So welcome to the second instalment of our new column on the techy aspects of London life. This time, we’re plugging in our ipods and enjoying a new way of exploring the capital: online audioguides.
The idea of being guided round an area of interest – usually a museum – by an audio track is, of course, nothing new. We’ve all used those bulky museum players with big red buttons, which the Kids from Fame would have probably found low-tech. But the advent of ‘Web 2.0’ technologies has re-energised the concept. Now that most folk use MP3 and broadband, a rash of online resources are exploiting the idea of having a pausable city guide in your ear. So, we went on our own tech-trek around some of the leading audio sites devoted to London.
Plus points: Excellent, crisp tracks, professionally enunciated, and carefully crafted. This one’s carefully aimed at the tourist, concentrating as it does on individual and famous locations such as Buck Pal and Downing Street rather than a themed walk. Much of the guide does not require you to be on-location, allowing easy absorption on the plane over, as prep work for deciding your itinerary. In addition, iaudioguide are an international effort, offering tours of other European cities, and hooking up with further services for the traveller.
Room for improvement?: If you’re a tourist or new to London, this one’s hard to fault. The only possible downside for some people will be the all-or-nothing approach, whereby there is no option to only download certain tracks.
Cost: £5.99-£6.49 with free sample downloads
Plus points: Another site clearly aimed at the tourist market (the West End pubs walk even includes a guide to pub etiquette). But having listened to a few tracks, there’s enough depth here to also keep the knowledgeable Londoner happy. The recordings have a friendly, engaging commentary that matches the cheerful website. Eight guides are currently available and can be downloaded in one ‘full Monty’ package for the much-discounted price of £14.99.
Room for improvement?: This site seems to be a good all-rounder, and a worthy and reliable place to spend your pennies. Its challenge will be to somehow stand out from the already crowded competition.
Plus points: Possibly our favourite audio guide site for the simple reason that it has a personality. The author and narrator, Robert Wright, records his podcast walks while actually walking them. So you get a real sense of place and character – and at times fear for Wright’s safety as sirens scream past and cars honk horns. These podcasts are full of delightful insights, many of which seem to be conjured ad hoc from the filofax of Wright’s memory. This superstore of information is buttered with masterful British charm. ‘I’m still at home, I’m going to set out in a moment…Before I go, I’m going to tell you about some books I’ve been reading lately.’ Superb.
Room for improvement?: Naturally, given the unique style, these tracks lack the production qualities of some of the other sites, and Wright’s commentary can plod at times. However, this is a real eccentric gem amongst an otherwise vanilla selection of samey sites.
Cost: £5 per track
Plus points: Beautifully written walks that will be much more appealing to bona fide Londoners than those of the tourist-centric sites. There’s a heavy focus on architecture and a naughty sense of adventure – at one point we’re asked to poke around inside the Thistle Victoria (Grosvenor) Hotel under the pretence of considering it for a spot of tea. The walks are well produced, commentary is excellent and the choice of routes is the most extensive available.
Room for improvement?: Currently, there are no free samples from which to gauge quality. However, take it from us, this is good stuff.
More after the jump...
Cost: £4-£5 per guide with free previews of some tracks.
Plus points: A good mixture of textbook fact and lesser known insights. The writers have really pounded the streets in search of their stories. The result is a series of hour-long walks that will probably be most appreciated by Londoners wanting to learn more about their city.
Room for improvement? Compared to most of the competition, the recording quality is rather patchy, and lacks a professional edge. Ditto the website design. However, if you prefer substance over style, these might be the walks for you.
Cost: £5.99 for download, £6.99 for CD or cassette (remember those?). Free samples available.
Plus points: Polished and professional, with sound effects, atmospheric music and people what know how to talk proper. A Richard Briers soundalike guides you round some of London’s tourist traps, including the South Bank and the West End. Alternatively, listen to the serious tones of author Martin Fido, with an expert account of the Ripper murders. ‘As featured in the 'Best Tours of London' section of the Evening Standard's ES Magzine’, apparently.
Room for improvement? What’s there is a wonderful resource for tourists. The main problem is the lack of content – just four walks at the time of writing. The prices are also a little high, but this is an accurate reflection of the superior quality of recording.
Also worth a look
Penguin/Dorling-Kindersley recently put out a well-crafted beginner’s guide to the South Bank. This guide name checks a number of bars and restaurants, as though the publishers were road-testing potential sponsorship possibilities. Tourist Tracks, meanwhile, have a number of audio guides to various cities in southern England, including a couple in London.
Image by M@ using a shot of Big Ben from 'The Killer Biscuit's' Flickr photostream.