Over the last week (in something approaching a fit of remorse at buying yet more books which I have long since run out of room for), I have embarked on an exceedingly rare and, to be honest, half-arsed clear-out of my very small and now rather overcrowded study. Fortuitously for anyone reading this – who would otherwise now be being treated to a study of the politics of James Bond in 2021 – in amongst the mounds of political novels which have been read once and then discarded and mundane memoirs, I came across an interesting, if modest-looking, 35-year-old publication from what was then the English Tourist Board (ETB).
Established in 1969 by the Wilson Government's Development of Tourism Act, the ETB was the predecessor to today's Visit England and was tasked with advising the government on tourism south of the border, providing 'a welcome for people visiting England' and encouraging the English to holiday at home.
This volume, Let's Go 1985/86
, was the thirteenth in a series of guidebooks, intended to catalogue the best hotels around the country, advise holidaymakers on the nearest attractions open during the Let's Go
season (from October to March) and record the location of each of the Tourist Board's Information Centres. Curated from questionnaires submitted by hotel proprietors who had paid a small fee and agreed to abide by the Tourist Board's seven-point Code of Conduct to have the guidebook's authors visit and then promote their establishments, Let's Go
also offered punters a discount on their accommodation when booking a 'Let's Go
In addition to featuring six categories of hotels across 12 regions – one class, which must have been truly dismal, guaranteed guests that linen would be changed 'at least weekly' and always for every new guest – Let's Go
also carried adverts for Calotels ('the Best of Bargain Breaks!'), Best Western, Golden Rail's 'Short Break Holidays' and National Express's 'Bargain Breakaways'. A particular favourite of mine is for 'Highlife Breaks' and features a rosy-faced moustachioed sheep farmer promoting more than 60 hotels with rooms from as little as £15 per night and a Beefeater – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Henry VIII – encouraging sightseers to book a 'London Town Weekend' from just over £20 per night.
It should be said that this ETB guidebook focuses on autumn, winter and spring holidays – reflecting increased demand for short breaks by emphasising that whilst 'summer has long been recognised as the time to take a holiday… new traditions are being born' – stressing that holidaymakers could secure better value and see England's 'beauty much enhanced by peace and quiet'.
The publication of Let's Go 1985/86
also coincided with the second year of the 'England Entertains' promotional campaign which championed the country's music, dance and theatre ensembles who would be performing in pubs, hotels and village halls up and down the country. Urging holidaymakers to 'see it live', the England Entertains campaign reportedly catered for everything from 'Pookiesnackenburger to Purcell, brass bands to ballet, Shakespeare to Stoppard, and clog dancing to carnivals'.
Having previously written about how the Scottish Tourist Board, which used to claim that 'there's a world of difference in Scotland' presented the country in the 1970s – perpetuating the 'shortbread-tin image' which resulted from what Andrea Peach has called a 'surfeit of its own heritage, burdened with its indelible iconography of tartan, thistles, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Brigadoon
' – Let's Go
offers a fascinating insight into how the tourist authorities down south presented England a decade later.
The introduction stresses the varied locations of its hotels but Let's Go
plays on the 'Green and Pleasant' perception of England, recommending that its readers concentrate on enjoying the countryside and singling out 'the richness of hedgerows and woodlands' and the serenity of the Lakeland Fells in autumn, 'the September sun glinting on the cobbles of a quaint fishing village' and the snow-covered 'villages and fields of the Cotswold Hills' in deepest winter for special attention.
The ETB divided England into regions – something that is always fraught with difficulty as any aspiring constitutional theorist seeking to solve the conundrum of English devolution soon discovers – which covered the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside, East Anglia, and the South East of England. More unusual designations, however, included the 'Heart of England' which stretched from Bristol up to the tip of Shropshire and across to the border of Northamptonshire where the 'English Shires' began. The ETB also resisted the Victorian temptation to refer to the Torbay area as the 'English Riviera', instead opting to enclose all of Avon, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Western Dorset, Wiltshire and the Isles of Scilly within the West Country.
The keen observer would also have spotted that, while Let's Go
devotes 10 pages to the capital, recommending dozens of hotels in Central London as well as some in North and West London (besides one in Bexley in Kent and another in East Molesey in Surrey), it fails to recommend a single hotel in East London. Even its map of the city goes no further than Liverpool Street Station. Therefore, the discerning traveller who wanted to witness a game at Upton Park, as John Lyall led West Ham to their highest ever league finish (third in the old First Division), would have to lay their head in an establishment unknown to the ETB in London's darkest East End.
Although Let's Go's
almost exclusive focus on hotels – ranking them by the quality and spaciousness of their bedrooms and whether they required guests to share bathrooms – looks especially dated in the age of Airbnb, 'glamping' and even P&O's 'Staycation Cruises', its message that vacations at home have the potential to 'lift flagging spirits and reconcile us to the daily round' during the 'long, hard haul from one summer to the next' seems to be particularly apt in these Covid times.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly