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Shell Guides: No stone was left untold

telegraph.co.uk

Shell Guides: No stone was left untold

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 30/08/2008

Jack Watkins on the enduring appeal of the Shell guides

Of the rash of quality guidebooks that hit the bookshelves in the first half of the past century, it was the Shell Guides, with their sharp writing and atmospheric black and white photos and pictures, that elevated the medium to an art form.

  Shell Guide: No stone was left untold

The first one, on Cornwall and penned by Sir John Betjeman, was published in 1934. It was quickly followed by volumes for Devon, Dorset and Derbyshire, and the series grew, undergoing various revisions, into the 1980s.

These slender tomes, long edited by Betjeman, were at their best when focusing on small towns and villages, says Dr David Heathcote, curator of an exhibition on the books at the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (MODA) in Hertfordshire.

Metropolitan cities were mostly ignored and instead they plunged enthusiastically into the local, the particular and – above all – the peculiar.

“They were obsessed with legends and myths associated with archaeological sites, pagan rituals and green men,” says Heathcote, “and the idea of rural Britain as a rather eccentric place. They were also invariably enthusiastic about wherever it was they were writing about, even if it wasn’t especially thrilling.

“Today we’ve got the likes of the Rough Guides, which are only interested in places they regard as ‘cool’ and thus dismiss swathes of Britain as not worth visiting.”

The assumption that tourism is merely a glorified consumer experience is bad enough when applied to our oldest towns. It turns them into “anywherevilles”, with shopping and eating as the main end purpose. But, in a subtler way, it has even happened to rural parts of Britain.

The plethora of national parks and conservation areas does protect fragile aspects of the natural or built heritage, but by default has led to superficial branding by marketing bodies. It has dangerously eroded an appreciation of the locally endearing, or what Betjeman might have called the “superficially mundane”.

If some feature isn’t among the biggest or the finest, the oldest or the rarest of its type, at best it’s held as not worth mentioning, at worst derided. Some individuals in our most influential conservation organisations have connived with this approach.

In the early Nineties, the chairman of English Heritage, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, dismissed archaeology – aside, of course, from that great tourist money-spinner, Stonehenge – as just a load of “humps and bumps in the ground”.

But the Shell writers knew that it was these ancient monuments, the curvaceous bowl barrows, the crouching sarsen stones and the ghostly, gorse-clad ramparts of Iron Age hill forts that held the secrets to bygone cultures. They understood their appeal as places of mystery and adventure and their potential to arrest the imagination, even if the remains were badly eroded.

Shell authors could even turn archaeology into mystical works of art. John Piper, who ultimately succeeded Betjeman as overall editor, when writing the Oxford volume, visited the Rollright Stones and produced a sketch that transformed them into an abstract image of eerily lifelike dancing rocks.

The Guides also brilliantly honed in on villages with nothing much going on, picking out pub signs, church monuments and carvings. No book passed without a chapter on a county’s geology and the nature of farming or local industries, ever the keys to unlocking a greater appreciation of regional distinctiveness.

One of the classic Shells was written by Robert Byron on Wiltshire, in 1935. It was excellent on the country’s dairy-farming and horse-racing roots, and contained a still-topical plea for better prices for pig farmers, but also wrote affectionately of Cranborne Chase, “peppered with barrows, and haunted by many well-authenticated ghosts, including a pack of hounds.”

Most Shell writers were eccentric types. Henry Thorold, author of the last volume to be published, on Nottinghamshire in 1985, was, says Heathcote, “a Wodehousian vicar”.

But who in rational, supermarket-shopping, motorway-travelling modern Britain has time for the digressive Shell approach? The plug was pulled on the books in 1985, as people increasingly flew abroad for holidays.

Yet green tourists, or those sickened by the chaos of air travel, are tending once more to take their breaks at home. Could the era of travel with a Shell Guide for a companion return?

Heathcote, in any case, believes the Shell ethos lives on in current concerns about British culture. “It’s there in our growing enthusiasm for local food and folklore, and in strains of New Age thinking.

“The Shell vision also inspired a generation of children’s stories, such as Catweazle and Stig of the Dump, and the idea that it was perfectly possible to meet a Stone Age man at the bottom of your garden.”

The surrealist humour of the Guides, and the underlying notion of the countryside as a strange, at times sinister, place also shows a modern cast of mind. It stops the image becoming as Merrie England twee as a postcard from the Cotswolds.

“You could say the Shell philosophy reached its ultimate expression in the film The Wicker Man,” says Heathcote with a smile, “and the idea that villagers would welcome you into their homes and pubs, and then burn you alive.”

The Shell Guides: Surrealism, Modernism, Tourism is at MODA until November 2 (020 8411 5244; www.moda.mdx.ac.uk)

  • Green men: often scary, foliage-sprouting, semi-human tree figures, depicted in stone and wood carvings, found anywhere from church bosses to pub signs. Pagans probably associated them with fertility and rebirth.
  • Stone circles: stone rings usually found in the middle of fields, dating from c.3000 to c.1800 BC and thought to be sites of prehistoric ritual. Castlerigg, near Keswick, Cumbria, and the Rollright Stones, on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire borders, two of the best.
  • Hill figures: landmark figures carved into the sides of hills, most famously the Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset, and the White Horse of Uffington on the Berkshire Downs.
  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2008/08/30/eashell130.xml
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