Travel writing has long served as the next best thing to being there, and still provides something of a substitute. But many readers enjoy it as a remembrance of journeys past: a way of reviewing favorite sights from a fresh perspective. And, of course, travel writing acts as a spur, providing new ideas on where to go, how to travel, what to see, and -- most important -- what to look for. The British have always been ambitious travelers, perhaps because they are an island nation. British statesman Ernest Bevin went so far as to define freedom as being able to walk up to a ticket counter and buy a ticket to anywhere in the world. And even to those who prefer to stay at home, the idea of travel remains a symbol of the activity of the imagination, which loves to wander. ``Ever let the fancy roam,/ Pleasure never is at home,'' as Keats observed in characteristically Romantic fashion.
Judging from the flow of recent British travel books, England has proved to be, over the centuries, a veritable hub of traveling activity. We begin our survey of these books in the Victorian period with one of the great journeyers, Lord Curzon. When Curzon traveled to Central Asia in 1888, he saw the mighty Oxus, or Amu Daria, through the words of a poet who had never been there: ``In my ears were continually ringing the beautiful words of Matthew Arnold ...
`The majestic river floated on
Out of the mist and hum of that low land
Into the frosty twilight, and there moved
Rejoicing through the hushed Chorasmian waste
Under the solitary moon.''' Unlike the poets who wandered in deep realms of the imagination, Lord Curzon (1859-1925) preferred to travel ``with a purpose.'' One of his purposes was to ``form an opinion on the Eastern responsibilities and destinies of Great Britain.''
Some of Curzon's writings, dealing with Indian ``problems,'' have already been collected into ``A Viceroy's India'' (1984).
Travels with a Superior Person, edited by Peter King and introduced by Elizabeth Longford (Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 191 pp., $22.95) includes material from Curzon's ``Russia in Central Asia'' (1889), along with some slighter pieces on Egypt, Greece, Spain, Japan, and other countries. Although his tone can be insufferable, particularly when he tries to be bright and amusing, Curzon is a keen political observer. In his shrewd remarks we can see how a British imperalist evaluated the methods of Russian imperalism in Central Asia. Marvelous period photographs accompanying the text show us the remote regions then being opened up by the Transcaspian Railway.
It's especially fascinating to compare Curzon's impressions of Bokhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent with those of a later traveler (and a far better writer), Arthur Koestler, who toured Soviet Central Asia in the 1930s and recorded his views in The Invisible Writing (Stein & Day, New York, 526 pp., $12.95 paper).
Two of England's greatest and most prolific Victorian novelists, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, traveled westward -- to North America. Dickens's American Notes: A Journey (Fromm, New York, 254 pp., $8.95 paper) originally appeared in 1842, the year of his visit. Dickens was extremely interested in prisons, asylums, schools, factories, and other social institutions. He was also a delighted, sometimes shocked observer of individual character (and characters). Impassioned, informative, comical, or dramatic, his ``Notes'' reveals his sympathy for democratic aspirations and his heartfelt detestation of the institution of slavery.
Anthony Trollope, whose mother, Fanny, had written a caustic book about America 30 years before, visited the United States in 1861, just as the Civil War was breaking out. North America, a two-volume set (St. Martin's, New York, 604 pp. combined, $35), is a fascinating historical document which also happens to have been written by one of the most genial and engaging English novelists of all time. Trollope approves the high degree of literacy he finds among working-class Americans, who read and write as a matter of course, not as a special accomplishment (O tempora, O mores). He comments on the food, the manners, the hotels, the press, women's rights, and the grave crisis facing the Union. Yet he also finds time to tell us:
``American babies are an unhappy race. They eat and drink just as they please; they are never punished ... yet they are wretched and uncomfortable. My heart has bled for them as I have heard them squalling by the hour in agonies of discomfort and dyspepsia. Can it be, I wonder, that children are happier when they are made to obey orders and are sent to bed at six o'clock, than when allowed to regulate their own conduct...?''
For readers who prefer to picture their favorite authors at home instead of abroad, Britain's National Trust offers a handsomely illustrated volume, Writers at Home, edited by Gervase Jackson-Stops (Facts on File, New York, 184 pp., $22.95). Aside from a glaring error -- (mis)identifying a woman photographed with Thomas Hardy and the Prince of Wales as the ``Princess of Wales'' (this Prince of Wales had no Princess; not until years later, when he was already the Duke of Windsor, did he marry Mrs. Simpson, who, in any case, is not the woman in the photograph) -- this is otherwise a charming book. Featured contributions include Mary Moorman on Wordsworth at Cockermouth, Michael Holroyd on Shaw at Shaw's Corner, Ian Campbell on Carlyle at Cheney Row, Frank Tuohy on Henry James at Lamb House, Quentin Bell on ``A Bloomsbury Circle in East Sussex,'' and more.
The vanishing, indeed, all but vanished, breed of ``Great London Houses'' is brilliantly evoked in the lively, informative text and many fine illustrations of Christopher Simon Sykes's Private Palaces: Life in the Great London Houses (Viking, New York, 352 pp., $25). Sykes identifies the few great houses still extant -- in whatever altered states -- and he also re-creates a sense of what London was like in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, when a multitude of ``private palaces'' dominated the cityscape. This book, well researched and urbanely written, focuses not only on architecture and furnishings, but also on the kinds of social life that flourished amid such glittering surroundings.
Travelers in search of medieval England are most likely to find what remains of it in the countryside, according to medieval historian Colin Platt. The Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: Eight Tours for the Weekend and the Short Break (Secker & Warburg, London, distributed by Salem House, illustrated, 249 pp., $17.95) maps out tours to eight areas with rich medieval associations, including the Cotswolds, the Vale of Gloucester, West Dorset, and North Yorkshire. Platt points out priories, monasteries, castles, and cottages, giving details of the historical background, and he even offers advice on good places (not necessarily medieval) to dine and to stay in while pursuing the past.
Dating from pre-Roman -- indeed, pre-Druidic times, the stone circles and massive earthworks of Avebury have received less notice than Stonehenge, some 20 miles to the south. But to archaeologist Aubrey Burl (and others who ``discovered'' the site in centuries before him), Avebury is still more impressive. What motivated the Neolithic builders to undertake this long, backbreaking enterprise? Prehistoric Avebury (Yale University Press, New York and London, 275 pp., illustrated, $12.95 paper) is a comprehensive, exhaustively researched study that tries to separate what is thus far known about these mysterious monuments from a good deal of specious scholarship (e.g., UFO theories) on the subject.
In prehistoric times, Langdale in the English Lake District was an important center for the manufacture of stone axes. More recently, however, the most powerful attraction of Lakeland has been its ability to elude history and retain its natural identity. Alfred Wainwright, author of popular Lakeland guides for those who are wise enough to explore this loveliest of landscapes on foot, describes some of his favorite walks in a magnificently illustrated book too large to carry in a knapsack but perfect for those who wish to recall past excursions, plan new ones, or simply contemplate the ``solemn imagery'' of rocks, woods, grassland, lakes, mountains, hills, sky, and waterfalls that inspired Wordsworth. Fellwalking with Wainwright, with photographs by Derry Brabbs (Michael Joseph, London, 244 pp., $22.95), conveys the harmonious blend of softness and ruggedness, beauty and sublimity, so characteristic of this landscape: ``... its rocks,/ Its woods, and that uncertain heaven, received/ Into the bosom of the steady lake,'' as Wordsworth described it in ``The Prelude.''
One seldom associates the Lake Poets with haute cuisine or charming hotels, yet these days there are a number of excellent places to stay and to dine in the vicinity -- indeed, all over England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, town and country. Over the past three decades, Egon Ronay, a Hungarian, and his ``Guide'' have done perhaps more than anyone else to raise standards of food and accommodation in the U.K. Egon Ronay's Lucas Guide, published annually (Egon Ronay Organization, London, in association with St. Martin's Press, New York, 864 pp., illustrated, $14.95 paper), provides sprightly descriptions of hundreds of hotels, inns, and restaurants in Great Britain and Ireland. Its judgments are unusually sound and -- unlike Michelin's Blue Guide with its ironclad categories -- backed up with lots of specifics: prices, amenities, specialit'es de cuisine. By following this guide one can, in fact, eat -- or imagine eating -- as well as, if not better than, in many European countries, including France. In past years, in addition to its already extensive coverage, the ``Guide'' has boldly explored such unexpected areas as airline food, cross-channel-ferry food, and catering in Britain's armed services.
The 1986 edition features ``a fresh look'' at supermarkets, including carryout food, so useful to tourists. And as a special treat, there's a wonderfully descriptive guide to the best places in London to enjoy that most English of institutions, afternoon tea.