A Blagger's Guide To: English Heritage Red Guides

Forget '50 Shades of Grey' – here are 50 volumes of history
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The Independent Culture

The Blagger has to confess to a secret passion. On those rare occasions when a book hasn't gripped or a launch party hasn't appealed, we take to the country road in search of our nation's magnificent manors, romantic ruins and fanciful follies. Therefore, it was a pleasure to note that English Heritage is to celebrate the publication of its 50th Red Guide this week.

The Red Guides launched in 2004. English Heritage had been established two decades previously, inheriting a rather staid series of guidebooks from the Ministry of Works. Various incarnations followed until the distinctive red jackets opened up visitors' imagination to a list of over 400 historic properties that range from Stonehenge to a Cold War bunker.

Bronwen Riley, the diligent series editor, told the Blagger how the titles shrugged off the shackles of civil service publishing. "Traditionally, many of the guides ended with something like 'the abbey was dissolved in 1539. It was then taken into guardianship.' Full stop. We have made a conscious effort in the Red Guide series not only to truly bring the history of the site up to the present date by recounting how it was viewed, visited, written about, treated in succeeding centuries, but we also try to tell the history of excavation and research and changing theories about the site." With three formats, a large scale for prominent properties (£4.99), narrow volumes for more modest locations (£3.50) and brief guides (£2) they prove terrific value.

Visual innovation is a key attraction. Each guide sports reconstructed period floor plans, family trees and fold-out flaps with watercolour views of the estates. And vintage photography lends an insider air: the guide to Eltham Palace, where Art Deco meets medieval grandeur, has an extraordinary shot from the 1930s of Mah-Jongg, the owner's pet ring-tailed lemur lazing in his quarters on the landing.

Oral history is equally important. Tracking down living witnesses to a place's past, Riley says, is "part of the fun". In the volume dedicated to Audley End, a magnificent Jacobean house in Essex, we learn about its covert wartime role through the reminiscence of Alan Mack. Seventy years ago, he was a captain in the Polish section of the Special Operations Executive, training agents in its grounds: "The men practised swimming in the lake. Guns were hidden round the house in hedges. People knew Audley End was a secret place at that time, but they didn't know what was going on there."

The 50th guide is on Old Wardour Castle, a 14th-century hexagonal castle burrowed away in Wiltshire. Built for the fifth Lord Lovell, a kinsman of Richard II, it passed into the Arundell family during the 16th century. Of the many details the guide reveals, perhaps the most amusing concerns the castle's convoluted plumbing: we literally see the seat of the family seat. And the saddest chronicles the end of the lineage, as John (1907-1944), the last Lord Arundell, survived Colditz only to die of tuberculosis on his return to Britain.

Within the pages of the Red Guides we bear witness to history carved out in stone and sod. Yet, crucially, these are as much biographies of people as they are of masonry and gardens. Publication of the 50th guide will be marked with a reception on Tuesday at one of English Heritage's most prominent sites, Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner. The Blagger has put the wellies away and decided to stay in town for the bash.