British Library review
The British Library is a construction of such monumental ugliness that it's worth seeing simply for that. Come and see the ugliest building in London! It's as if they've tipped a billion bricks into a pile and now they're waiting for the builders to start putting it all together. Only they won't. Because it's finished. This is it. Now it just sits on the side of the Euston Road in the same way that your black bin bags do on dustbin Monday. It's too big to chuck a tarpaulin over it.
There's only one real exhibit for a tourist to look at, and that's the 'Treasures of the British Library' room. It's like a little museum of the written word, I suppose, with handwritten manuscripts by the biggest names around. And when I say the biggest names around, that's not an exaggeration... the first cabinet you see has bits and pieces by Leonardo da Vinci and William Shakespeare. You can see a few pages from da Vinci's notebooks and a few Folios of Shakespeare's sonnets. After that you have some handwritten music manuscripts by the likes of Mozart, Bach, Puccini, Chopin and Elgar. Then it's onto some literary drafts by Shelley, Jane Austin and Oscar Wilde.
Around the corner they've got copies of Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (both 1,000 years old), the Lindisfarne Gospels (even older), and then you get onto the really old stuff -- ancient texts from the Middle East. They've got Bible fragments from 300 BC. There are display cases filled with early Christian texts, Hindu texts, Buddhist books, Islam, Chinese, Japanese... all beautifully decorated like stained glass windows on paper.
Some of the historical documents on show are almost unbelievable. They've got Nelson's last letter to Lady Hamilton written shortly before the Battle of Trafalgar began, in which he writes ominously of sighting the French fleet. (That's the letter they found sitting unfinished on his desk.) There's another incredible letter from Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey begging him to get a move on with Henry's divorce -- they've written it together like a couple of giddy teenage kids. There's another one that King Charles had smuggled out of Carisbroke Castle whilst plotting his escape, and the history book that Sir Walter Raleigh wrote whilst banged up inside the Tower of London. They've got several letters from Elizabeth I, and a cold finger scrawl by Captain Scott, scratched out whilst waiting for death on his Antarctic expedition.
The roll-call of famous names is certainly impressive, but whilst it's interesting enough peering at the faded pages to see what Henry VIII's handwriting looked like, they're all incredibly difficult to decipher. The real interest comes from seeing them, not reading them. That's what you're really here for: to look at their handwriting. Whether that's worth wasting an hour of your holiday on, well... I'm not so sure.
You can have a cup of tea in the cafe if you want, but that's basically all you can do as a tourist. The British Library isn't like a normal library where you can sit down for an hour and read a few books in your lunchtime. If you're hoping to work your way through War And Peace then forget it. If you want to get into the library section of the building then you need to apply for a Reader's Pass beforehand, which no tourist is going to do.
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