Tag Archives: England

WEEKLY PHOTO CHALLENGE: GREEN – Jack in the Green, Hastings

A modern Battle of Hastings. All good green fun!

The normally stiff, staid, sensible English don’t have much of a tradition of wild festivals. No Carnivale as in Venice or Rio. No running with the bulls or Oktoberfest. No pelting each other with tomatoes. Trooping the Colour at Buckingham Palace is regarded as letting their hair down.

So Jack in the Green is an exception.

It seemed an appropriate entry to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Green.

Every May Bank Holiday weekend, the historic town of Hastings is invaded by morris dancers, bogies (half man, half bush, half beer), chimney sweeps, giants and the Christmas tree on legs, Jack in the Green. Continue reading

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Filed under Art, England, travel photography

LYME REGIS, ENGLAND – fossicking for fossils on the Jurassic Coast

All quiet on the waterfront, Lyme Regis


To tell the truth, I was a little underwhelmed by the famous town of Lyme Regis, on England’s ‘Jurassic Coast’, until I met Gryph – small, unpretentious, old and dead. Gryph got me excited.

Lyme Regis is a perfectly pleasant spot and a popular summer beach resort. Jane Austen lived there in 1804, and set her novel Persuasion bang in the middle of this palaeontologists’ paradise, though none of her characters carries a geologist’s hammer.

In John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the forlorn cloaked figure, made famous by Meryl Streep in the film version, stood on the end of the Cobb, looking out to sea rather than back at the shale cliffs. A bit of fossil hunting may have cheered her up a bit.

The Cobb - only interesting when Meryl Streep is standing on it.

In an hour of wandering around I felt I’d done Lyme Regis. The Cobb was just an old sea wall, less interesting without Meryl. The beach was pebbly and the sea uninviting. The last resort was fossil hunting.

The beach under cliffs on this stretch of southern England is Britain’s only Natural World Heritage site. The town had several fossil shops offering guided fossil-finding tours – any day except the day I was there, it seemed.

Fossil ammonites, Lyme Regis

So I set out on my own. The signs warned me against it – the tide could come in unexpectedly or a rock slide could engulf me. Perhaps tour operators put the signs there to encourage wimps to seek their professional guidance.

I clambered over the wooden breakwaters holding the beach in place, to where lumps of shale lay at the base of the cliffs. Many were so soft that I could prise the layers apart with my fingers. And after only a few minutes, inside one lump I found a curled striped shell, about four centimetres long. Eureka! Had I discovered a new fossil species – a small Tullochosaurus perhaps?

I knew my discovery wasn’t as spectacular as the find of Mary Anning, Lyme Regis’ most famous fossil hunter. In 1814, aged 15, she and her brother found Britain’s first ichthyosaur. Think of an overgrown crocodile with fins. He’s on display in the Lyme Regis museum. In those days it was nothing new for Lyme people to dig up fossils and sell them to visitors for pocket money, but Mary was the first to study them seriously. Her story is told in the museum, and in Tracy Chevalier’s latest book, Remarkable Creatures.

I proudly carried my discovery back into town to seek identification. In the window of Mike’s Fossils and Minerals I saw several examples of my little chap. He’s a ‘devil’s toenail’, an extinct oyster, gryphaea arcuata. Mike had dozens of his relatives on sale for about two quid each, including packaging. I kept my specimen in my pocket. I didn’t want him to feel cheap.

‘Gryph’ as he now is known to me, lived and died 200 million years ago. Nobody paid him much attention when he was alive. He clung to a rock, passed away and was buried in soft grey mud. Now he’s on display on my shelf at home, and I show him to anybody who’s interested and also to people who are not.

Will Jane Austen, John Fowles or Meryl Streep attract as much interest in 200 million years as Gryph does today? Call me a pessimist, but it seems unlikely. Will anyone be interested in the brief blip in evolution that was once homo sapiens? We’ve only been around about 130,000 years and we could snuff ourselves out at any minute, taking all the palaeontologists with us. Will anything on Planet Earth remember our species in 200 million years? Who knows?

We can only do our best to survive and preserve the planet it’s our privilege to walk on today. And well done, Gryph, for still being around!

TRIP DETAILS: Private transport is the easiest way to get to Lyme Regis, though there is a regular bus service from Dorchester.

Staying there: see dorset-newforest.com

The writer was assisted by Dorset-New Forest Tourism Partnership

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CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND – cycling the towpath

Along the Cam

We cyclists have often been grateful to the diggers of Europe’s canals. ‘All dug by hand,’ people keep telling us, but I bet they used spades as well. They’ve left us some wonderful places to ride the bikes. We just pedalled along the River Cam out of Cambridge, which claims to be England’s best cycling town, with cycle lanes on most roads, plenty of bike parking racks and best of all, patient drivers who probably ride bikes too.

Somebody else's problem...

The Cam is a natural waterway of course, but it’s been tamed with a system of locks and embankments to stop it spreading out over the fens and flooding people’s holiday homes. In the town, it is famous for punting, but we could quickly see that on a sunny weekend we wouldn’t have it to ourselves. On the banks we ran the gauntlet of students thrusting placards at anybody toting a camera or consulting a tourist map. ‘Finking of goin’ puntin’ while you’re here?’ (Nobody wants a toffy accent these days. Notice that Princes William and Harry speak more like rock stars than like royals of old.) We weren’t finking of puntin’, and if we had been, we would soon have been put off by the antics of the crowds of very merry young punters bumping each other into the water.

Bridge on the Cam

Instead we rented bikes and pedalled out of town. It was an easy option. Three gears were plenty. The towpath was well-maintained, simple to follow (”Just keep the river on your right””), well serviced with refreshment stops, and flat.

The waterway itself provided entertainment, in the form of narrowboats and locks, to take our minds off any discomfort in legs, lungs or rear ends. Back when barges were serious means of transport, the towpath may well have meant discomfort for those doing the towing. I remember a photo in a museum in Friesland showing a ‘skutje’ barge family at work. Mamma and the kids, ropes across their shoulders, walked the muddy towpath in the rain while Pappa did the steering from the captain’s cabin.

Those days are long gone. Now the ‘narrowboat’ barges have been converted into pleasure craft. Pubs have names like The Bridge,The Green Dragon and The Penny Ferry. Lock masters chat with skippers, and ride along with them for a while to open the next lock. Retired couples, usually with a dog perched on the deck beside them, lounge in the sun with the coffee cups. Their boat names tell the story; Croozy, The Fox, Fourth Time Lucky.

When we’ve had enough, we stop at the pub. “Waterbeach Chef and Brewer” sounds perfect. It’s a pub which seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s packed with lunchtime diners and drinkers. The strollers of the mothers’ and babies’ club are choking the aisles.

The food is hearty, honest, heavy British fare. The decor is all heavy wooden beams, under which heavy honest British trenchermen tuck into heavy shepherd’s pies. We tell ourselves heavy British lasagne is just what we need, then pedal gently back to Cambridge. Recommended!

TRIP NOTES: Bike rental from Station Cycles costs GBP10 for 24 hours

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Filed under Cycle touring, Cycling, England, Travel, Travel- Europe

WALKING FESTIVALS 2010

Want to walk in Europe this year, but don’t want to organise it yourself or spend big bucks on a guiding company? Try joining a walking festival.

There’s been an encouraging surge in interest in my report on last year’s West Cork Walking Festival, so I thought I’d go for a tramp around cyberspace to see what’s on offer for 2010.

Walking festivals are a brilliant idea – locals get together to organise walks for a few days, set up some routes to showcase the best hikes in their area, ranging from easy strolls to challenging adventures, engage knowledgeable guides, charge a modest fee to cover costs, post details on a website and see who turns up.

West Cork attracted groups of 25-50 for each event, a good number, I thought – enough for everyone to meet a few people, but not so many that it was ever overwhelming. I arrived on my own and left having made some friends I’m still in contact with. Thanks to the guides I learned a lot about the area’s history and characters and thanks to the craik in the Irish pubs at the end of each day, a foine toim was had indeed.

These are some festivals I found coming up:

May 1-8 Caithness and Sutherland (Scottish Highlands)
www.walkcaithness.com

May 7-13 Newton-Stewart Walking Festival (Galloway Hills, Southern Scotland.)
www.newtonstewartwalkfest.co.uk

May 22-June 6 Lincolnshire Wolds (Lincolnshire, England)
www.woldswalkingfestival.co.uk

June 25-27. Mourne International Walking Festival. (County Down, Northern Ireland).
www.mournewalking.co.uk

July 1-4 Castlebar Walking Festival (Ireland’s wild west)
www.castlebar4dayswalks.com

Tuscany is advertising the Tuscan Coast and Islands Walking Festival from April 2 – October 10. That’s a long time to stay festive, but there’s a lot to see under the Tuscan sun. www.tuscanywalkingfestival.it

If you can add interesting festivals to this short list, please let me know about them in the comments box below.

Finally a word of warning.  On the web I found publicity for some  ‘festivals’ which were being run by commercial tour guiding companies. I have no reason to think they’re not interesting and  good value, but they were considerably more expensive than walking festivals run by local volunteers.

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Filed under Budget travel, England, Hiking, Ireland, Travel, Travel- Europe

RYE – England’s best preserved village?

Four hundred years ago, John Cheston decided to demolish his house, overlooking the cemetery of St Mary’s church in Rye. He’d just removed the first roof tiles when a cry came from the burghers below, ‘Desist, thou scurvy varlet! (or words to that effect) Thou despoileth our streetscape and wrecketh our potential tourism industry.’

The city fathers invoked a 1606 heritage law, thus sparing Mr Cheston’s house, and securing Rye’s future as a centre for artists, writers, musicians and miscellaneous bohemians. It has become a perfect location for filming British costume dramas and a very popular short trip out of London.

Rye claims to be England’s best preserved village, and who am I to argue, not having seen the other contenders. The Ryers (or ‘Mud Heads’ as they’re uncharitably known in the rest of Sussex) have been particularly sensitive about building conservation since 1377, when some rowdy Frenchmen cruised across the Channel, literally set the town alight and nicked the church bells as souvenirs. A heavily-armed delegation paid France a return visit and brought the bells back. Rye was restored to its former glory and now boasts more historic buildings than any town in Britain.

The village is almost too cute to be true. An elegant white windmill neatly balances the cluster of black wooden huts where fisherman used to hang their nets. Steep, narrow streets wind between houses with the Tudor timber frames and slate roofs we tourists love. The battlements of Ypres Tower and Landgate Arch, and the aforementioned St Mary’s church are striking remnants of the town’s medieval past.

Rye was once a major harbour for warships, an important member of the Cinq Ports, and given the title ‘Rye Royale’ by Elizabeth I. But eventually the sea gave up the battle against the silt and beat a retreat. Now at low tide small fishing boats lie on their sides in a muddy channel while sheep graze on the Romney Marsh between Rye and the nearest beach, several kilometres away.

Nobody seems to miss the sea too much. Tourists still flock to hobble over Rye’s cobbles, browsing the galleries and pottery shops and drinking traditional English coffee (a tasteless, milky liquid that pre-dates the modern macchiato) in charming traditional tea-rooms.

It’s all very genteel these days, but Ryers also take pride in their grimy past, the smuggling era in particular. Rye was the haunt of the owlers, as smugglers were known in the eighteenth century. In dark back rooms, deals were done on smuggled liquor, tea and luxury goods, and also on wool and banned English language bibles. ‘Pssst – wanna buy a cheap bale of Romney Marsh and a couple of gospels?’

The Mermaid Inn, now an upmarket hotel, was the hub of these nefarious activities, and night ghost tours are run through the secret passages of the town. Inspired by a visit to Rye, Rudyard Kipling wrote A Smuggler’s Song, ending, ‘Them that asks no questions, isn’t told a lie, So watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!’

I also heard the macabre story of a girl called Amanda and a young monk named Cantador, who were bricked into a wall as punishment for their illicit love affair. Apparently Cantador’s ghost often sings in Turkey Cock Lane, now a carpark behind Rye Lodge Hotel, though he was taking a break when I visited.

I loved the permanent exhibition of penny arcade machines in the Rye Heritage Centre. I’m such a sucker for these things. I bought seven old copper pennies to feed into the slots of my choice. The fortune telling machine issued a card that assured me: ‘You will discover easy methods of making money,’ which was encouraging news for someone who’d just swapped a perfectly good pound for a measly 7 pence.

My remaining six coins I invested in storytelling dioramas, where little models move around when the penny drops. The fun comes not because these things are so ingenious; it’s because they’re so unbelievably tacky that we’re delighted when they do anything at all.

For instance, I watched a miniature miser refuse a donation to a tiny Red Cross nurse rattling a tin. The devil popped up and a bag of money disappeared from the miser’s safe. Then there was the totally non-PC ‘George and Mabel in the Park’. George raised his hat to the attractive girl on the bench beside him, while surreptitiously lifting her skirt with the end of his walking cane. All good, naughty fun.

Back in the town, I shared a stroll with my fellow tourists, English, French, German and Dutch, noting the plaques on houses testifying to former residents. For a place with a population of less than 5,000, Rye has had an extraordinary number of celebrity Mud Heads. Jacobean playwright John Fletcher, Joseph Conrad, G.K.Chesterton and H.G.Wells all lived here. American novelist Henry James spent his final years in the impressive Lamb House.

More recently, Sir Paul McCartney sent his kids to local Rye schools and Spike Milligan was vice president of the Rye Rugby club. He’s buried in nearby Winchelsea, below the world’s wittiest (self-written) epitaph. Church authorities would only let the family inscribe it on his headstone in Irish, but translated into English it reads, ‘I told you I was ill.’

Mine was a fleeting visit, but I can see why they all came to Rye, and I can guess why they stayed.

The writer was a guest of 1066 Country Tourism.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Trains leave at least hourly from London Charing Cross to Rye, take just over 2 hours and cost from GBP24 off peak, one way. See nationalrail.co.uk

Staying there: For numerous accommodation options, see visitrye.co.uk

Further information: Entry to the Rye Heritage Centre is GBP3, town audio guide costs GBP3.50. For other activities in Rye, See visitrye.co.uk and 1066country.com

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under England, Literary history, Travel, Travel- Europe

THE BATTLES OF HASTINGS – morris men and motor men


It’s all happening in Hastings on a May Bank Holiday weekend. The Old Town has been invaded by morris men, brandishing sticks and handkerchiefs, while the beachfront has been claimed by the motor men – thousands of motorcyclists on their annual rally.

Fortunately any competition is very good humoured, and the only serious battle is to see which group can make more noise. The morris dancers open up with a volley of drums, fiddles and accordions, backed by the jingling bells strapped to their calves. The bikies counter-attack with deep-throated revving of 500cc motors, and get the better of the early skirmishes.

It may be just as loud, but it’s far less bloody than the other battle I’ve been learning about over the past few days. Any Englishman knows there are only two dates that matter in history: 1966 – England wins football World Cup, and 1066 – Battle of Hastings.

The nation-changing events of the latter took place in what is now the little tourist town of Battle, a short train ride north of Hastings. History is important around Battle, and they’ve done an excellent job of turning it into entertainment and tourist dollars, pounds and euros.

In Yesterday’s World, a museum squeezed into an old building with a maze of tiny staircases, I browsed through replicas of shops from the Victorian era to the 1970’s. Here the grocer scoops sugar and flour into paper bags, the ironmonger sells ‘Star Grenade’ glass fire extinguishers to lob onto unwanted blazes, and the chemist, a surplus waxwork of Margaret Thatcher, grinds potions with a pestle and mortar. In Queen Victoria’s throne room we can see replicas of various crown jewels, while a rather robotic computer-animated queen addresses us from a video screen. We are quite amused.

Friendly, knowledgeable staff at the Battle Museum directed me to dinosaur bones and Roman pottery, but I particularly liked ‘Britain’s oldest guy’, a 19th century Guy Fawkes effigy considered too well made to chuck on the bonfire, and the smock worn by Battle’s last gas-lighter, Mr Anderson, when he played marbles every Good Friday. You make your own fun in a small town.  

But Battle’s real drawcard for visitors is an unremarkable grassy slope on which England’s destiny was changed in a single day.

The museum attached to the 1066 Battlefield and Abbey filled me in on the details of the story. We probably studied it at school, but maybe I was sick that day. Edward the Confessor promised the English crown to both Harold and William of Normandy, but forgot to tell the boys to play nicely together. When Harold claimed the throne, William loaded a 7,000 strong army onto boats and sailed over from France. Harold, fresh from repelling some troublesome Norwegians at Stamford Bridge, marched south to tell the frog-eaters to get back where they came from.

A short film in the museum showed a re-enactment of the battle, while in the adjoining room an Australian family tested the weight of the armour and weapons of the rival Norman and English armies. They were heavy. It would have been no picnic marching with them, let alone doing any fighting.

Outside on that grassy slope I listened as the audio guide vividly described the ebb and flow of the decisive battle. The Normans charged Harold’s troops perched on the hill and were repeatedly repelled. We already knew that William eventually conquered and that Harold was shot in the eye (this detail is now disputed by some historians) but joining a group of French tourists walking around in the peace and the sunshine gave me a feeling for the tragic, senseless carnage of that day.

In a field you could stroll across in ten minutes, 7000 men died in a few hours. This was in a country of a mere 1.5 million, in the days when a large town had perhaps 2500 inhabitants. When it was over, William was crowned king and England became French.

In the museum, I chatted to guide Nasser about the significance of the Norman conquest. ‘It makes me wonder whether there is really such a thing as a true Englishman,’ he told me. ‘How can one say, “Ï am  proud to be English”, when you are really partly French?’ I found it an interesting question, especially coming from a young Englishman who was more than partly Ugandan.

The spectacular castles around this part of Sussex, like Pevensey, Herstmonceux and Bodiam are a huge attraction for tourists. They stage battle re-enactments and host ye olde English mediaeval fayres. Preserving English history is big business.

The morris men and their fellow enthusiasts have come to Hastings to keep alive the very English tradition of Jack in the Green. Dressed as black-faced chimney sweeps or leafy green bogies (‘part man, part bush, part alcohol’), they dance up the steep hill and celebrate the end of winter by ritually slaying their ‘Jack ’ in the ruins of Hastings’ Norman castle.

Visiting French high school students give me Gallic shrugs when I ask them, admittedly in barely adequate French, if they know what it’s all about. They’re more interested in the gleaming Ducattis, Yamahas and Harley Davidsons throbbing along Marine East Parade.

But at the end of the day, bogies and bikies share the pubs, and the French are made to feel welcome. England has room for all sorts of people now.

The writer was a guest of 1066 Country Tourism.

TRIP NOTES:

Jack in the Green is celebrated in Hastings every May bank holiday weekend. http://www.hastingsjack.co.uk

Getting there: The train to Hastings from London Charing Cross takes about 90 minutes and costs GBP29.60.

Staying there: The White House, Hastings offers B&B from GBP70/90 single/double. See thewhitehousehastings.co.uk.

Further information: Entry to the 1066 Battlefield and Abbey costs GBP6.70 (including audio guide), to Yesterday’s World GBP7.  Entry to Battle Museum is GBP1. For other accommodation and attractions in the area see visit1066country.com

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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BRITISH LIBRARY, LONDON – Sir John Ritblat Gallery

Proofreaders looking for errors?

It’s inspiring for a humble hack to read the polished work of great writers.

But it can also be intimidating, so I also enjoy seeing how geniuses sometimes struggle.

I love reading their rough drafts, spotting the false starts, the wrong turns, the indecision and the writer’s block, as well as the flashes of brilliance. They are on display, warts and all, in the British Library.

There are over 150 million items in the library, including what must surely be the world’s greatest collection of manuscripts from the most illustrious scribes and composers of all time. Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Mozart, Beethoven, Lennon and McCartney are all there, waiting for us to enjoy their little mistakes and eccentricities.

In 1998, after years of delay and budget overruns, the library moved into smart new premises, with the towers of St Pancras Station peering over its roof. Eduardo Paolozzi’s large statue ‘Newton: after William Blake’, squats in the forecourt, playing with geometric dividers.

Newton statue

There’s a queue forming well before the opening time, so we hop across for a coffee at the Last Word Café, as a mixed bunch – students, bearded academic-looking types, and a few tourists – line up at the doors. Many have their noses buried in books.

At 9.30 the doors open and in we go. Shakespeare’s statue looks down to welcome us and information boards advertise exhibitions on Darwin and ‘The Sound and the

Fury’, archival recordings of great and memorable speeches. We listen to Winston Churchill promising to fight on the beaches, Martin Luther King having a dream, and Gwyneth Paltrow tearfully thanking the world for her Oscar.

Inside it was all a bit of blur…

But we’ve really come here for the Sir John Ritblat Gallery. In the glass cases under dim light, we pore over the illuminated manuscripts of the Lindisfarne Gospels, ancient religious texts from the Indian and Arab world, and copies of the Gutenberg Bible of 1450, the first book to be printed in England.

Star attraction of the collection is a parchment copy of the Magna Carta. It rates a special alcove all to itself, though I confess I don’t entirely understand its significance. I know it was a breakthrough when King John, under duress from the barons, acknowledged that the monarch, like his people, was subject to the law, but I believe he repudiated the document soon after.

More accessible and appealing to me are the handwritten drafts by writers and composers I know and love. Jane Austen was already writing very well as a teenager. A story written for her sister is displayed next to her draft of ‘Persuasion’. I’m encouraged to see that she edited far more as she grew older, losing the certainty of youth.

Other great works also began life as stop/start affairs. Thomas Hardy wrote ‘The Daughter of the d’Urbervilles’ in his notebook, then deleted his first two words and inserted ‘Tess’. William Wordsworth and Joseph Conrad had plenty of second thoughts. Playwright Harold Pinter apparently got bored with typing ‘pause’. Pinteresque pauses turned up so frequently that he just typed ‘p’ between his speeches; then amended them with litres of red ink.

Through audio headphones I hear Lawrence Olivier and Stanley Holloway perform the graveyard scene from Hamlet. W.B.Yeats reads his own poetry, almost singing it in his musical Irish accent, and James Joyce gives Finnegan’s Wake similar treatment.

There are Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, letters from Florence Nightingale, Newton and Charles Darwin, and Captain Soame Jenyns’ eyewitness account of the charge of the Light Brigade. The logbook of Nelson’s flagship, Victory, is next to one of Captain James Cook’s journals, (Cook also scrubbed out many lines he was unhappy with).

For heart-wrenching stuff, nothing beats Captain Scott’s diary from his fatal Antarctic expedition. It lies open at the poignant final page, ending, ‘For God’s sake, take care of our people.’

Douglas Haig wrote an inspiring call to arms to his troops in his Special Order of the Day in April 1918. He first included the sentence, ‘But be of good cheer, the British Empire must win in the end.’ Then he crossed that out. Too hollow perhaps, in view of the carnage, or was he having doubts about the outcome?

Opposite the writers’ displays are the original scores of famous composers. Even Mozart, I’m pleased to report, occasionally blotted his copybook, and Beethoven was a particularly messy worker. His violin sonata has phrases cross-hatched out violently, as if Ludwig was determined to ensure that nobody should ever see what stupid ideas he’d considered.

A group of French students cluster round the glass case dedicated to Beatles drafts. There are the lyrics of Michelle, penned by Paul McCartney on an envelope. A Hard Day’s Night is scrawled on the back of John Lennon’s birthday card for his son Julian.

My favourite is the sheet of paper with the words to ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’
Although it went on to be their breakthrough single in America, it seems that Paul was initially not confident that he and John had just written a hit. At the bottom of the page he’s scrawled a mock teacher’s note – ‘3/10. See me’.

I love Edward Elgar’s efforts. After two lines of music, he begins to doodle a series of comic faces on the staff, and interposes a line… ‘Waiting for 3rd symphony’. That’s what I like to see – someone getting really stuck and chucking it in.

Braced by the knowledge that great artists are also human beings, I risk humiliation by typing my own name into the library’s catalogue. Out of 150 million items, is it asking too much for them to have just one of my books there? They have seven. Phew! Hey, maybe they’d like to display my ancient floppy discs?

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: The British Library is opposite St Pancras underground station.

Staying there: Numerous London accommodation options are on wotif.com/hotels/united-kingdom-london-hotels

Further information: Entry to the British Library is free. More information about the permanent collection and special exhibitions is on the website bl.co.uk

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Filed under England, Travel, Travel- Europe