Exploring Bloomsbury, one of central London's most charming enclaves, you'll see row after row of handsome Georgian townhouses, their brick facades adorned with iron railings, sash windows, potted plants and doorways with decorative arches. Most are private residences, offices or university quarters – more or less shut off to the general public. Which is why 21 Gower Street – located on one of Bloomsbury's most bustling thoroughfares, around the corner from the British Museum, a book's throw from Bedford Square – is such an appealing address. Here, spread across five, three-storey townhouses, is the Academy Hotel, a boutique establishment that is as much a place in which to hang out as it is somewhere to stay, especially now it's flaunting a flamboyant multi-million dollar refurbishment masterminded by ace New York designer Alexandra Champalimaud.
As well as 50 chic, contemporary-styled rooms – from snug singles and doubles to spacious suites, kitted out with Nespresso machines, funky floral wallpaper and, in some cases, original period fireplaces – there are ambient lounges, a bar, library and a tucked-away outdoor courtyard where you can linger over sparkling afternoon tea, evening drinks and cocktails or perhaps a good read. Bloomsbury is a renowned hub of literature and efforts were made, during the Academy's revamp, to embrace the neighbourhood's bookish spirit. Esteemed works fill the hotel's bookshelves, many from writers who used to live locally, the likes of Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray and Virginia Woolf, who was a prominent member of the so-called Bloomsbury Set, an early 20th century group of intellectuals that also included figures such as Woolf's writer husband, Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, author of A Room With A View, and the economist John Maynard Keynes.
Writer's Block – a muddle of white rum, grapefruit juice, maraschino liqueur, vanilla syrup and fresh lime juice – is among the temptations at the Academy's Alchemy Bar, while hook-ups have been made with top publishing houses, notably Bloomsbury (publishers of JK Rowling's Harry Potter series). Book launches, readings and clubs will be staged at the hotel, the name of which name plays on its studious past. Once upon a time, these buildings acted as lodgings for lecturers and professors at the University of London, which sprawls across dozens of nearby buildings, luring brain boxes and creative types from all over the world.
Eager to discover more about Bloomsbury's literary heritage, I drag myself away from the Academy's cosy green velvet sofas, and take a walking tour with Justin Roxburgh, a dapper, leather satchel-carrying Blue Badge guide with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of London and a flurry of anecdotes about the legends of literature who made their mark here. Bathing in autumnal sunshine, golden leaves gathering by our feet, we soak up the village-like charms of Bloomsbury, which remains a relative cocoon of tranquility, wedged between the people-clogged West End and traffic-choked Euston Road.
We amble along independent shop- and eatery-lined lanes, such as Lamb's Conduit Street, and venture across leafy squares created in the 17th and 18th centuries by local land-owning dukes and earls. Every few metres we pause outside a significant building, many with heritage blue plaques revealing that a notable author or poet lived and breathed here. We see a few of Charles Dickens' former homes, including one converted into a museum dedicated to his life's work and where he penned Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. We see a statue of Bertrand Russell – who was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature – and the one-time abode of Ted Hughes. It was here that he began his doomed romance with fellow poet, and future wife, Sylvia Plath.
Later, moving into the jaw-dropping covered courtyard of the British Museum, Justin points to the round Reading Room, where Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, would jot down their thoughts. Sir Arthur was known to enjoy a drink in the Museum Tavern, one of the pubs outside the museum, while Dylan Thomas would gravitate to The Plough, across the road, for liquid refreshment. Another eye-catching Bloomsbury building with literary links is Senate House, a towering art deco-style juggernaut that is part of the University of London, and was the government's Ministry of Information during World War II. Various wordsmiths worked here as propagandists and Eileen Orwell was on staff at one point – her experiences, it's believed, shaped the storyline, and the Ministry of Truth, in her husband, George's, novel, 1984.
It's the spots associated with the Bloomsbury Set that spark Justin's most entertaining yarns, especially when they revolve around the myriad dalliances and affairs the group members had among themselves. Describing their shenanigans as "bonkers, unbelievable", Justin says: "There's an old saying about the Bloomsbury Set, something like 'They wrote in circles, lived in squares and loved in triangles' – and that's an understatement."
I mosey round Russell Square, where students and intellectuals still sit on the grass, mostly in circles, picnicking, drinking and exchanging tales and theories. Lording over the square's eastern side is the Principal Hotel, a palatial terracotta Victorian landmark that has emerged as a popular hang-out since a $160 million overhaul last year – and will soon, following a change in ownership, be rebranded the Kimpton Fitzroy London. Step inside and, alongside magnificently restored period features (think: glittering chandeliers, mosaic floors and marble columns and staircase), are enticing ground-floor bars and eateries that attract hotel guests, passing tourists, Bloomsbury residents and a "laptop-and-latte" working crowd. Choices include coffeehouse-cum-cheese and charcuterie specialist Burr & Co, slick oyster bar-blessed restaurant, Neptune, and afternoon tea retreat Palm House (where I spot a neat coffee-table tome about Virginia Woolf).
Parched after my afternoon's endeavours, I pop into Fitz's, the hotel's jazzy, intimately-lit bar, named in homage to Charles Fitzroy Doll – the building's original architect (who also happened to design the ornate dining room on the Titanic). I refuel on a Bloomsbury Cup 1 – a cocktail of ginger, elderflower liqueur, cucumber water and champagne – then step outside into the crisp early-evening autumnal air, reinvigorated and ready to wander some more, with the plot of that novel I've been meaning to write stirring in my head. Few London neighbourhoods, you'll find, are as walkable, intriguing and inspiring as Bloomsbury.
Steve McKenna was a guest of YTL Hotels, Fitz's Bar and Visit Britain.
Double rooms at The Academy Hotel are priced from £209 ($387). See theacademyhotel.co.uk
London Walks offer public walks around London's literary neighbourhoods, including Bloomsbury. See walks.com
To book a private tour with Justin Roxburgh, see justinroxburgh.com