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I selected this book from Amazon because, well, who doesn't love a free day out? It has been written by husband and wife team Ben and Dinah Hatch, and I had high hopes for discovering some unusual places to visit.
My first port of call was to check what was in my local area. Essex came under 'South East' in the book, a section of thirty pages covering places between Brighton, Berkshire and the Norfolk Coast. I didn't spot anything free in Essex, which was disappointing. I then had a quick look at some places in Cambridge and London which I had visited recently and was disappointed again. The London section opened with mentions of the free museums and galleries, but I know that most of the major museums are free in London, and in fact had visited quite a few of them. For a forthcoming visit to Shropshire I drew a blank finding only one entry. I was wrong however, there were three entries and this brings me into my first gripe with this book...
The book is divided into 8 sections: London, South-East, South-West, Midlands, North-East, North-West, Wales, Scotland. Apart from a UK map inside the front cover, there are no other maps in this book, so it is not easy to find what places are close to where you live or are visiting. This map is generic and doesn't specifically cover any places in the book. At first it seems the order of entries is random, but then I noticed it was alphabetical by county. However, as the street/town address is given first, this doesn't jump out at you immediately, that and the fact that Staffordshire things to do seem to be in between Shropshire things to do. Each entry has a snazzy but quite long heading, which presumably is supposed to lure you in such as 'Make Sure You Tie Your Shoelaces up at the Fitzwilliam Museum'. This refers to the Fitzwilliam Museum (I am pretty sure you worked out that part) in Cambridge (South East). You may recall a news story about a visitor to here a few years ago apparently tripped over his shoelaces and smashed a priceless vase into hundreds of pieces which was then painstakingly rebuilt. Sadly for the Fitzwilliam Museum, the bulk of the descriptive text in this entry concentrates on that story rather than the numerous other reasons that make this museum a worthwhile place to visit. Personally, I find when flicking through this book, the headers are too long - I would prefer a simple heading that jumps out at me, and keep the length for a sub-heading, this would help me also when trying to re-find something I had spotted earlier. This no doubt contributes to the fact I find the book difficult to browse.
After all, this is what I bought it for, but after my initial disappointment linked to the layout, I put the book to one side for a few months before recently picking it up for a more thorough look to see what suggestions it had come up with - I have picked a few at random below:
London - I opened the book at random near the beginning and one of the suggestions is to 'Window Shop at Harrods'. Not the most startlingly original suggestion as many visitors to the nation's capital come here to have a nosy around. The book was published in 2010 and it refers to Mohammed Al Fayed as the owner (who in fact sold it that year). As well as a descriptive entry about where to go within the shop, there are two boxes covering Harrods - one with a few bits of trivia, the other describing the memorials to the late Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed (which I believe are still there as part of the condition of sale). Other London suggestions include museums and galleries (and most get a more thorough write-up than the aforementioned Fitzwilliam museum), and I was pleased to note that an East London theatre close to me has free comedy on Monday nights, which I will certainly be checking out.
South East - 'Visit Derek Jarman's Garden' (Dungeness, Kent). This is a quite cheeky entry in my opinion as officially the garden of the late film-maker is not open to the public, but can be viewed from the beach path without intrusion to the owner (who is probably building a fence as I type). In all fairness the garden does sound quite interesting made up of wild flowers and driftwood sculptures.
South-West - Again opening at random, I spotted an entry for 'Swim near the Durdle Door' (West Lulworth, Dorset). It describes this famous arch quite well, but as there are strong currents here, you may not actually want to swim anyway and just admire it from the beach.
Midlands - 'See the Baby Ghost At Rufford Coutry Park' (Ollerton, Notts.) Rufford Park seemingly has quite a few things to offer such as a lake, gardens, some sculptures and a ruined abbey which is apparently haunted by various characters including a baby.
North-East - 'Yorkshire Sculpture Park' (West Bretton, W Yorks.) A simple heading for a change, the write up is pretty much to the point (unlike some - see below) with the balance of information and personal experience and I have already ear-marked this as a definite place to visit should I visit this region any time soon.
North-West - 'See Maradona's Shirt at The National Football Museum' (Preston, Lancs). This sounds quite a good museum for fans of the game, and seems suitable for all ages. This is quite a short regional section of only about 20 pages.
Wales - 'Watch the Punch & Judy Show at Llandudno Pier' (Llandudno, Conwy). Traditional puppet theatre, I am surprised that something like this is still free, but it's nice that these traditions are still going on.
Scotland - 'Pay Homage to the Haggis Poet at Burns House' (Dumfries). The former Home of Robbie Burns is now open to the public, it doesn't appear to be the most exciting, artefact packed attraction but you can also visit his mausoleum in the churchyard across the road.
Hopefully the above has given you an insight into the several hundred places to visit that this book has included. The sub-heading of the book is 'Great Days Out' which is a bit mis-leading, as some places may only take an hour out of your day. Some suggestions are date specific, in that they only occur on one day/week per year or seasonal and are therefore irrelevant if you are visiting at other times. The writers also include a lot of personal experience, such as what their kids enjoyed, or how some paths were difficult with a buggy. I personally don't like this is a guide book (as opposed to a review), I would prefer it to be a bit more informative from a factual perspective (i.e. what is actually there), but I can see that this type of writing may appeal to some readers. I feel that sometimes they go a bit 'off-topic' and you don't really get what the place is about. I was disappointed in the reliance of national museums which are often free, and I think if you live in a certain area you would know of these places anyway, so you are unlikely to find too many great revelations in your locale, but if you are visiting another part of the country then you may find something a bit different to visit.
Overall I recommend this book, but I have removed two stars as the format and layout of this book is frustrating to me, and some of the content is a bit vague, especially for the price and coming from a reputable guide book publisher like Frommers.
254 pages including index.
Currently available on Amazon for £8.15