Victoria Research Web

Planning the research trip to Britain

The best preparation you can make for a research trip is to do as much of your research as possible before you ever leave home. There is little point in spending long hours at the The Newsroom in the British Library poring over newspapers that you could have looked at in digital form in an online collection, or on microfilm, at a research library a lot closer to home. Britain's libraries are wonderful, but inter-library loan can bring many of the same books to your own library. A careful review of guides to manuscript materials can help you to determine which of those materials can only be found in Britain; U.S. archives, particularly, hold many important collections of Victorian literary and historical manuscripts. Having decided what you want to see and do in Britain, it's time to do some serious trip-planning. Time is money, and you must make every day of your trip move you further along toward your research goals. 
So by way of example let's talk about a research destination that's probably on your list: the British Library.  There's a whole section on using the Library elsewhere on this site, but here are two essential things to take care of before you fly:

  1. Make sure you have an up-to-date Reader Pass, or else make an appointment to get one as soon as possible after you arrive. Take note of the required documents you must bring with you, though for most people a current driver's license and passport will do the trick.  If you already have a current Reader Pass, be sure to use it to create an online account with the Library, which you'll need for everything. You can and should use it to order books and documents in advance to be delivered to you in one of the reading rooms.
  2. Get a letter of introduction from somebody in authority who knows your work -- a faculty advisor, for instance, or a colleague -- explaining who you are and why you're a responsible scholar who can be trusted to handle rare and fragile manuscripts. The point here is to make sure you will have access to all of the manuscripts you need to see. Even if you're an old hand who has used those manuscripts before, you may find that they are nevertheless off-limits to you, especially if you have since had to renew an expired pass.  The letter must be an honest-to-goodness signed physical letter on letterhead--not an email--although you can email a scanned copy of it to the Manuscripts Reading Room. This will enable the Library's manuscripts department to upgrade your level of access.

Likewise, you'll want to check with every other place you plan to visit, whether the National Archive or a county record office, to see what similar requirements they may have for which you'll need to be prepared.  Simply showing up at an archive expecting to look at some manuscripts is a recipe for disaster; it is essential that you contact the archivist well in advance, indicating as specifically as possible what you would like to see and when you'll be arriving. Some archives are only open one day a week, or by appointment, so get those details nailed down before you leave, then mark them on a calendar.

A few tips at the outset, especially for London

Finding a Place to Stay

Note: this information goes out of date so quickly that many of the links below won't still be live, but they can still provide clues to helpful information.

General resources

London is notoriously expensive, and has become even more so in recent years. Still, there are a lot more cheap, clean, comfortable places to stay there than most people think, giving researchers on a budget a fairly extensive range of options.

Bear in mind, however, that "budget" travel can mean very different things to different people. How much money you have available for the trip, what time of year you can go, how long you can stay, whether you're staying alone or with other people, where in the UK you need to be, and, finally, how much space and comfort you consider minimally acceptable in a lodging, will all play a part in determining whether a particular option will suit your needs. Where one researcher might find dormitory life so noisy and uncomfortable that it's worth finding ways to compress the length of the research trip itself so as to afford a more tourist-oriented hotel room or B&B, another may feel that the inconveniences of a youth hostel are a small price to pay for making possible a few more precious days in the archive. Whatever your requirements, you can be sure of finding something suitable if you start early and look hard enough.

For Britain generally, listings of hostels and bed-and-breakfasts feature rooms ranging from bunk-bed grungy to quaintly comfortable at widely varying rates. The spread of American-style chains like Travel Inn, Travelodge, and Premiere Travel Inn, as well as that of the French-based Ibis, has been a boon for tourist travelers. After several rate increases in recent years, however--most are over £100 a night for a single--they can no longer be considered practical budget accommodation for researchers, however reasonable they might seem by London tourist standards.

Among online guides, Smooth Hound's hotel database, which covers all of the UK, is worth a browse, as is Budget Travel's collection of links to budget accommodations around Britain. Booking at the last minute, while not usually recommended, is hard to avoid sometimes and can even come with distinct advantages if you book through LateRooms for the best price. For London, have a look at Time Out's hotel suggestions (scroll down under each neighborhood to find the cheap ones), and browse the extensive descriptions in the LondonNet guide to selected B&Bs. See below for a more detailed guide to staying in London on a budget. There are often bargains to be found by way of flat-shares and the like; if this appeals to you, check out the latest classifieds in LOOT or TNT (look for the "accommodation noticeboard"). Some travelers have had good luck bidding on lodging through services like Priceline; depending on the season and the tactic (study up on the bidding process at BiddingForTravel), you may be able to wrangle a relatively luxurious hotel room for the price of a modest B&B. Finally, don't overlook Gumtree, a UK-based classifieds service that's a better place than Craigslist to check for leads on "holiday rentals."

Before you book any unfamiliar hotel or B&B, it's a good idea to check the archives of the Fodor's forum (under "Europe") to see what experience others may have had with it. Most places are reasonably clean and well-run, but there are always a few that should be avoided.

London Residence Halls

For short stays at peak travel times, university halls of residence are hard to beat on price; a number of British universities rent out dormitory rooms to students and budget travelers during summer and Easter vacations, and some offer weekly rates. School terms end and start later in Britain than in the U.S., for example, so these kinds of rooms aren't usually available until the last week of June at the earliest, and then through to about mid-September; Easter vacation (like "spring break" only longer) typically runs from the last week in March to the last week in April. If you can travel during the Christmas/New Year's season, taking advantage of off-peak winter air fares, you can often also find a residence hall room available from about December 15 through the first week or so of January, though of course you'll need to be careful to find out when the archives or libraries you want to visit will be open over the holidays. The easiest way to check for student rooms is to look up the website of the university in question and seek out a link to its "accommodation office." An outfit called STA Travel also hosts a search engine for student lodgings around Britain; though oriented toward longterm student residence, it features notices of use to researchers looking for places to stay, especially on long trips.

London itself, of course, has a lot of "student" housing available at these times, and you don't have to be a student to avail yourself of it; universities these days are actively seeking non-students to fill their dorms in the summertime, and some have actually built new dormitories, or given old ones a face-lift, with holiday visitors in mind. This trend has had some upward effect on prices, while on the other hand doing away with some of the grubbinesses of traditional dormitory life. Book as far in advance as you can -- by early fall of the previous year for the following summer, for instance -- as some residences fill up quickly.

The London School of Economics has got into the business of vacation accommodations in a big way, even offering specials that include sightseeing bus tours, etc. Their central London sites are still a bargain. Many of these have improved a lot in recent years: even grotty old Passfield Hall, the LSE residence nearest the British Library, has now been fully refurbished and offers such amenities as free wi-fi and a coin-operated laundry. Imperial College in South Kensington has similar offerings for summer visitors. University College London (UCL) halls available in summer (see the map) include the self-catering Astor College in Charlotte Street (see their "Information for Summer Visitors"); dormitory-style living, with shared bathrooms and no breakfast, but a good location.

The East End offers some especially good deals. In Hackney and Bethnal Green, respectively, rooms at Sir John Cass Hall and Claredale House can be had for a weekly tariff that is appealing even when you consider the cost of travel to Central London.

The University of London site has a very useful guide to halls of residence. The "intercollegiate halls" listed there are all in Bloomsbury, which is particularly handy for working at the British Library in St Pancras.

Remember that with the cheapest student housing the conditions tend to be spartan: although many of these are newly built, some are aging dormitory rooms, which often means no lifts (try to get a room as close to the ground floor as possible), no air-conditioning, no phone or basin in the room, some noise, and dragging yourself down a hallway to use the busy communal bathroom every morning. (Tip for Yanks: bring your own washcloth.) On the other hand, more expensive small hotels and B&Bs may offer only marginally better amenities, if any, while charging you two or even three times as much. In any case, don't worry about feeling self-conscious if you're too old to pass for a student--of a summer you'll see plenty of other older folk in these affordable places.

London Student Housing

Londonnet's London Student Halls Directory offers guidance to this similar style of budget dormlike accommodation, which can vary considerably in comfort and atmosphere. Cheap but sometimes noisy is the International Students House in Great Portland Street, which also has long-term (three months minimum) budget accommodation available. More subdued places offering economical London lodgings for students include the International Lutheran Student Centre at 30 Thanet Street, London WC1H 9QH, tel. 0207-388-4044 (address inquiries to the Warden), a short walk from the British Library. The Methodist International Centre, in Euston, offers long-term lodging for students who make it through their application process; avoid the expensive "hotel floor".

Staying near the British Library

Bloomsbury is a wonderful area to stay in: close to the British Library and other important libraries (Dr. Williams, Senate House, Wellcome), as well as the University of London and the Institute of Historical Research, full of interesting museums (the British Museum, of course, but also the Foundling Museum, the Dickens Museum, and others), and packed with small shops, pubs, cafes, and some of the loveliest squares in London. It's also within easy reach of many other places you may want to visit. The essential guide is the lively, intimate set of essays by longtime resident Nicholas Murray, entitled The Real Bloomsbury (2010); not much has changed since it was written.
A number of small hotels near the British Museum that used to welcome researchers--places like the venerable Penn Club--have gone out of business, squeezed by the move of the British Library to St Pancras, and finished off for good by the pandemic. A few remain, including the Thanet Hotel, and the pricey but popular Morgan, and they are at most a 15-minute walk to the library. Likewise, each of the budget B&Bs in nearby Gower Street--among which are Arran House, the Arosfa, and the Hotel Cavendish-- has its own distinct personality. In North Gower Street, Studios2Let has a number of small apartments with kitchenettes. 
A few blocks north of Russell Square and even closer to the BL, in a lovely Georgian crescent called Cartwright Gardens--Sidney Smith, Rowland Hill, and Edwin Chadwick each lived here at one time--are several pleasant B&Bs that can be a fairly good value, though not quite so good as formerly. These were all until recently family-run operations, but several have been acquired by a company that has refurbished them and raised their rates. These include the Judd (formerly the Avalon, and now incorporating the Jenkins), the Crescent, and the Mentone. Many of these have such amenities as telephones and TV; uniquely, residents of the Cartwright Gardens hotels have access to the tennis courts across the street (balls and racquets rentable on request). A newcomer, Studios2Let, has bought and refurbished the northern half of the crescent for "serviced studios" apartments, each with a bathroom and small kitchen; there's also a laundry room in the basement. No breakfast, but clean and priced about the same as the B&Bs, with a nice rooftop garden in back.  This area of Bloomsbury, near lively Marchmont Street with its bookshops and cafes and the ugly but handy Brunswick Centre, is a fun and convenient neighborhood for researchers and casual visitors, especially if you're working at the British Library.

The rooms in all of these Bloomsbury hotels are quite small, but most of them have been upgraded to "en-suite" (shower and/or toilet included) so you no longer have to pad down the hall to a shared bathroom. Each place has its special charms and can claim many loyal fans among budget travelers. Few of these B&Bs feature lifts (elevators), so it pays to ask, when booking, which floor your room is on--at Arran House, for instance, all the single-occupancy rooms are at the very top, four flights up. If nighttime noise concerns you--and in the summer you'll want your windows open at most of these places, for the breeze--it can't hurt to ask, too, for a room "at the back," away from the street. Often these back rooms look out on a quiet garden, a nice place to relax outside after a busy day; just ask at the desk for a key.

So close to the British Library that you're almost rooming inside the library is the Premier Inn directly across the street--a clean, fairly affordable place, part of a thriving chain, with all the amenities.  The windows, luckily, are thick enough to block most of the noise from busy Euston Road, and there's a handy Pret a Manger on the corner. Directly across from Euston Station, in Grafton Place, the noisy but clean Travelodge is only a few minutes' stroll away.

As you ramble about Bloomsbury you will certainly pass by the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel (formerly Hotel Russell) on Russell Square, and should pause to admire this exuberant late-Victorian brick and terra-cotta extravaganza designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll and opened on Derby Day, 1900. The dining room is said to resemble the one on the Titanic, which Doll also designed. Contemplate staying at this hotel only if pricey "luxury" accommodations are what you have in mind.  Gazing at it from the pavement, however, is free.

The Goodenough Trust

Also in Bloomsbury but in a class by itself, the London Goodenough Trust offers longer-term accommodations (commonly an entire school year) for academics, particularly graduate students. They have single and double rooms and even a few suites for families, social activities, a box at the Albert Hall, and a refectory where you can schmooze with other academic types. If they're booked, get your name on the waiting list, as vacancies do turn up. Send inquiries to the Accommodations Officer, London House, Mecklenburgh Square, London WC1N 2AB, telephone 207-837-8888. You may want to ask, too, about shorter-term lodgings at Fellowship House, as there are often some available.

London Apartments

These days many people are finding that London apartment rental can be a good alternative even for a relatively short stay, and though most of these aren't really "budget" accommodation, at the low end of the scale some aren't more expensive than the more modest hotels and offer the advantages of privacy and a place to store and cook food. The price advantage is clearest, of course, when you're traveling with others, although some studio flats are available. There is a myriad of agencies, including Home from Home, Tourist Apartments, Central London Apartments, Holiday Rentals, Short Stay Apartments, London Serviced Apartments, Nick Price, The Independent Traveller, and Holiday Apartments. (But by all means avoid the outfit calling itself, a source of chilling horror stories.) For a more complete listing, contact the British Tourist Authority (1-800-462-2748 in the U.S.) and ask them to send you their brochure, "City Apartments." And, again, to avoid disappointments it's a good idea ask around a bit online before booking anything.

Home stay

Another possibility (with some pros and cons) for budget London accommodation is arranging to stay in private homes. These fall roughly into two categories: professional and student/budget. The first works through such booking agencies as Host and Guest Services, At Home, Homestay, Welcome Home, and London Home To Home. A well-recommended service that caters to academics and medical professionals is Doctor in the House. If you're a scholar planning a research sabbatical, you may want to investigate Sabbatical Homes, a commercial classifieds service intended expressly for academics looking for flat rentals, home exchanges, and home sits. As those advertising are the owners themselves, the length of your stay can often be negotiated beforehand to suit your schedule.

The second kind of "home" stay is much more a matter of locating a spare room or a flatmate, and unlike services oriented specifically to academics, these can work out to be much cheaper than even student residence halls. Sites like RoomBuddies.Com, Spare Room, Flatmate, Flatmate Click, and Find Flatmates show you what's available within a specified radius of where you want to be. Rates can range from about £70 to £150 a week. Similarly, helps you link up with people with rooms and flats to rent, handles the money, and even features reviews from other travelers. And, again, Gumtree and other classifieds can be good places to check for "holiday rentals" for short as well as longer-term stays.

As with all other London lodgings, the farther you're willing to travel to get into the central part of the city, the cheaper the tariff; many rooms are quite a distance out from the center, so daily travel costs, and general hassle, should be carefully calculated in advance.

Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester

If you're planning to spend much of your trip in Oxford, working at the Bodleian, the University of Oxford Accommodation Office may be able to give you up-to-date information about private housing near the university. Also worth checking are the "To Let" advertisements in the Oxford Gazette as well as the listings at Daily Info, Oxford. For short stays, additional Oxford hotel and B&B listings can be found at Abodes of Oxford and Smooth Hound. One quiet gem to consider for a longish stay is Commonwealth House, across from Christ Church, run by the Oxford Pastorate Association; another, further out (a mile from central Oxford) but very affordable, is the North Oxford Overseas Centre on Banbury Road. Clean, spare, and centrally located, Rewley House in Wellington Square is run by the Department of Continuing Education. Researchers at Cambridge libraries may find that university's Accommodation Service helpful in finding a place to stay. Some short-term options also turn up in the classifieds of the Cambridge Evening News; look under "Property" for "Accommodations to let." The official tourist website for Cambridge allows you to browse B&Bs and book online; if you decide to go the B&B route, you might take note of the fact that several of them, like the Regency and the Victoria, are converted Victorian townhouses.

In both of these university towns, if you're not staying in a college and don't have a car, pay very close attention to how far you'll have to walk to get from your lodging to the archive you're working in, how steep the terrain may be along the route (Headington Hill springs to mind!), and what buses may be available to help you get back and forth in bad weather. You may find that the "easy walk to the city centre" promised by many B&B websites isn't so easy, after all, and can quickly turn into a daily slog.

Scholars planning work at such Edinburgh treasure-houses as the National Library of Scotland, the University of Edinburgh Library, or the National Archives of Scotland will want to know that the University of Edinburgh's Accommodation Services has thousands of rooms available during Easter and summer vacations. Contact Edinburgh First, the outfit within the University that handles non-student accommodation for Pollock Halls, the University's main residential buildings; these are clean, modern dormitories with small but cleverly designed rooms and a dining commons. The NLS is a fairly comfortable walk from Pollock Halls, and there is also bus service. Edinburgh First also offers a number of self-catering flats elsewhere in Edinburgh; their "medium term lets" (6 weeks or more) are an especially good bargain. For a more tourist-oriented but still reasonably affordable experience, such lodgings as the surprisingly well-appointed Smart City Hostels, or the Tweedies' Georgian guest house at No. 53 Frederick Street, may better suit your needs and are centrally located. The city's tourist board site features a number of similar options. Here's another Edinburgh-on-a-budget tip: for a reliably cheap and tasty lunch, seek out the refectory in the basement of St Giles Cathedral on High Street, a short walk from the NLS.

If you're going to be doing research in Manchester--for example, in the astoundingly rich collections of The John Rylands Library--the best deal around for self-catered summer accommodation is the Castle Irwell Student Village of the University of Salford; minimum stay is two weeks, payable in advance. The University of Manchester also has some centrally-located rooms available for short-term stays. For a brief visit, such budget hotels as the Premier Inn and Jurys Inn are near the center of the city, and sometimes run specials.

The National Archives

Finally, if you aim to do much of your work at the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office), which occupies startlingly beautiful quarters in Kew (about 40 minutes from central London by train, then a 10-15 minute walk from the station), be sure to have a look at the list of accomodations in Kew. These small B&Bs, many of them within walking distance of the National Archives, charge about £25 a night; also worth checking is Travelodge Kew Bridge, about a 25-minute walk to the National Archives. Worth checking, too, is the guide to accommodation in nearby Richmond upon Thames. As long as you're in the neighborhood, you must, of course, go to the gardens.

Getting Around

The Oyster card

Get one.  If you have a "contactless" credit card, that will work, too, but depending on your setup that might entail international service charges.  The Oyster card system -- you can get one at the machines at any Tube or railway station -- is simple, it works on railways, the Tube, and buses, and you can top it up anytime with the Oyster app on your phone.  It has made getting around London so much easier than ever before.

Airport transportation

The Tube, of course, is the cheapest way to get into central London from the airport, but can also be clumsy and bothersome--long stairs to climb, narrow turnstiles to squeeze through, no luggage racks, often shut for repairs on weekends, and impossibly crowded at rush hour. Nevertheless, many budget travelers would never consider using anything but the Tube. If you're staying in Bloomsbury, for example, the Piccadilly Line will take you directly to Russell Square from Heathrow in a little less than an hour. (There's a lift at the station--always take the lift!--but also one last set of stairs up which you'll have to lug your bag.) But if you have to change lines, or you're towing a moderately heavy bag, the Tube can be a real misery to cope with after a long flight. Luckily, there are alternatives.

The Heathrow Express service can take you to or from Heathrow and Paddington Station in 15 minutes for about £22  each way. There are signs for Heathrow Express everywhere you look at Heathrow and at Paddington, and special kiosks all over the place where you can buy tickets. It's what the powers that be want you to take: Heathrow Express is the path of least resistance, and if you don't mind the fare, it is a fast, comfortable, and efficient way to get to central London. 

But now there's a better way: the Elizabeth Line.  It doesn't have luggage racks like the Heathrow Express, but the carriages are wide enough that it shouldn't be hard to manage a bag -- and best of all, its stations have no stairs and lots of lifts.  But those aren't even the best things about the Elizabeth Line: it is much cheaper, you can use your Oyster card, it's nice and fast, and it takes you right to Central London, where it connects with Tube lines.

But say you take the Heathrow Express or the Elizabeth Line and get off at Paddington Station, then what?  It's a big, crowded place, but look for the signs for Taxis, then use the lifts and make your way to where the taxi rank is.  However, do not get in line at the taxi rank!  These are expensive black cabs and can cost a lot of money for even a short trip.  Instead, walk past the taxi rank to the sign that says "Prebooked Rides."  From that spot, use your Uber app to summon a ride.  Depending on the time of day, etc., you can get to a hotel near the British Library in about 15 or 20 minutes for about £10.

Similarly, travelers to and from Gatwick can take the Gatwick Express train to and from Victoria Station and avoid King's Cross altogether. Those taking Gatwick Express to the airport will be glad to find that Victoria, like Paddington, also has a facility for checking your luggage at the station for some airlines--look to the right of the escalators as you approach the boarding platform.  For Gatwick, look into the Thameslink trains to St. Pancras.  For the best fare, buy your tickets ahead of time online.

If you're in the mood to splurge a bit or are traveling in a group, you may want to consider a car service like Airport Transfers, London Transfers (Ray Skinner), Swiss Cottage Cars (207-431-2700), Just Airports, or Airline Car Service.  A car service is almost always cheaper than a taxi, especially if you are sharing with other people, and you can often save by paying in cash instead of  credit card.  Be sure to book in advance. Note, though, that unpredictable traffic congestion can make taxis and car services a dicey way to get back to the airport at the end of your trip, compared to the relative predictability of train or Tube; be sure to allow plenty of time to check in, go through security, and (at Heathrow) to make the extraordinarily long trek to your gate.


If you're going to be doing a lot of tourist traveling within Britain during your visit, or hitting a number of local record offices in a short period, a BritRail travel pass may prove a real bargain. North American travelers should note that most kinds of passes can only be bought in advance of your trip, at a discount not available once you've arrived in the UK. (If you're in the U.S. and prefer calling about the pass there's a toll-free number: 1-877-677-1066.) Also check out this Fodor's FAQ. Because these passes begin to expire from the first day of use, they work best for a period of days or weeks of consecutive travel, not for trips spaced at various times during your visit.

Otherwise, the main thing to remember is -- book well in advance, and pay close attention to the time of departure, as the rates can vary widely. Advance booking can make the difference between, for example, £135 pounds for a London-Edinburgh one-way trip (booked on the day of travel), and £22 (booked 8 to 12 weeks in advance), depending on departure times. If you can't book ahead, especially for day trips, the late Ben Haines's concise primer on finding cheap rail tickets remains useful. The Cheap Train Tickets Guide likewise offers practical money-saving tips. In making inquiries to Britain, remember that there is no longer any such thing as "British Rail," and never was one called "BritRail" -- referring to such non-entities will only annoy the people you're asking to help you. You can check the Web for information about this post-privatization world of railway schedules and fares or call 800/677-8585 (from the U.S.) or + 44 131535 8054 (from elsewhere outside Britain). National Rail's online journey planner lets you retrieve timetables for travel on any date between any two destinations in Britain, and lists a range of available fares. (Within the UK you can also make arrangements to access timetables by mobile phone.) The Train Line, a booking service set up by Virgin, is a good place to check for discounted APEX fares, which must be purchased at least three weeks in advance; note that there is a small fee for overseas bookings. Another booking service is the tersely named Qjump. To book trips from London to York, Edinburgh, and other points northeast, visit National Express, East Coast. For day trips near London, check the Days Out Guide for tips on discount fares.

It's a good idea to check the National Rail Service site for notices about disruptions of service. En route, subscribe to Ben Smith's Twitter-fed wiki, @uktrains, for up-to-the-minute news of delays or cancellations.


Don't even think about driving a car in London. Difficult as it was before, the introduction of the congestion charge for central London -- you must pay the £8 on the same day you drive there, or face rapidly mounting fines -- has made doing so all but impossible for visitors. If you insist, at least read about it here ahead of time.
In the rest of Britain, travel by car can make it easier to visit places you might well miss otherwise. If you're setting out from London, picking up your rental car at the airport (e.g., Heathrow), which entails a small extra charge, avoids the nightmare of London traffic. You may find that rates for car rental are somewhat cheaper if arranged through U.S. firms, though overseas consolidators can often offer good rates, as well; check out Kayak, for instance. In any case, it pays to shop around and to book in advance of your trip. You don't need a special driver's license (your one from home will do fine) but you may need supplemental insurance--check with your auto insurer and your credit card company. You may want to consult the interactive website devoted to giving advice on managing that most nerve-wracking of all UK road phenomena, the roundabout. Americans who have never driven in Britain before and are nervous about it should consider paying extra to get a car with automatic transmission, as it makes the whole "keep left" re-learning process much easier.


Trains are fast and cars are handy, but don't forget the advantages of the bus system, especially for exploring out-of-the-way places. Slow but cheap (£89 for two months), the Stray Coach (formerly "Slow Coach") bus service (71 Bradenstoke, Wiltshire SN15 4EL, tel. 01249-891-959) runs a perpetual clockwise circuit of Britain between April 1 and November 1, and you can get on and off where and when you please. Other long-distance bus options are available through the National Express system, which offers various discounted fares. For coach travel in Scotland, check out the Explorer Pass from Citylink.


For its size, London is a remarkably walkable city, but the busy or footsore researcher will have frequent recourse to other modes of transport. The Tube, as the London Undergound rail system is universally known, now has its own very useful website that includes a fun journey planner. The old array of travel passes has now been replaced by the new Oyster card, a prepaid card that gives you the cheapest available fare and can be "topped up" as necessary. No photo is required, and all you do is tap it against the bright yellow pad at the tube gate (or as you get on the bus) and then tap it again as you exit. (Don't forget that exit tap, or you'll automatically be charged the full fare.) Off-peak, one-way tube fares in Zones 1 & 2, for instance, are £1.50 with the Oyster, while bus fares within the same zones are just 90p. One of the best things about the Oyster is that, with sufficient money on the card, you never have to worry about being rejected or running up a big bill -- the fare "caps out" at a certain amount for each day, after which the travel is free. Unlike the old travelcards, the Oyster doesn't expire and can be used indefinitely, so be careful not to lose it.

Planning Tube travel on weekends calls for caution these days, as various lines have got into the habit of shutting down for repairs over the weekend, particularly during the summer; check the Journey Planner for service updates. Finally, iPod Touch and iPhone users can now make use of the fun interactive app Tube London for planning their journeys.

For the especially curious traveler, the Victorian and subsequent history of each line of the Underground is covered in astonishing detail in Clive Feather's venerable Underground Guides. (Though to revel in Tube folklore, a visit to the long-abandoned but still fun "Going Underground" will be necessary.)

London buses are under-used by tourists, but they're a great way to get around, and once you've mastered the system are actually much more convenient than the Tube for many trips. Be sure to load up on route maps; here are downloadable versions. For short hops and a bit of traditional ambiance, London's black taxicabs can't be beat. Other maps, schedules, and helpful bits of information about the entire range of London travel options--tube, bus, "light railway," ferry, and so on--can be found (if you look hard enough) on the London Transport pages. One of many fan-supported pages for the bus system is the handy London Bus Routes page, but also check out the London Buses: One Bus at a Time and Route 1 to 499 blogs, whose intrepid creators are determined to discover just what there is to see on all those mysterious London routes, anyhow.

Cycle hire is the most recent innovation for getting around London, and even casual users can get in on the act. For an access fee of £1 a day (£5 for the week), you can pick up a bike at one of thousands of docking stations and pedal your way across parks and down thoroughfares all over town. Journeys of 30 minutes or less are free; after that, your debit or credit card will be charged. The instructions on the kiosk screens are easy to follow, but it helps to acquaint yourself with the details beforehand. If you want a helmet, bring your own. There are a variety of apps for both iPhone and Android phones that can tell you your nearest docking station and other useful information on the go.

Staying Connected

A few words about your laptop

Just about any laptop made in the past fifteen years will be dual-voltage (the power brick will have something like "100-220V~50/60Hz" stamped on it) so there's no need to worry about buying an expensive voltage transformer. All you'll need, if you're coming from North America, is a plug adapter, and these can be found at Radio Shack, travel stores, airport shops, or even Boots. The adapter is cheap--don't waste money on a set of assorted "international" or "universal" adapters, just get one of the grounded "2-prong to 3-prong" kind that look like this--and, even though it's a little bulky, you would be wise to make a habit of keeping it in the same bag as your laptop.
Most libraries and archives are laptop-friendly these days--the British Library reading rooms, for instance, all have handy places to plug them in--but some smaller, less frequently visited archives may be wary of them, so ask ahead of time to be sure. For peace of mind when you need to leave your table for a few minutes, a security cable like the ones sold by Kensington and Belkin is a wise investment; usually you can just loop it around your chair's armrest.


If your laptop is equipped for wireless networking ("Wi-Fi") and you can find a "hot spot", you're all set to get online. After a slow start, Wi-Fi coverage in London has grown amazingly in the past few years, with more and more hotels and cafés going wireless. Free wi-fi is available in most Starbucks (with a minimum purchase) as well as in most Pret a Manger, Nero, EAT, and Costa shops and many small coffeeshops, as well as Pizza Express and some pubs. St. Pancras Station has wi-fi in all public areas, while Euston's coffeeshops have it. By the end of 2014, wi-fi is scheduled ot be available across the London Underground.

For researchers, the advent of free wi-fi at the British Library has been a great boon. All the reading rooms and public areas, including the café, are covered by a wireless network, and since October 2008 access has been free-of-charge to everyone. At the National Archives in Kew, an internet café near the entrance likewise offers free access to connected terminals, while free Wi-Fi is available in the adjoining restaurant. Increasingly, even small hotels and B&Bs are offering wireless, although they often add a fee if you choose to use it. Be sure to check beforehand -- some hotels charge ridiculous prices for this service. If you're bringing the laptop along anyway to take your research notes with, you can probably find a wireless network in London that will suit your needs. Even so, go ahead and pack along a short length of Ethernet cable just in case, especially if you're planning to stay in a student residence hall; plug-in Internet connections are much more common in dorm rooms than Wi-Fi.

A pleasant Bloomsbury alternative: if your university maintains a membership in the Institute of Historical Research in Senate House, Malet Street (and if it doesn't, it should) you can drop in and use the IHR's computers to connect to the Net, and make use of its photocopier, too. Individual Institute memberships are fairly inexpensive; it costs just $45 for the year to join the "Friends of the IHR," which gives you the run of the place. Through its well-stocked historical library, its pleasant tea room, and, especially, its seminars and lectures, the IHR is a wonderful place to get to know other scholars and students.

Online storage

If you want to protect your valuable notes or digital images, or to make certain that various e-documents are available to you while you're traveling, you should seriously consider signing up for an online file-storage site that lets you store and access your files on the Web from any PC, anywhere. Such storage may already be available free through your current ISP; if you're student or faculty, check with your university's computer people about web-accessible storage through your university account.  Otherwise you'll want to look into free online file-storage services like FileSavr, FileDen, Driveway, and SkyDrive, which offer substantial space at no charge. Besides offering 2G of free space, Dropbox will also sync your files across different computers and the web, a big improvement over carrying a flash drive around to make sure you're working with the latest versions of your files. For a modest monthly fee, you can combine file storage with a project-management environment like Basecamp, or use such free versions as Google Docs or Zoho.  In a pinch, you can simply email yourself documents as attachments, an option that the seven Gigs of mail storage offered by free email services like Google's Gmail, or the substantial space available through Yahoo or Hotmail, makes a practical alternative.

Flash or USB drives in various sizes have now become so cheap and versatile that it would be foolish not to take at least one along so that you can store an extra copy of essential files and make backups, as well; some even allow you to run your own programs on public computers like the ones found in Internet cafés.  If you are making scans or photographs in an archive, or an archive is making them for you,  a capacious flash drive can be the handiest way to carry them away.  But the tiny size of flash drives comes with a downside: they are very easily lost, stolen, or misplaced.  (For example, it's quite common for the distracted or absentminded scholar to leave a flash drive plugged into some library's or cyber café's computer, a lapse that may not be noticed until many hours or miles later.)  This vulnerability is all the more reason to keep copies of your most important notes and reference files on a file server somewhere.  With online storage, you can upload your files in moments to some secure and easily accessible corner of cyberspace, and enjoy the peace of mind of knowing that even if your laptop crashes or is stolen, or every single one of your DVD or flash drive backups bites the dust, all of your precious notes are safe and sound.

Remote access

There are also various ways of accessing your home PC remotely. Services like GoToMyPC and I'mInTouch offer access to your DSL- or cable-connected computer at home from any Internet-connected computer anywhere, for a monthly fee, but the free version of a program called LogMeIn works surprisingly well for most purposes, as does the somewhat more sophisticated (but equally free) Teamviewer.  You'll need to configure your home machine ahead of time, of course -- and be sure to leave it turned on! With these services, a screen-within-a-screen lets you run programs and manipulate files just as if you were sitting at your computer's keyboard at home, which can come in very handy if you've forgotten to bring a particular file along or need to look up an archived email.

Digital cameras

Increasingly, libraries and archives are coming to realize that photocopying not only eats up staff time, but is also much more likely to damage fragile materials than simply allowing patrons to snap pictures of those pages with a digital camera. Beginning in 2015, the British Library at last began allowing cameras in its reading rooms. There are still some holdouts, however, so you should check in advance with the library you are planning to visit to find out what its policies are. Typically, a library will require that you sign a form promising not to publish the images without permission, and then will allow non-flash photography without a tripod, usually only in certain areas of the library so the clicking sounds don't annoy other patrons; some will make a copy stand available for you to use. Libraries are more likely to allow you to take photos of printed materials than of manuscripts; the Bodleian, for instance, also insists on the curious restriction that you can only take photos of printed materials that were published after 1900. UK repositories that currently allow digital photography include the National Art Library of the V&A, the library of the London School of Economics, St Bride Printing Library, the National Archives at Kew, Leeds University Library, the Guildhall Library, and the University of Birmingham library's Special Collections.

You will want to experiment with the settings for your camera before your trip to find out how to take the best pictures of printed materials, and should bring an extra memory card or two just in case you run out of room. The "no flash" requirement means that you'll do best with a camera that can cope well in low light; auto-focus and optical image stabilization can help, too. You'll also want to take careful bibliographical notes as you photograph, or insert tags in the image itself, so that you can properly sort out the pictures later. (Some tips on all this from historians here, here, and here.) Be sure to check your photos before you leave, to avoid finding out months later that a page (and it will always be the most crucial one) is too blurred or dim to make out. As with your notes--see above about online storage--you can't be too careful about making sure that extra copies of the digital photos you take in a library or archive are immediately stored someplace where they can be kept safe from theft or accidental erasure. Another option is to use your cell phone camera and an app like CamScanner, which can create PDF files on the fly and upload or email them wherever you like.

Phone home

It's perfectly possible to get by in the UK for a short visit by buying calling cards or an international calls service number to phone home now and then on a pay phone, or to call an archive or B&B or whatever. But if you've grown accustomed to having your cell phone (British translation: "mobile phone") near at hand every day back home, you'll probably want to enjoy the same convenience during your research trip. If you already have a "GSM" phone from T-Mobile or Cingular, you can see about having your phone "unlocked" so that you can buy SIM cards in the UK that you can use in your phone. Otherwise, you can either rent a mobile phone in the UK or buy one to use while you're there. Renting a phone from a carrier like Travel Cell will set you back something like $20 a week, plus the cost of shipping the phone to you.

Nowadays, though, simply buying a phone to use in the UK is the most popular and potentially the cheapest option for most visitors from abroad. Low-end GSM mobile phones are getting quite inexpensive, and the SIM cards to run in them -- you buy a card with X amount of time on it--are frequently offered at steep discounts. An important advantage to buying a phone is that you'll be able to use it on future trips, as well. There are plenty of places to buy a phone online, such as Call in Europe, Carphone Warehouse or eBay--expect to wind up paying about $50 altogether--or you can save on shipping charges by waiting and buying your phone once you're in the UK. In London, mobile phone sellers like the popular Vodafone shops seem to occupy every street corner, and you can also find cheap prepaid (PAYG, or "pay as you go") phones in stationers like Ryman or even in grocery stores like Tesco. Rates to phone the U.S. vary considerably, but with a little shopping and the help of promotions you can get it down to well under 10p a minute.

And what about using your iPhone? If your phone is older and is "unlocked," you'll be able to get a cheap SIM card that will fill all your needs -- check with your provider. Or you may just want to go through your provider, like Verizon's $10/day plan for international roaming.  Phone in hand there is a world of useful apps available.

Fun Stuff

Don't get so caught up in researching that you forget to have fun! Luckily, there is a lot of fun to be had, and some of it is even downright educational. London is a city rich in free public events, including public talks by many of the world's foremost experts in their fields. The late Ben Haines routinely compiled lists of hundreds of these lectures twice a year; a similar database of lectures around the UK is browsable by date, place, subject area, etc.

Exploring on foot? Literary guides like Andrew Goodman's Gilbert and Sullivan's London (2000) and Grevel Lindop's Literary Guide to the Lake District (1993) can be wonderful handbooks for self-guided pilgrimages. (A personal favorite: George Williams's Guide to Literary London -- long out of print, but well worth seeking out.) Ben Haines came up with a set of history walks around London that is great fun, as well as a set of sites associated with working-class history. Also be sure to explore experienced guide Janet Digby's enormously informative London Footprints site for a wide range of interesting walks and sightseeing tips. The guided walking tours offered every day of the week by the venerable London Walks are another delightful way to get to know the city better. No Victorianist will fail to enjoy a visit to (or better yet, a tour of) the great Victorian cemeteries, Highgate and Kensal Green. Equally far from the usual tourist track is Clive Bettington's fascinating set of walks around the vanishing Jewish East End. VICTORIA members' suggestions of places to visit range from Port Sunlight to The Carlyle House, while Bob Speel's lively guide to Victorian art in England can help you find your way among the museums. (See also his sculpture walk down the Strand and Fleet Street.) Playgoers can find current schedules and order tickets at sites like What's On Stage, Theatre People, and the London Theatre Guide ; there's even a theatreland walking tour. And of course you can always take a tour of Parliament to pay a call on the shades of Gladstone and Disraeli.

Here's a grab-bag of other online sources for planning some 19th-century sightseeing:

Many cities and regions in Britain are represented by home pages that include information about local sights, lodging, etc. Here is a small sampling:

For other cities not listed here, try the CityNet Guide.

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Copyright 2021 by Patrick Leary.