Friday, May 8, 2009

Russell Square - London

In the late 17th century the Russell family, who were Earls and later Dukes of Bedford, acquired most of the present Bloomsbury area and established many formal squares. Completed in 1806, Russell Square became the most distinguished and largest of the group. Besides some uninspired alterations in the 1960s, it had never seen changes to its design. However, it also wasn't receiving adequate care. While the trees had time to reach their maturity, the rest of the place fell into benign neglect.

In February of 2001, Camden Council undertook the full restoration of the square and refurbishment of the gardens. There is now a fine café just opposite the grand Victorian-era Hotel Russell, and a modern fountain operates at the very center. All four corner entrance gates have paths that lead to the central fountain. Today Russell Square (just north of the British Museum) is once again a handsome, beautiful urban oasis, and now has a permanent gardener.

Russell Square also has one of London's few remaining Cabman's Shelters. These were built in the 19th century to provide some facilities for Hansom Cab drivers who by law weren't allowed to leave the cab stand where they were parked. They were set up by the Earl of Shaftsbury and were green huts that weren't allowed to be longer than a horse and carriage. They had an attendant working there who would cook and sell food to the cab drivers; around ten drivers could fit inside at any one time. Drinking, gambling and swearing were banned from the premises. 61 were built, and 13 are still in operation today, all of which are Grade II listed buildings.

Much of the cultural reputation of this area is related to the Bloomsbury Group. The members had all met while attending Cambridge University at the end of the 19th century. It included the writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, critic Lytton Strachey, and artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell – not to men an economist, John Maynard Keynes. Although their atheism, liberal economics, modernist fiction, and their non-nuclear family and sexual arrangement alienated many, the Bloomsbury Group pioneered many aspects of popular culture that continue today.

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