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Reflections: Where shall we go? The story of our local guide books

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THERE is a long story behind our guide books based, I suppose, on a natural human desire to describe to others the objects of beauty and of interest in the landscape.

Who has not had their breath taken away on suddenly discovering a view that exudes charm and even fascination? Felt especially when crossing high ground overlooking a varied valley below with a characteristic mix of agricultural fields, some given over to the plough, others left as pasture to feed the grazing herds of cattle, punctuated by villages and patches of woodland. Or to stand on harbour quays, such as Lymington, to watch the boats bobbing on the gentle tidal swell.

Even the least literary person may well be tempted to select a postcard depicting a favoured view in full colour to send to a family member or special friend, with perhaps the briefest comment on the scenery.

Even back in Tudor times travellers such as John Leland who in the 1530s was given a royal order to search out antiquities in England, or the courageous Celia Fiennes who, about a century later, travelled side-saddle to visit and describe not only the beauties of the countryside but also its activities such as salt manufacturing in Lymington (by far the best early description we have).

New Forest ponies
New Forest ponies

Then we have polemical travellers who in addition to admiring the landscape and places through which they pass raise a critical voice to express the perceived bad conditions and treatment they witnessed and none more so than William Cobbett in his Rural Rides (1830s).

The end result was an eclectic array of books, individually interesting but selective and opinionated. There must have been other writers who saw advantages in providing a more systematic approach.

Who they were I have no idea but around the 1870s, about the time of the passing of the Bank Holiday Act, the publishers Ward Lock & Co created a series of practical and factual guides aimed specifically at those who sought long or short breaks in the countryside or in the coastal resorts, first made attractive by royalty (Brighton and Weymouth). It might be described as the beginning of the democratisation of holidays.

A most enjoyable and, at times, amusing account of this process is contained in a volume entitled A Brief Jolly Change being the diaries of Henry Peerless 1891-1920, edited by Edward Fenton (2003). It appears he only kept the diary to describe his annual holidays, but what a picture they paint!

He was a Sussex business man who took his family all over Great Britain for their holidays, travelling by horse-drawn carriage, steam train, steam ship and eventually motor car. Three of his holidays were in the New Forest in the years 1900, 1907 and 1917, all wonderfully described.

In a year when we commemorate the conclusion on the First World War the diarist’s closing comments of his last New Forest visit are worth recalling: “…we hope the nightmare of war may have passed and the world become sane again.” Little knowing then that their eldest son, 2nd Lieut. Cuthbert Henry, Royal Sussex Regiment, was to lose his life in May 1918.

The later guide books

In 1933-4 Arthur Mee (1875-1943) devised the idea of writing a comprehensive guide county by county. Wisely, he started with an introductory volume, Enchanted Land (1934) in which he described his aims and plan. The series was to be called The King’s England (George V) and was distinctly educational and patriotic in its aims.

Descriptions were invariably, but not exclusively, related to the historical context of each location or building described. The series quickly became very popular and, with carefully edited and updated texts, has remained in print ever since. The Shell Guides, with a rather different slant, soon followed and were aimed at the then growing motor car owning class who had much greater freedom of movement.

They did not replicate the rather weighty tomes of Arthur Mee (e.g. Hampshire with the Isle of Wight ran to 500 pages) but mostly kept to fewer than 200 pages with photographs integrated within the text. Well-known and notable authors were chosen to write the description and work closely with the photographer. It proved a popular and highly regarded series.

Meanwhile John Betjeman and John Piper as photographer, both of whom had been prominent in the Shell Guides, started to collaborate on the first two titles in a new innovative series entitled Murray’s Architectural Guides, which they had suggested to the publisher Jock Murray as far back as 1943. But largely because they seemed very specialised and bore a hefty price tag they did not take off and after only three volumes the project was abandoned.

The Pevsner Buildings of England guides

In the 1930s a Jewish-German scholar and university lecturer whose subject was architecture, Nikolaus Pevsner, rightly fearing the situation in Nazi Germany, escaped to England, was granted asylum, and found an academic post as lecturer and tutor in Birkbeck College, London. He was already regarded as an authority on the subject of English (mainly historical) architecture.

Frustrated by the lack of a good architectural guide to his adopted country, he agreed in 1945 to write for the Buildings of England series being strongly promoted by the popular publisher, Penguin Books. The intention was to dedicate a single volume to each county.

Prof. Pevsner agreed to shoulder this task and initially with two German art historians “embarked on a ferocious schedule of work” involving long hours of visiting every building in each county that he was to describe. I think perhaps rather curiously Cornwall (1950) was to be the first county covered. In 1969 he was knighted in recognition of his achievements.

Nevertheless, Pevsner, himself, was aware that omissions and shortcomings in his survey could not be avoided and in an early volume, South Devon (1951-2), he concludes his foreword with an acknowledgement of this fact: “I shall be most grateful to any user of this book who will draw my attention to omissions and factual mistakes. There are bound to be many.”

Unusual for an author to make such a confession but in had the effect of involving those who read and made use of the volumes. It was an encouragement for readers and has percolated through to our own time when, for a number of years, amended new editions have been published, now by Yale University Press, which still acknowledging the work of the pioneer-founder.

The splendid new Pevsner for our area

The most recent volume is entitled Hampshire: South (Yale UP. 2018), it includes all the A&T circulation area, succeeding the original volume published in 1957, covering all of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Previously some users had been rather put off by Pevsner’s rather terse style and his continual use of abbreviations. The recent editors have tended to be rather more descriptive by providing more context and background for the buildings described.

This current volume, for example, devotes nine pages to Lymington, in contrast to the mere three in the first edition, and Lyndhurst’s meagre two pages is expanded to seven thus providing space to describe more buildings and structures, fleshed out with background information.

In addition to the fuller text, the new volume contains 124 high-quality full colour photographs and many illustrations in the text in addition to plans and maps. Those I particularly enjoyed included a very fine photo of Anne Cockerell’s monument in Lyndhurst church. In fact, I think the best I have seen.

Another gem is the photo of the highly decorative and colourful chancel of All Saints, Thorney Hill painted by PhoebeTraquair in the early 1920s often using local folk as models. The photo makes it look better than in real life. This displayed within the only church designed by the significant Arts and Crafts early twentieth century architect Detmar Blow. I think the building is quite a masterpiece in its own right.

Something I have never yet seen is St Dominic’s Oratory in Shirley Holmes, a superbly executed piece of work in timber, constructed .1999-2002.

I was much taken by the editor’s comment on Minstead: “A picturesque and rewarding church, especially for those who enjoy church interiors that escaped Victorian restoration.” Though perhaps rather surprisingly without repeating the reference to Whitby church made, I think quite properly, in Pevsner’s first edition. After all, Mark Chatfield in his splendid Churches the Victorians Forgot (2nd ed. 1989) begins his description of the church with the observation: “Whitby is the unrestored church par excellence not even Minstead” can rival it.

One of the bonuses in the new book is the inclusion of the three railways stations at Sway, New Milton and Hinton Admiral all constructed at the same time and all to closely similar designs, during the building of the Bournemouth Direct Line in the early 1880s. They each have brick with terra cotta dressings and showing quality in their design.

In terms of purely historical architecture are the descriptions and details of the magnificent Priory Church in Christchurch – very good in the first edition but now refined by Simon Bradley in the new book and with a good clear plan in the text. It is probably the best accessible description we have of this significant and important structure.

Pevsner and those who worked with him on his architectural guides were always keen to enlist the help of local individuals who had specialist knowledge and in the new volume. For example, Mary Baldwin of Ringwood assisted with her specialised knowledge of the town and the Beaulieu entry was enriched by the contributions of Susan Tomkins.

I was personally pleased to see an acknowledgement of the Christopher Tower Reference Library in the New Forest Centre ) which I know was used extensively by Bruce Bailey, the editor covering the south-west Hampshire area. Such encouragement and use of local expertise does much to enrich the value of the book and, I hope, encourage users to look and study the locality with greater commitment and enjoyment.

The broad overall descriptions of the various architectural periods in the introduction are truly educational, and I found the descriptions enriched by an excellent two-page map of the area and a really clear, simplified geological map.

It is obvious the book is designed to be actively used and not just referred to and for those who perhaps have a limited knowledge of architectural features and nomenclature. It has a fine glossary describing clearly a great number of architectural terms, ranging through the classical period to everyday, vernacular architecture and enhanced by eight pages devoted to very clearly drawn architectural details which explain most of those details that might otherwise be obscure.

To our catalogue of guide books, both locally and nationally, Nikolaus Pevsner made a very significant, if rather specialised, contribution (after all that was why he was knighted in 1969) and the fact that one by one they are being updated and reissued by Yale University Press must enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of the area in which we are privileged to live.

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