I stopped travelling with guidebooks around the same time I started travelling with a smartphone. Articles I can access online with the right keywords – from media I’m paying for anyway – deliver news I can use and don’t have to be lugged around in my bag. I pin my Google maps with all the places I want to visit, then save them offline. Anything else, from the best-reviewed duck in Beijing to the sex life of Joan Miro, is immediately clickable.
Meanwhile our travel bookshelf has become more or less obsolete. Last year I carted off all but our most treasured guides to a charity shop.
Recently, though, I picked up what was for me a new kind of guidebook, in that it was old. I discovered Signs and Taverns Round About Old London Bridge while researching a section of old London in a library near Liverpool Street. Written in 1937 by Kenneth Rogers, it plots the point near Leadenhall Market where one might have entered the Roman Basilica 2,000 years ago and the Crosse Keys tavern across the road, where Shakespeare’s acting troupe performed in the courtyard.
It pinpoints the street corner where the Hoop Tavern replaced the Grasshopper pub after the Great Fire, and the King’s Head pub, where an effigy of King Henry VIII hung from the sign. “The house and its sign were no doubt often seen (and probably visited) by Shakespeare, [Ben] Jonson, [Francis] Beaumont and [John] Fletcher, and other famous writers,” Rogers writes. “Every passenger across the old bridge into London saw the sign of King Henry VIII’s head there.”
I photographed the most pertinent pages at my library table and ended up taking the long route home by foot to follow them. Then I bought a used copy for £30 ($52). I’ve often referenced it, along with a decades-old walking guide to Kingsland Road I found at the same library. The municipal pamphlet about a London street that’s since gentrified beyond recognition, it flags workhouses, artisans’ cottages and the oldest standing house, built by a brickmaker in 1758. Not a café or boutique in sight.
Vintage guidebooks have delighted a segment of collectors for decades. People buy them to indulge, say, a fondness for Paris, a love of Edwardian miscellanea, a fascination with locomotive travel. Passionate collectors target the 200-year-old German publisher Baedeker. A first edition such as Baedeker’s Venice is the Holy Grail. “A piece of history like that is what motivates,” says Richard Davies of AbeBooks, an online marketplace based in Victoria.
First-edition Baedekers go for thousands of dollars, says Davies, as do Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers by Victorian-era publisher John Murray, which picked out obscure imperial monuments for its aristocratic following. Editor and Guardian columnist Ian Jack, who once travelled India with a 19th-century John Murray guide, later wrote of its “quaint authority.
“[Murray’s guides] were written by British gentlemen for British gentlemen … people who arrived by P&O in Bombay, hired a servant and a tiffin basket, and then ticked off the miles as the Frontier Mail steamed north.”
Still, few collectors would ever consider packing one for the road, what with the complete transformation of most places over 150 years. Plus they’re worth a fortune. “You could be carrying around a $4,000 book,” Davies says. “You don’t want to leave that in a Starbucks.”
With 20th-century publishers such as Fodor’s, Michelin and Les Guides Bleus, guides became more democratic. The wider readership translates to nostalgia today among collectors and travellers alike – not to mention their design is considered art by today’s standards.
Adding value is the fact you can take them on a rather edifying day out. Reprints of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, a Jim Crow-era guidebook to hotels and restaurants serving African-American travellers, were making rounds even before the eponymous film debuted last year. The Asheville, N.C., tour outfit Hood Huggers references the book on its Hood Tours – though most businesses have long since disappeared. As an antidote, founder DeWayne Barton published his own Green Book listing local businesses operated by the black community.
When Penguin published a facsimile of the 1966 Nairn’s London ahead of its 50th anniversary, journalists scattered to experience London’s dark, neglected passageways through Ian Nairn, the outspoken architecture critic.
“Bankside, ‘the longest and most exciting connected walk in London,’ is still there, and yet it isn’t any more because the few once-shabby warehouses that survive are cleaned up, while on the north bank they are extinct,” wrote architectural historian Gavin Stamp, wondering what Nairn would have made of London if he’d lived beyond 52. “You now have to read Nairn to understand what has been lost here, while also appreciating the gains.”
As a practical handbook, though, it does its job better than most by virtue of London’s rigorous heritage laws.
“It’s quite reassuring that all these buildings still exist in the city,” says Brendan Cormier, a curator at London’s Victoria & Albert museum, originally from Toronto. Last fall Cormier, started live-tweeting a series of walks with a reprint of Nairn’s he picked up at the V&A bookshop. His first stop, the National Gallery, was described by Nairn as “a set of good porticoes and bad domes, badly arranged.”
With Nairn, Cormier covered the Regency terraces of John Nash, some “perfect” West End pubs, the “industrial melodrama” of Battersea and the lifeless Limehouse docks (Nairn: “At least they can’t zone away the water”). But he also ventured to suburbs such as the enjoyably named Cockfosters.
What got him onto the massive effort in the first place was realizing, as he approached his fifth year in London, that he barely knew the city. “So I made it my personal mission to explore what this giant from the 1960s had to say. I thought, why not read the whole book and not just cherry-pick.”
What keeps Cormier going are Nairn’s “orchestrations”, such as the progression from Brompton Oratory into Holy Trinity Church, through the gardens and the mews behind. Nairn’s amusing lack of restraint doesn’t hurt. “He was known for writing a lot of his work in the pub,” Cormier says. “You can tell when he’s on his fifth pint.”
Cormier’s Twitter following – fans of architecture and walking both – provides a motivational force. Not that he needs any inspiration. Last month he tracked down a copy of Nairn’s Paris and discovered the author from a visitor’s perspective. “You can tell the difference between him as a Londoner and him as a tourist. He’s definitely a lover of Paris," Cormier says. “He writes for his love of red wine as well.”