No crowds, no queues: it's armchair tourism

Can't escape London's seething hordes? Dominic Cavendish seeks help on screen

you don't have to stand outside the Tower of London, and be submerged in a sea of Coke cans, chips and half-eaten ice-cream cones, to realise that most tourists only know about half a dozen landmarks in our glorious capital - Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Tower Records. This can either be put down to sheer laziness or being inadequately briefed or both. But now the familiar, rather unsightly, face of modern tourism is set to undergo extensive cosmetic surgery with the launch of "the most exciting series of guides ever".

As one of seven regions to get the Heritage Guides to Great Britain treatment, London will be made more accessible, a) by a pocket-sized guide packed with information about places off the tourist route - of interest, we are told, even to Londoners, but more importantly, b) by an accompanying video appetiser presented by the star of ITV's The Travel Show, Anne Gregg. This two-pronged attack could be welcomed on the grounds that, if successful, it will either, a) redistribute unsightly tourist bulks over a wider surface area, making our attractions, paradoxically, "attractive" again, or more importantly, b) keep them from coming here in the first place by sating their appetite with the video. However, since our economy depends on a high-level consumption of chips and 99-Flakes by tourists, the makers of Heritage Guides have cleverly made the London video so irritating that few will be able to resist the call of the great urban outdoors. A couple of examples will suffice.

"Everyone works hard at selling the romance of the past," says Gregg, as she meanders off the tourist trail and into Covent Garden. Too right. Keeping up the same, dreamy smile for the duration of the 40-minute programme must have been hard work. Shown the armoury at Hertford House, she remarks: "It looks terribly violent, I'll go and have a look at a nice picture or two" (The Wallace Collection). Phrases that you turn a blind eye to in a guide-book stick in the throat when spoken out loud: "If London traffic doesn't scare the living daylights out of you, then this will" (the London Dungeon); "Like it or not, you certainly can't ignore it" (the Lloyd's building)... However, apart from some misleading visuals (no member of the public has been allowed up the Lloyd's building for at least two years), it is better shot than your average cheap and nasty tourist flick and redeems itself with a few worthwhile suggestions: the Sir John Soanes Museum, Fenton House and No 18 Folgate Street - literally a real find, as the guide doesn't have a map showing you how to get there.

Situated within spitting distance of Spitalfields Market, No 18 is a private house belonging to one Dennis Severs, who has arranged the place to look as though it is inhabited by an 18th-century exiled Huguenot family: no modern lighting, heating or sanitation. Although on the vid you see Gregg being admitted after a polite tap at the door, in fact prospective visitors have to ring and group-book in advance, but it repays the effort. Each candle-lit room is set as though the Jervis family has just left: real half-eaten pomegranates lie on the cluttered drawing-room table, bits of plate are scattered on the floor, testament to a recent argument; in the attic, there is an utterly authentic smell of urine emanating from the chamberpot. "Mr Severs slept in every room in the house to feel the different energies and discover how they should look," my Dutch guide told me, over a piped ambient soundtrack of passing carriages, birdsong and street children. "It's not a musem, it's a still-life drama, an emotional journey. Sometimes you get Americans who want to hire it for dinner, and you know at once that they are not right for the house."

Sometimes American tourists need help. Standing outside the Tower of London the other day, I asked a couple if they knew where the (Heritage Guides-listed) All Hallows by the Tower was (one of the oldest churches in London, place where William Penn was baptised etc) - it was but a few hundred yards away. They pored over their guide book and scratched their heads, "No, it's not here. Sorry, can't help you son." Their loss, no doubt, is Heritage Guides to Great Britain's gain.

Heritage Guides to Great Britain £16.99, available from 20 Mar.

To visit 18 Folgate St, call 071-247 4013

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