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An Old Friend's Britain

September 07, 1986|SHIRLEY L. MARKS | Marks is a Thousand Oaks free-lance writer.

"Oh, it's perfect. Exactly what I need." My friend's gift, a book, fit nicely in one hand.

Bendable in a fragile way, its worn red binding was enriched by gold lettering on the front and spine. The first line, slanting in a classic script, spelled "Baedeker's."

"Great Britain," announced the block letters beneath, their upright dignity embellished by modest tails on the initials G and B.

I spied a faint trace of marbled veining decorating the edges of the tissue-thin pages. Gently I turned to the title page, with special care for the facing fold-out map of England and Wales that clung tenuously to a yellowed strip of transparent tape.

This Sixth Edition of "A Handbook for Travellers, Revised and Augmented, with 22 Maps, 58 Plans, and a Panorama" was dated 1906.

Eight-Week Trip

So when spring came I slipped the small red volume into my suitcase, along with pairs of comfortable walking shoes, rolls of color film and other necessities for an eight-week visit to the British Isles. Having already inspected much of the finely printed text, I realized that the guidebook might appear to some people rather old-fashioned as a jet-age traveling companion.

Consider, for instance, the gallant recommendation: "When ladies are of the party, it is advisable to frequent the best hotels, as the charges of the second-best are often not appreciably lower, while the comforts . . . are considerably less. Gentlemen traveling alone, however, will often find comfortable accommodation at a moderate rate in smaller inns of quite unassuming appearance."

I was not at all put off by such unliberated turn-of-the-century cautions. Rather, I was curious to experience why generations of pre-World War I tourists made "Baedeker" a synonym for travel guide. I did have one thing in common with the traditional Baedeker traveler. I was determined not to rush through the British countryside under pressure of a strict itinerary that allowed no time for mood or whim.

For company, I would have a wise and reliable friend to offer thoughtful options but leave me free to follow my own path at my own pace. Granted that the guide's introductory "Outline of English History" went only as far as the "present sovereign . . . King Edward VII," yet what fun it would be to match the detailed descriptions with the Britain of Edward's great-granddaughter, Elizabeth.

Thus, on a sparkling April Thursday, I set out on Baedeker "Route 60," which stretched from London's Liverpool Street Station toward the flatland of East Anglia. I was heading for Norwich, the county town of Norfolk 114 miles northeast of London.

I expected to find the population grown beyond the 1901 figure of "111,728 inhab." and perhaps business still booming among the "large manufactories of mustard and starch, ironworks, and breweries." I also looked forward to seeing the cathedral, which "was begun in 1096, and has preserved its original Norman plan more closely than any other cathedral in England."

Inflation's Toll

Naturally I was prepared to pay more than the Baedeker "1 shilling" for the half-mile taxi ride to the Maid's Head Hotel--"near the cathedral . . . in a quaint old building of the 15th Cent., comfortably fitted up."

A welcome change on arrival was the quiet of the city after the din of London. "Thursday early closing," explained the taxi driver. The stillness was enhanced by the view from my hotel window, over tiled roofs and chimney pots to a sunset-lit skyline that blended old stone church towers with blocks of modern commercial concrete.

Comfortably fitted up, I slept well and rose early to witness the streets of Norwich erupt noisily in a jam of lorries and autos. At 8 a.m. on a Friday, I reckoned their drivers must be on the way to work at the Kiltie Shoe Factory, Watney's Brewery, the Anglia TV Studios, Mackintosh's Chocolate Factory, Jarrold & Sons Printing Works. . . .

By then I was up to the minute on local commerce with a gigantic Jarrold map of Norwich, a timely mate to the two-page Baedeker version by that publisher's noted Leipzig map-maker, Wagner & Debes.

I decided that the cathedral could wait for the serenity of a Sunday morning. The castle I put on hold, too ("a Norman keep . . . 70 ft. high . . . containing fine collections of birds and fossils, the grounds surrounding it . . . a public garden").

Flowers and Fish

I was off first to the Market Place west of the castle. I found shoppers crowding before stalls under striped awnings that sheltered the day's selection of flowers and fish. Added to the site since Victorian times was a dominating city hall.

Among potential buyers testing the quality of woolen clothing, a modish woman sported a motorcycle crash helmet as sturdy as the long-wearing fashions suspended in dense display.

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