Bloomsbury £20

The English House, By Clive Aslet

From medieval mud huts through Tudor red brick and the suburbs, England is the home of eccentricity

Towards the end of this wide-ranging, highly personal exploration, the author touches on the tensions in the marriage of the "impish genius" Edwin Lutyens. These were intensified by Lutyens' realisation that "architecture [is]... a country of the spirit for which his wife had no passport".

The English House is a passport through a nation's building trends and capabilities, from Norman times to the present. The author draws on his 30-plus years at Country Life magazine for much of his material, and even kicks off this voyage of discovery from his own London home. Aslet's choice of examples for different styles and types of housing is therefore eclectic, rather than obvious. He has alighted on buildings that have a tale to tell, rather than a lecture to give.

In less confident hands, this could have been a dry and self-regarding book. Aslet, though, writes with flair and warmth, and is not afraid to drop in light diversions that stay with the reader. As he gently deconstructs the rise of the suburb, he adds to a description of the rise of tennis as a middle-class sport a bracketed aside: "In the 1890s Sir George Sitwell told his most unsporting daughter Edith that 'there is nothing a man likes so much as a girl who is good at the parallel bars'."

This, then, is a book as much about England – its quirks, its foibles, its haphazard legacy – as it is a study of architecture. Literary references are frequent and illuminating: Chaucer, Austen, Dickens, and Betjeman are all summoned on cue. Meanwhile, Aslet weaves in houses that are associated with interesting historical figures: Buckland Abbey, occupied in succession by those Elizabethan nautical knights, Richard Grenville and Francis Drake; and The Grange, in Ramsgate, home to A W N Pugin. This is a celebration of a culture that rose from medieval mud huts, through Tudor red brick and love of "fantasy", to imperial splendour, before descending into the more workaday dwelling; the semi-detached and the pre-fab.

The narrative moves along at a fair pace. Accurate architectural and horticultural descriptions are there for the aficionado, but for the general reader there is no need to be held back by references that may be normal in the offices of Country Life – five firs in the gardens of The Wakes, in Selborne, are said to "form a quincunx" – but may send the layman lungeing for his dictionary, as a succession of fascinating topics are thrown up.

In early building, for instance, those who burnt the lime before it was "mixed with sand and water to form a paste", were frequent victims of premature death, because of the toxic fumes of their brew. Similarly, the White Tower "contains the first fireplace in England". And sycamore was chosen as the wood for milk pails "because it imparted no taste", while ash was used for wheels because it can "take knocks".

Although the book really begins with the Norman conquest, the debt to the Roman Empire is made clear throughout. Indeed, many of the Normans' earliest strongholds were constructed of bricks found at Roman ruins, for the Dark Ages found the inhabitants of England unable to remember how to make this staple building material, which the Ancient Egyptians had mastered long before. The same is true of glass, which the Romans had employed and enjoyed: it was not till Tudor order rose out of the chaos of the Wars of the Roses that brick and glass were "rediscovered".

Unsurprisingly, given that this is really a collection of essays drawn together by a very general theme, there is an unevenness to the quality of the chapters. The look at 10 North Street, in Cromford, is fascinating for its sympathetic interpretation of the privations faced by many in England as they were enslaved by the Industrial Revolution. Early in the book, Erasmus's description of the foul, spit- vomit- and urine-stained floor of an Englishman's home in the 16th century is matched by the Victorian disgrace of workers wading through excrement to reach the front doors of their overcrowded hovels.

Against that, the final chapter should not have been included. It is the author's musing on living today, and frets about the bother of having people to stay the weekend, and how teenagers prefer showers to baths.

What precedes this, though, is an entertaining and informative passage through 1,000 years of English culture, with its tendency to take two steps forward and one step back, before lurching off in another fascinating direction. It is laced with appreciation for the absurd, and is peopled by a gratifying gallery of eccentrics and geniuses. '

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine