British Library

Open 9.30 - 6. Free Entry.

The British Library is, like the National Gallery and Tate Modern, the sort of place to visit if a London-y weariness grinds its way into your being. The building itself is alive with the buzz of creativity; laptops and smartphones laid out carefully on the crammed workspaces, crossed legs and open books, spacious cafes and restaurants where tourists compare photos and stories. But that's probably not what you're there for. 

 Jane Austen's diary

Jane Austen's diary

The real highlight is the 'Treasures of the British Library' exhibition, an intentionally cold, dark room that protects its precious cargo. There is an array of fascinating material, ranging from sacred religious texts to the handwritten lyrics to The Beatles' Ticket to Ride.

 James Bond visits Berlin.

James Bond visits Berlin.

Our particular interest, of course, was in the literature. We loved it. Seeing a first draft of something you have become so familiar with is a powerful thing. Thomas Hardy's manuscript of Tess of the D'urbevilles, his thought processes clear from the corrections he has made. 'Vehemently' scored out and replaced with 'impetuously', characters turning instead of moving. Only a pane of glass separating you from the first draft of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'How Do I Love Thee', recited dozens of times by and to you in high school, more real than it's ever been in her handwriting. George Eliot's 'Mill on the Floss', printed and handwritten, side by side. Jane Austen's diary, written in the same scrawling script that penned some of the greatest love stories ever told. 

Philip Larkin talked about the 'magical quality of manuscripts', and nowhere have we felt it more easily than here. It's not the works that come to life so much as the writers.

When we visited there was a free exhibition on '140 years of recorded sound', which contained recordings of Sylvia Plath and James Joyce (one of only two in existence). We sat in one of the dark little boxes provided and let Plath's 'Tulips' wash over us, transported back to the hall where she recited it. 

As we left we had to remind ourselves that these people were long gone, and these records of their work are what we have of them now. We had a real spring in our step, happy to be in London, happy to live in a place that preserves and showcases such wonderful things. And all for free.