based in Northern Ireland, so that I can travel there from the comfort of my book nook? Comment below and let me know.
Megan Thomas is a writer, reader, and lover of all-things-literary. She reviews books on her blog Have You Read This (also on Instagram) and is an interviewer on her co-founded arts and literature podcast and video show, Babble (on Twitter and Instagram).