It's a cold winter afternoon and I'm standing in St James with not one but two guidebooks. The small chunky one is Baedeker's London and Its Environs, published in 1900. It's as thick as one of those Bibles that allegedly stop bullets. The new thin glossy one is simply called Baedeker London. It has lots of colour photos, boxed-out text for those with zero attention span and fold-out pages that catch in the wind.
The latest collection of these iconic guides goes on sale on 7 January, a set of 12 slim, glossy books covering familiar destinations like Venice, as well as more modern ports of call such as Dubai. The original tomes, German in origin, were meticulously researched, containing detailed maps, route planners, background essays and star-rated attractions. They hit the shelves in 1827 with the first English-language edition being published in 1861. Baedeker quickly became essential companions for the civilised traveller. So the two books I am holding are meant for two very different cultures, but which is a better companion round London today?
I start in front of St James's Palace, a toytown fort with a grenadier on guard, though I notice the new Glossy Baedeker refers to sentries wearing "bearskin hats", a mistake you won't find in the 1900 edition. Bearskins are known as bearskins or as "caps". What Glossy knows that I didn't is that St James is now "The home of Princess Anne". This fact is headlined in red alongside a single page of text. Glossy also tells me who else has lived here and why ambassadors to this day are accredited to St James even though Queen Victoria moved the monarchy to Buckingham Palace. I also get a list of how many royal weddings took place here.
Baedeker's 1900 edition essays very much the same material but expresses gentlemanly disappointment that it's difficult to obtain permission to inspect the interior. Nevertheless, tickets for services in the chapel are obtainable through the Lord Chamberlain. The 1900 edition also notes that the Duke of York (the future George V) was living here at the time of publication, and in a charming little disquisition in smaller type explains the importance of the St James's levees in enabling a young lady to come out. "After attending her first drawing-room she is emancipated from the dullness of domesticity and the thraldom of the schoolroom."
Strolling up St James Street is always enjoyable. Berry Bros at No 3 is one of the oldest shops in London, its blistered black faade pretty much unchanged since 1730, while at No 61 sits Justerini & Brooks which has supplied the Royal Family with blended whisky since Queen Victoria hit the bottle. Neither Baedeker mentions these national treasures. In fact, Glossy 2008 ignores St James Street entirely in favour of directing us down Pall Mall. Dear old 1900 is more interested in naming all the clubs to be found either side of St James and pointing out that Byron wrote The Bride of Abydos in Bennet Street.
On reaching Piccadilly both guides direct me to the Burlington Arcade, which 1900 describes simply as a "bazaar". Glossy gets more excited, explaining that it was built in 1819 for Lord Cavendish and its uniformed guards, known as beadles, are charged with ejecting anyone who whistles, sings, plays a musical instrument or opens an umbrella.
Skimming 1900, I note that on the opposite side of Piccadilly there should stand the Egyptian Hall where you could see Maskelyne and Cooke's conjuring tricks. This was one of the first buildings in England to be inspired by Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. Very few of these curiosities remain. The one in Piccadilly was demolished in 1905. The retail outlet that now stands in its place still bears the name Egyptian House but it shows nothing more exotic than Tumi's new range of luggage.
The changing landscape of London is also demonstrated in Glossy's enthusiasm for the nearby Ritz, which is absent from the 1900 edition because it wasn't built until six years later. There were no hotels in Piccadilly in those days. Now it's all hotels, restaurants and Hard Rock Caf with Lord Palmerston's old house lying empty.
Both guides devote some space to the Royal Academy. Old 1900 is way ahead on detail, naming all nine statues over the main entrance. It was news to me that alongside Leonardo, Titian, Phydias, Raphael, Wren, Reynolds and a man called "Michael Angelo", there are statues to two formerly great British artists: Flaxman and Wykeham.
It's left for the full colour edition to give opening hours, something that 1900 studiously avoids. Perhaps in those days a gentleman traveller applied in person. Both guides also recommend Fortnum & Mason, Glossy making afternoon tea there its "!Baedeker Tip" (odd place for an exclamation mark), while as far as 1900 is concerned, Fortnum's is a wine merchant.
I take up the "!Tip" and pay over the odds for a pot of tea and sandwiches but I get my money's worth in table rental. In fact I spent the rest of the afternoon in London and Its Environs 1900. The captivating minutiae of early Baedeker is unbeatable, a window into a world when the Lord Chamberlain had time to help with your travel arrangements.
Further reading: The new collection of Baedeker guides goes on sale on 7 January