Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Crowded Planet guide to Britain

Big news from the UK this week is that the famous Lonely Planet guide is sticking it to Britain's tourist industry.

About time too.

I love England. I love touring around it, I love showing it off to my foreign friends and relatives. (I've had a fair bit of practice at that now.) But there's no denying that the restaurants, hotels, sights and resorts that make the most effort to attract tourists - are those that are the least worth visiting.

There's probably a good reason for this. Every Briton - well, at least every middle-class Briton with my upbringing - knows that the best don't need to advertise. So it follows that anyone who does advertise is, at best, second-rate. Stonehenge doesn't advertise; but the tacky visitors' centre that has pretty much destroyed the point of going there - that advertises like nobody's business.

Whatever the reason, there's no denying: if it's British and you've heard of it, it's almost certainly either (a) crap or (b) laughably overpriced. Sometimes both.

What's important to remember about Britain, though - and England in particular - is the incredible density of it. This means there are two things everywhere you look: people (hence, pubs, hotels and restaurants that your guidebook has never heard of), and history.

It's not exactly secret, but it's not advertised either.

My recommendation, if you're contemplating a visit to the UK, is to do some reading before you go. Either pick a place[1] and read up on its history, or pick a history and identify the places associated with it.

[1] "London" isn't a place - it's about 60 places all wedged together. Trying to do them all is a rookie mistake, and a recipe for (at best) extreme boredom.

And don't take the Lonely Planet. While it's true that most places marketing themselves to tourists are overpriced and disappointing, a guidebook's job is not to lament these pitfalls, but to guide you safely past them. If it can't do that, it's not worth the weight.

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