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My family often say that my house represents a retirement home for old books. I can't resist re-homing 19th century household encyclopedias or 1930's recipe books, even if their covers are falling off and there is a page or 2 missing. I sometimes buy modern reprints of old and interesting books too, which led to Amazon suggesting "Bradshaws Guide: The 1866 Handbook Reprinted" to me. This is a travel guide to Great Britain and Ireland. I had some vouchers to use, so I decided to treat myself to a copy.
WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?
The content of this book was originally published, in 1866, in 4 volumes. Each was titled "Bradshaw's Handbook for Railway Travellers" and dealt with a different region of Great Britain and what is now the Republic of Ireland. A few books containing all volumes under one cover were published at the time, and this is what has been reprinted by the Middleton Press. The books are a guide to the principle towns on or near a railway line, with a focus on facts interesting to travellers and tourists of the day.
I had heard of Bradshaw's guides before, and I have a few more modern copies, but I didn't know anything about the man who started the company behind them. There is a brief introduction which sheds some light on this. It tells me that George Bradshaw was a cartographer, and it was he who was responsible for the first ever printed railway timetable. After his death, his publishing company expanded into guides for tourists. There isn't any in-depth historical context or anything like that, but as the guide itself is rather long, this is probably a question of space as much as anything.
THE BOOK ITSELF
The modern reprint is a substantial paperback, with more than 600 pages. The size of the complete volume makes me understand why the stand alone regional guides were more popular at the time. They would have been a much more practical size to carry on a sightseeing trip. I have carried my copy on a few modern joiurneys, and I found the book doesn't stay open on a particular page very well. I suspect most people will use this book for a bit of armchair time travelling though, and won't find it much of a problem. One other thing to note is that the print size seems relatively small and there is a lot of information on each page. This can make it hard to read for long periods. There is also a few printing errors, reproduced from the original. This is mainly an occasional missing or oddly orientated letter, rather than anything that makes the text harder to follow. It helps to make the book authentic!
It is a paperback, but the cover has been given the look of a well worn brown leather cover. It wouldn't fool anyone close up, but it style suits the book, and no doubt helps to keep the price down. As it is, Bradshaw's costs £24.95 which is relatively expensive for a paperback. I think it's worth it though.
WHY READ AN OUT OF DATE GUIDE BOOK?
For each of the places mentioned, the author lists information useful to the Victorian traveller, such as the names of the principle hotels, and whether the town has a telegraph station or not. If that was all that was included, I think the book would probably mainly be of interest to local historians. I haven't read this book for those facts though. It is the author's description of places and journeys that makes the flowery prose come alive. The tone is unashamedly jingoistic, and the writers are rarely short of an opinion on the new developments of their time, whether it's a new bridge, or sanitation arrangements. I think one of the most evocative sections of the book is a suggested walking tour of London, that starts at St Pauls Cathedral and allows you to chose to take either a westwards or eastwards route. I tried to follow the western walk when I was in London, and it is a fascinating experience to walk the streets with the book in your hand comparing what is described with how things look now. In Regent Street, they describe ladies of aristocracy alighting from their carriages to look at the latest Paris fashions while Bond Street is the place to go to see gentlemen taking their afternoon strolls. The authors seem full of love and pride for their capital city, and I have to say their enthusiasm is infectious. St Pauls is called a building of "extreme beauty", and the view from the top is "the most stupendous and magnificent sight it is possible to imagine." The Houses Of Parliament are "as perfect a structure as never before planned", while no-one of taste could observe Westminister Hall without feelings of "astonishment and admiration." The book continues in this style dispensing nuggets of history along the way, although it is other cities that are treated with the highest level of detail. Some of the smaller places with stations are dismissed as of "no importance." I am happy to read what is there though, as it stil gives a snapshot into another age. I enjoyed reading both about places that I know well, and those that I don't, for example some of the more northern cities such as Bradford. This is because these industrial places had probably undergone the most change in the years before the books were published. The section on Manchester mentions people who could remember the building of the first ever factory there!
At the back of the book are a collection of original illustrations, black and white of course, and I suspect a bit romanticised. They are quite dark in colour, and therefore not immediately attractive but they were part of the original books so I think they deserve their place. There is also a charming selection of adverts that also accompanied the original volumes. I have enjoyed reading these - adverts for pills that "cure all curable diseases", and for a patent "pocket siphonia" [a waterproof raincoat!], are two favourites. Others are more predictable, such as those for hotels and excursions, but they still give a insight into another time. Lastly, there are some maps, and city plans, which either have not reproduced very well, or were not very good quality to begin with. The print is small, and I pity the poor tourists who had to rely on them!
WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK?
I have found the book very interesting to read. It is stocked in my local bookshop with railway themed books, and as such I probably would never have discovered it had it not been for Amazon's suggestion. I think it would appeal to someone interested in British social history, as much as a railway enthusiast. If like me, you travel a lot by rail, then reading a bit about the history of the places you pass by in a train helps to make the journeys more interesting. Sometimes a station's name has changed, and of course, many lines no longer exist, or were yet to be completed when the book was published so it doesn't cover everywhere you may think. Nevertheless, I have really enjoyed reading it, and feel that I have learned plenty by doing so. Very good for a guidebook that is more than 100 years out of date!
ISBN 978 190 817 4055
First published 2011, my edition is from Feb 2012.
[This review also appears on Ciao under my user name.]