As I walk down Chalcot Road, flanked by the colourful townhouses of Primrose Hill, my heart is in rapture. Somewhere on this lane is my destination. A place I've seen so often in photographs that it has seeped into my dreams. Yet, I cannot pick it out of the lineup. Is it supposed to be the "substanceless blue" of a dawn sky? Or the "too red" of tulips? I forget. I fret. I fail to consider the possibility of repaint. A lively garden sprouts on the right. Facing it is a slate-blue three-storey house with a violently magenta door. It is unremarkable on this rainbow street, except for a ceramic blue plaque that whispers, "Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) Poet lived here (1960-1961)."
The English Heritage plaque adorns the facade of 3, Chalcot Square. This townhouse's top-floor apartment was the residence of Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes, from January 1961 to August 1962. Plath was prolific in this period, writing her only novel, "The Bell Jar," and publishing her first poetry book, "The Colossus." The house stands in stark contrast to another address nearby—23, Fitzroy Road—where Plath ended her life in February 1963. She was drawn there by another blue plaque, which bears the name of W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). I will visit Yeats's house too, but its darkness will obscure its details from memory.
Visiting Plath's home may be my personal pilgrimage, but it is part of a bigger journey. My wife and I have embarked on a tour of three UK cities—London, Edinburgh, and Bath. Timed to blunt the sting of my 35th birthday, the trip also marks a rebirth—for me, a leap of faith from a full-time job to a pursuit of literary dreams; for her, the conception of a children's book. Naturally, we seek fonts of inspiration.
While poetry is my church, my partner’s house of worship lies in Edinburgh. This is where J.K. Rowling wrote a large chunk of the "Harry Potter" series. Itching to trace her footsteps, we sign up for a pay-what-you-like walking tour. Our guide, Colin Bramwell of The Potter Trail (pottertrail.com), arrives in a flowing black robe and whisks us off to a graveyard. Greyfriars Kirkyard reminds me of the cemetery in Little Hangleton. This is for a good reason, apparently. Bramwell reveals that Rowling often strolled in this graveyard to gather her thoughts—and she got more than quietude out of the exercise. He points out gravestones with familiar names: McGonagall, Moodie, and even a Thomas Riddell.
Sharing a wall with the graveyard is a turreted 17th-century building made in the Scots Renaissance style. Unsurprisingly, it’s a school that divides students into four houses. Bramwell, too, sorts our group into four and peppers the walk with trivia questions for an imaginary House Cup. We swish and flick our wands with new incantations like Rossio Lumos, which turns traffic lights green. "The timing is critical for this spell," quips our instructor. A writer himself, Bramwell narrates Rowling's life in the Scottish capital with unveiled admiration and comedic flair. We walk past two of the author's favourite writing haunts—a cafe since replaced by a Chinese restaurant and The Elephant House, which is shut temporarily for repairs.
The stroll ends in Victoria Street, which claims to be the inspiration behind Diagon Alley. Not only is it a diagonal cobblestoned alley, but its colourful shopfronts also evoke visions of magical stores. The most prominent one holds a blue plaque dedicated to "Robert Cresser's Brush Shop." Founded in 1873, it sold Victorian boxes and broomsticks for 131 years and is speculated to be the inspiration behind Ollivander's. Today, it is the flagship Museum Context store, which sells Harry Potter merchandise.
Harry Potter is akin to a potion of liquid luck for businesses in Edinburgh, but it's hardly the only literature of note to come out of it. To go further back in time, we visit The Writers' Museum (edinburghmuseums.org.uk). Housed in a 17th-century townhouse, it celebrates three Scottish greats—Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS).
The free museum holds a remarkable collection of personal objects, photographs, and rare editions. There are textured antiques like Burns's writing desk, a child's rocking horse modified to suit Scott's lameness, and a printing press on which the "Waverly" novels were produced. And then there are some peculiar artefacts, like a plaster cast of Burns's skull and a lock of RLS's hair! A draft of Burns's song "Scots Wha Hae," and first editions of "Waverly" and "A Child's Garden of Verses" hold me in thrall. The house itself retains its old-world idiosyncrasies, like steps of varying height on a spiral staircase designed to trip burglars.
The third city on our itinerary traces its literary history to the Regency era. Bath was home to Jane Austen for five years. She moved to the spa town with her family, albeit reluctantly, in 1801. Things got worse in 1805 when Austen's father died. But the author wrote through her grief and financial struggles, and Bath’s society offered itself as a dramatic setting for "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion."
At the Jane Austen Centre (janeausten.co.uk), a guide clad in full Regency regalia takes us through the writer's tumultuous life with some visual aids and silly theatrics (think ghosts knocking on walls). We get a glimpse of Austen's familial relationships, the inspirations behind her work, and a blurry image of her physical features. This is because there exists no definitive portrait. What we have is an incomplete jigsaw: a half-finished sketch made by her sister Cassandra that was said to be "horrendous" (hence, never completed); a portrait published in a memoir that tried to fill the gaps in the first one; a sketch of her back; a silhouette titled "Amiable Jane" that is contested by experts due to its incongruence with Austen’s height and contours; a painting titled "Jane" that experts have debunked citing anachronistic clothing (it might depict her niece, also named Jane); and a modern portrait drawn by a forensic artist who drew from historical eyewitness accounts.
Back in London, we end the trip by paying our respects to some masters. Opened in 1839, Highgate Cemetery (highgatecemetery.org) is home to 53,000 graves that lie amidst towering trees, shrubs, and flowers. A walk in this garden cemetery is serene but sobering.
On the East side, Karl Marx’s grave is impossible to miss—a sculpture of his heavily bearded face sits atop a tall tombstone. The grave is generously decorated with bouquets, pamphlets, and messages. The stone is engraved with a rallying cry from "The Communist Manifesto": "Workers of all lands, unite." In comparison, Douglas Adams's grave is nondescript, with its small grey tombstone and soft engraving.
Like many others, poet Christina Rossetti rests in a family grave. But theirs has an unsettling history. Rossetti's sister-in-law, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal, started out as a model for painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—she famously sat for John Everett Millais’s Ophelia—and later became an artist herself. When Lizzie died at 32 of an opiate overdose, her grief-stricken husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, buried his poems with her body. A few years later, he was coaxed into exhuming these verses—a decision that haunted him for the rest of his life.
As I exit the Rossetti Path at Highgate Cemetery, I realise there is one important name missing from my tributes. Sylvia Plath was laid to rest in a churchyard in Heptonstall—a place so out of our way it warrants another trip. So, instead of flowers for her grave, I pick up the one thing Plath left behind on her desk. Daunt Books Marylebone (dauntbooks.co.uk), a quaint Edwardian bookshop, is kind enough to procure a copy of "Ariel: The Restored Edition," which holds a facsimile of Plath's original manuscript, scribbles and all.
When I stand in front of her home at Primrose Hill, I do not knock on the magenta door. This is no museum. There are no tours back in time. Leaning on the red-brick altar, I invoke her verse, "Love set you going like a fat gold watch…" A dog-walker pauses to listen. Someone peeks out of the highest window. The door throbs in place, the colour of an old wound.