I was having lunch with Naomi (of the erstwhile blog Bloomsbury Bell) the other day, and in amongst bookish chatter and catching-up, she happened to mention that she had found a magical bookshop in Wantage. She described it as a sort of Aladdin's cave of literary wonder, and it was all I could do not to push my salads aside uneaten, and hope on a bus to Wantage immediately. My self-control didn't last very long as, only a couple of days later, I found myself on that selfsame bus... Since I haven't had a day away from my thesis for a while, it felt well-earned.
It all started very cheerily on a walk I discovered the other day. The other day I realised that this beautiful riverside walk was my path to the town centre from my new house (more or less), and so I headed along here to catch the bus. It's slightly longer than the walk along the roads, but I think we can all agree that this is a much better alternative?
I must stop judging places by their name. 'Wantage' is such an unprepossessing name that I'd assumed it was concrete and ugly - whereas in fact it is a beautiful market town. As demonstrated, indeed, by the market that was happening while I was there - which stopped me taking photos of the gorgeous old buildings.
Detailed instructions from Naomi led me to this door...
Rather curious that it's called a 'shopping mall', since it's actually only one shop - well, a furniture shop combined with a bookshop. And inside, as Naomi promised, there was a long corridor flanked with books. One bookcase was filled with Viragos (and not quite filled with them by the time I left) but the rest were romance and unexciting modern fiction. But that corridor led to various other rooms, at strange and architecturally spurious angles, and it was a definite book haven. The hardback fiction section wasn't quite as brilliant as I'd hoped, but the biography and paperback sections were superb, and the most fruitful room was filled with a miscellaneous selection of classics and hardbacks that should, were the shop logical, have been shelved elsewhere. And there were these...
(Karyn - I took the photo for you, and this isn't even all of them! You'll have to add this to your itinerary next time you're in the UK.)
You're probably waiting to hear what I bought - and with very cheap prices, I didn't restrain myself...
The Long Weekend by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge
I've been keeping an eye out for this during my whole DPhil, since it's a really useful social history of the interwar years. I didn't realise how cheap copies were online, otherwise I'd have bought it years ago - but hopefully it'll still be useful for final thesis edits!
Love, Let Me Not Hunger by Paul Gallico
Gallico and puppets was genius in Love of Seven Dolls, so Gallico and circuses could well be a brilliant combination. So long as it doesn't go all fey and whimsical... Gallico can fall either side of that line.
The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf
The Autobiography of Storm Jameson (vol.1 & vol.2)
I still haven't read anything by Jameson (beyond a non-fiction book about contemporary novelists) but I do love an author autobiography - and I do, of course, love anything connected with Vita or Virginia.
The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester
I don't work for the OED any more, but whenever I told people that I'd read a book about it (which was Lynda Mugglestone's Lost For Words) they thought I was talking about this one. And it's not too late to learn a bit more about the history of the job I loved so much.
Mr Beluncle by V.S. Pritchett
I loved Pritchett's autobiography (my review here), and this was in the back of my mind somewhere... maybe mentioned in that book? Or own up if you were the person who mentioned it!
The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark
The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
A couple more Sparks to add to my collection! I think that I have all of them, now - I especially like the beautiful edition of The Finishing School, and that might push it to the top of the pile - although the excellent reviews given to A Far Cry From Kensington during Muriel Spark Reading Week are strong competition...
At The Jerusalem by Paul Bailey
I wonder how many people have bought something by Bailey after reading that he was the inspiration for the author in Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont? (Is that right? That's how I remembered it, anyway.)
An excellent haul, I think you'll agree - and the whole lot only set me back £23, which is pretty impressive. It's been too long since I went to a newly-discovered bookshop, so I'm very grateful to Naomi for sharing the secret of this one!
Afterwards, I took my packed lunch off for a walk, certain that Wantage would have a little park somewhere - or a beautiful churchyard at the very least. I was doubly rewarded - I walked through a beautiful churchyard to get to a JOHN BETJEMAN MILLENNIUM PARK. Some of you may know that I avidly 'collect' millennium projects - my ex-housemate Mel and I used to go in hunt of them, and they range from boulders to mosaics to church gates. Almost every village has one - and most of them were unveiled in about 2003. My own village in Somerset has a signpost telling you all the road names, since this information is otherwise kept secret. So a millennium park was pretty impressive - and equally nice were the various pieces of sculpture with Betjeman's poetry on them. Turns out he lived in Wantage between 1951-1972.
All in all, a delightful day out! If you're ever in the area, I recommend a day trip to Wantage - and, of course, the bookshop.