Russell Square is a large, tree-lined square in one of the nicest parts of the city, an area which often features on visitors’ radar as it is close to the British Museum, yet few people realise that there is this little oasis right next door which is the perfect antidote to the crowds and noise of the museum.
The British Museum is the most visited attraction in the UK, receiving over 6 million visitors a year. Free to enter and open all year round, it has some incredible objects on display; the Rosetta Stone, the controversial Elgin Marbles, the Lewis Chessmen, an Easter Island head and plenty of Egyptian mummies are amongst the highlights of the cultural treasures from across the globe - you would need a couple of days to visit everything properly. It is a vast place and most visitors charge around trying to pack in as much as they can. Museum fatigue sets in quickly, yet sitting in the museum's crowded cafes having paid £2 for a bottle of water and £4 for a slice of cake, listening to the echoing noise of the crowds does little to relieve either the feet or the mind.
Just a four minute walk away from the museum is Russell Square, the second largest square in central London. Created in 1804 and re-landscaped in 2002 to return it back to its 19th century layout, the Grade II listed square is lined with lime, oak and holly trees with a few flower beds and wild areas, but it is mostly grassy lawn which makes it ideal for relaxing on.
The main appeal of the place is the huge trees which fill it, creating plenty of shady spots which are so important when the sun beats down on the city streets. The trees are filled with the chirping of birds, the shaded pathways with pigeons investigating an errant crumb. Families and friends congregate in little groups on the grass, picnics in front of them. A small fountain with jets of water which constantly shoot skyward provides the tinkling of water and squeals of delight from the kids who run through it on a hot day.
This square is a place to sit and relax.
In one corner you will Cafe Tropea, an Italian café which has been there for over 40 years. They serve everything from a full English breakfast to Italian classics, a cup of coffee or an ice cream. There is both indoor and outdoor seating, and it is a very popular place filled with an eclectic mix of locals and visitors enjoying a beer in the marbled shade watching the world go by.
Just outside the square you will find Walkmisu, which has the utterly unique address of 'Telephone Box, Russell Square'.
These two former red telephone boxes have been converted and now house fridges and a coffee machine, so you can pick up a drink or tiramisu on the go.
There are several varieties of tiramisu on offer, the traditional flavour or more unusual ones such as strawberry, lemon or pistachio. The boxes also sell cold drinks including a delicious fizzy clementine drink from Italy.
Another quirky and unique eatery on Russell Square is the Cabman's Shelter Café. This is housed in an original Victorian cabman's shelter. Formed in 1875 by generous benefactors, the Cabman's Shelter Fund was established to give the drivers of hansom cabs (horse drawn carriages) and, later on, hackney cabs, a place to eat and rest, as they were not legally allowed to leave their cabs unattended, making it very difficult for them to take a break.
The shelters were not allowed to be larger than a horse and cart as they were placed on the road. Over sixty of them were built before World War I. They could hold about ten men, and were strictly off-limits to non cabbies - they still are. Few of these remain on London's streets and most of them are still run by the Cabman's Shelter Fund. The one in Russell Square is a café for all to use, although you will only be able to glance inside at the area which is still reserved solely for the cab drivers with 'the knowledge'.
The sole statue in the square is of Sir Francis Russell, the 5th Duke of Bedford. He is shown with with his hand on a plough, corn ears in his other hand, sheep at his feet and four cherubs representing spring, summer, autumn and winter, showing his passion for agriculture.
He is the man responsible for the creation of Russell Square. The Bedford Dukedom owned much of Covent Garden and acquired Bloomsbury in 1669 thanks to a fortuitous marriage.
When it was inherited by the 5th Duke, he was more interested in farming on the family's Woburn Estate and had the family's London mansion demolished, creating many of the existing roads, and the square, which he had designed by noted landscape designer, Humphry Repton. As well as his love of agriculture, the 5th Duke is also noted for his parliamentary career, his teenage ménage a trois with a noted courtesan and her husband, and introducing un-powdered hair for men in protest at the tax on hair powder.
The whole area was once the home of London's intelligentsia and upper-middle-classes. It is now populated with the extremely wealthy, but that does make it a very interesting place to wander around.
Have a look for the distinctive terracotta-clad Fitzroy Kimpton Hotel which was built in 1898 and has a dining room which is believed to be identical to the one on the RMS Titanic - they were both designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll. Even the housing is lovely to look at, such as Montagu Street, one of several streets of immaculate Georgian housing in the area.
The streets are clean, the buildings are well kept, and the area is very peaceful. It is a lovely part of London, and the perfect antidote to a tiring trip to the British Museum.