The Guides: Green and pleasant lanes

Betjeman's county-by-county companions were the first travel books to engage a nation of new drivers. Jack Watkins maps their appeal

There have been few areas of John Betjeman and John Piper's creative lives that have not been pored over by researchers over the years, but the Shell Guides are not usually among them. The Guides, published as a series of handbooks on the British landscape between 1934 and 1984, are often dismissed as marginal to both men's work. Like a couple of classical actors slumming it in a soap, the pair's involvement in guidebook production has been viewed as a descent into naked commercialism and superficiality.

It's an interpretation that historian David Heathcote, author of the recent A Shell Eye on England, rejects, arguing that they helped shaped our modern cultural understanding of rural and non-metropolitan Britain: "The fact is that the pair involved themselves with writing and editing these books for decades, and a lot of learning and thought went into making them good. They were as serious a part of their work as Piper's paintings or Betjeman's poems."

For the last four years, Heathcote has made the Guides a subject of special study. The curator of a successful exhibition at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, in Hertfordshire, he's also written and presented a BBC4 documentary which, with its good humoured and Betjemanesque air of knowledge lightly worn, seemed to inhabit the Guides' creative spirit. His book can claim to be the first long study of the series, which he likens to "an early form of multimedia, part Picture Post magazine, part TV programme, but in book form".

"The Shell Guides were radical in their bold use of pictures," he explains. "Their creators grasped that the radio-listening, TV-watching masses of the 20th century needed something shallow and visual, something quickly accessible in the car and free from the long, stuffy narratives of most guidebooks of the time." In fact, for a generation of dwellers of the cities and suburbs, Shell Guides were the prime introduction to making the most of a visit to the countryside. It's a theme that seems strangely relevant once more as the National Trust rolls out its Outdoor Nation campaign, aimed at overcoming the apprehensions it says modern townies hold about rural Britain.

Heathcote believes the country versus town divide is artificial, but he can relate to the point. Growing up in south London in the 60s and 70s, his father was a civil servant who would pack the family into the Austin each year and head off for holidays in Cornwall. On arrival, the itinerary of "authentic" country experiences – Arthurian sites, ancient monuments, stately homes and cream teas – was shrewdly concocted from a Shell Guide borrowed from the local library. There's a mildly elegiac quality to Heathcote's writing in A Shell Eye on England, as he describes these British vacations "of a kind now lost in a rush to the sun by air: the Sunday drive, the weekend away, two weeks by the sea at Easter and the long drive".

Cornwall was Betjeman's favourite county too. A keen amateur botanist in his youth, he'd also become a confirmed church crawler, combining this with an ardent conservationist's predilection for Georgian and Victorian architecture. He'd nurtured the idea of a new type of guidebook for several years, before getting the go-ahead from Shell for a series aimed at the motoring "bright young things" of the period. The first Guide, by Betjeman on Cornwall, was published in 1934. It featured information on bird and plant life, local food, prehistoric Cornwall and, in what was to become a distinguishing feature of most of the Guides, an ability to find appeal in the seemingly mundane.

As an actual guide, Heathcote says it wasn't particularly good. But it sold well enough for Shell to commission more, with Betjeman's Devon Guide coming out the following year. The latter's photographs, including one of a winding, high-banked Devon lane, summed up the pleasure of travel on the open road, and the anticipation of rustic thrills ahead.

As Guides editor, Betjeman commissioned other writers, usually known to him, with mixed results. Christopher Hobhouse had participated in the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932, and his writing on Derbyshire (1935) conveyed a breezy love of the Peaks, and a warm fellowship with the inhabitants of the nearby metropolises of Sheffield and Manchester, who went for rambles in the hills. CHB Quennell and Peter Quennell's Somerset (1936) however, was merely windy. Its rhetoric must have floated over the heads of its intended readership and drifted off down the Avon.

Robert Byron's Wiltshire was much better, buoyed along by its travel writing author's love of antiquity and archaeology, for which there is scarcely a richer county in England. Its cover was fittingly eccentric, a Country Life meets Rodchenko montage of sheep, pigs, bee-keeping maidens, wrinkled old crones and whiskery rustics, topped by a Palladian bridge and a stately home – an indication that, even if the Guides were soft-left in sentiment, they tacitly accepted the rural social hierarchy.

Heathcote says it was the ability of the Shells to "see beauty in the quotidian detail", and to be enthusiastic even about quite ordinary places that hold the keys to their charm. "Most guidebooks today, by contrast, are only interested in places they regard as cool... dismissing vast swathes of the countryside as not worth visiting."

One of the most memorable of all the Guides is Dorset (1936) by the Surrealist artist Paul Nash, who took his commission so seriously he went to live in Swanage for a year. Nash suffered long-term shell-shock from the First World War , and found peace and solace in the countryside.

Visiting Wittenham Clumps, a pair of round-topped hills crowned by beeches, he'd sensed unease and loneliness, as well as a sense of history, and hatched the idea of "places" – areas "whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment which cannot be analyzed... The secret of a place is there for anyone to find, though not, perhaps, to understand." In this, Nash uncovered not merely a fertile source of artistic inspiration, but the key to unlocking a true feeling for the outdoors. Heathcote says: "Nash found a language to tempt the tourist to a grassy mound by evoking the poetic."

I recently visited Heathcote at his home in Saffron Walden, an appropriate spot given that Norman Scarfe in his Shell Guide to Essex (1968) praised it as the best-looking small town in East Anglia, notable for the way it merged into the surrounding countryside. We went for a Shell-style stroll in what he jokingly calls the "Essex Heights", and for which he is campaigning to have its status raised to Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as the "Hundred Parishes".

We followed the field edges bounding the prehistoric Icknield Way, looking over to distant views of the Fens. Heathcote pointed out farm buildings, visually appealing in a tumbledown way, a "magical" white hart in a herd of deer, and a buzzard soaring overhead. But we didn't pass another soul as we ambled along, most walkers being, as he says, "seekers of the sublime", whereas this long-tended, human-scale farmed landscape was a type much underrated. It felt to us like one of Nash's "secret places".

This relish in the "authentic" and unprimped countryside was, along with the emphasis on self-discovery, an idea Piper in particular was keen to promote in the later Guides. But it's a very different view, I'd imagine, from the one a new Outdoor Nation would expect – of special waymarked routes, interpretation boards, viewing points and, doubtless, a pricey restaurant coffee at the end of it all. Have the Shells anything to offer the new staycationers and potential country-visiting converts of today, or are they just a nostalgia fest for those with fond memories of childhood family holidays?

Heathcote thinks they do have something to offer "because they touch on the ugly, the arcane and the useful – not only the heritage beauties. None of the guides from the 1960s onwards is so out of date that they cannot be used as a Guide. In general, most of what is in them is still there. Their detailed look at quiet, remote villages and their photographs guide you to a country you might think lost as you whizz along the motorway."

I can imagine Heathcote, with his catholic tastes, and his feel for the past mingling with essentially progressive instincts, as a Shell Guide author. Unfortunately, travel guide books are notoriously unprofitable, and a Shell-like revival seems unlikely. But should any enlightened publisher be ready to give it a go, they know the man to call.

A Shell Eye on England is published by Libri Publishing (£24.92). To order a copy for the special price of £22.45 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?