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Tuesday, 27 January 2004

Travel Notes I (19th Century)

American Notes: Travelling with Dickens

By Richard Carreno

(Part I in a Series)
An old travel guide has as much value for money as does yesterday's newspaper. That is, unless the guide sides with another time. One of my favourites is ''The New Illustrated Guide to Edinburgh" (circa 1930), which even for contemporary travellers -- as they slip into this bygone era of 70-odd years ago -- isn't likely to put one wrong on the important things.

A reader of the ''Royal Automobile Club Guide & Handbook'' (1931) won't always be so lucky. This comprehensive, world-wide guide warns with quaint authority, ''The main roads throughout the New England States, New York State, Florida and California are generally excellent. In the southern and middle-west States roads are fair and sometimes poor. The main roads in the north-western States are fairly good....''

The reader, turning to the guide's brief on London, also needs to be on guard. The Star and Garter Hotel in Richmond, in southwest London, is long gone, according to my good friend and Richmondite Dave Rotchelle. An advertised Lyons Corner House has been gone for aeons. Never mind. Modern travellers will still get fed and watered if they pop in at the same site in Piccadilly Circus. The venue is now a two-floor Burger King.

We can thank FDR for the ambitious Depression-era American Guide Series of the lower 48 states. These guides, written, by the workers of the Federal Writers´ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), are erudite; packed with detailed, histortical titbits; and -- despite changing times -- fresh marvels. I can thank a bookshop in Chicago for my copy of ''Planning a Trip Abroad'' (1923), and I´m always grateful for such sagacity as, ''[T]he prospective voyager will find the moderately large, slower [steamers] extremely conducive to a pleasant, healthful trip across. The slower the steamer, the less virbration; and the heavier she is loaded, the less motion.''

To my mind, the best contemporary guides figure as toss-up between the British Rough Guide series and ''The Economist Business Trabeller´s Guides.'' Both are a fixed genre, formatted with standard listings of tourist and historical sites, hotels, restaurants and the like.