“As any fule kno”, cartoonist Ronald Searle was the man who injected a spirit of anarchy into the British education system through his St Trinian’s books. Searle also illustrated the Nigel Molesworth stories, in which author Geoffrey Willans took us inside that other great seat of learning, St Custard’s prep school. He’s less well-known as the illustrator of Exploring London, a Shell Junior Guide that was published in 1965.
I can’t find any information on other Shell Junior Guides or on Isobel Barnett, the self-confessed “provincial mother” who wrote this well-researched but now hopelessly out-of-date book. But this 96-page paperback (priced at 8/6) is a great way to time-travel back to London in the mid-60s, in the company of the always entertaining Searle.
When this book was written, the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington was a relatively new attraction, there was only one Tate Gallery (on Millbank), and the GPO Tower (now the Telecom Tower) with its revolving restaurant wasn’t due to open until 1966.
As Searle’s illustration shows, the Tower of London’s unbeatable combination of Beefeaters and bloody history never goes out of fashion.
The then new Centre Point building just off Tottenham Court Road is optimistically described here as a “graceful addition to the London skyline”. Brutalist architecture has been in and out of favour several times since the mid-60s, but at least some of the old monuments and buildings have been cleaned up since this book was written.
In those pre-Google days, the reference section in Exploring London must have been “a boon to families staying in London”. There’s advice on where to hire a pram (Harrods of course), get the London weather forecast (just dial WEA 2211), or enjoy an “entertaining” fry-up with the kids at one of the Lyons Corner Houses.
Those were the (innocent) days when hiring an escort from Universal Aunts in SW3 didn’t have any sleazy connotations.
The much-loved Routemaster buses depicted in Searle’s vibrant cover illustrations are now out of general commission (though they’re still in use on Heritage routes).
Exploring London recommends a visit to “London Airport” to enjoy plane spotting, but as any resident of west London knows, you can now stay at home and do this too.
Other outdoor attractions like Kew Gardens, the riverside at Richmond and Hampstead Heath can sometimes be enjoyed in peace and quiet these days, but you have to accept that low-flying aircraft will be enjoying a birds-eye view of you communing with nature.