Shell Guides

Time for another guest post from author Alexandra Harris. Alex teaches literature at the University of Liverpool and writes about all kinds of art, from novels and paintings to cookery and gardening.
Her book Romantic Moderns (Thames & Hudson) was described by Peter Conrad in last Sunday’s Observer ‘Book of The Year’ awards as “A spectacular debut by a gifted and versatile cultural historian – a study of Englishness that roves from literature to art, music and film as it travels around a rural England of gargoyled churches, eccentric houses and pebbly beaches. A beautiful book; also, with its bucolic end-papers and its cornucopian illustrations, a beautiful piece of book-making.” Here Alex takes us into the strangely British world of the Shell Guides…


Shell’s irrepressible advertising director, Jack Beddington, was keen on Betjeman’s idea that the company might sponsor a series of guidebooks to help the new motorists find their way around. Betjeman duly became the editor of Shell County Guides. The list of authors he managed to recruit for the pleasant but excessively time-consuming job of guide-writing indicates the topographical predilections of the period’s cultural personalities. By the mid-1930s it seemed that everyone was out gazeteering: Betjeman in Cornwall and Devon, Paul Nash in Dorset, John Nash in Buckinghamshire, John Piper in Oxfordshire, Robert Byron in Wiltshire (though the excellent Wiltshire gazetteer was provided by Edith Olivier and became a model for all the others).

Betjeman had grown up with Victorian guides of the ‘Highways and Byways’ variety which were intent on taking the reader on a quest for authentic England. Authentic, in this case, meant medieval and vernacular; anything later tended to be treated as a violation of the old country. These guides from a previous generation were now the subject of much fondness and much hilarity. After dinner at Fawley Bottom the Betjemans and Pipers sometimes played a game at their expense. Each player would produce guidebook entries in parody ‘Byways’ style and, predictably, England’s oldeness took on some fantastical proportions. Friends reported that Myfanwy Piper was especially good at inventing ethnographies and dark, terrifying customs for medieval villages.

The Shell guides had fun with mysticism (pixies, cuckoos and witches populate every mile of Betjeman’s Cornwall; Nash’s Dorset is stalked by dinosaurs) but they also tried to get away from fairyland. Piper’s Oxon is an essay in the pleasures of ordinariness. He was glad to find a sane, unselfconscious county where ‘the fields are flat and have the usual number of cows’. Turning his back on the venerable spires and deciding not to include Oxford city, he went off to find unsung outposts, the bits of countryside between places. Piper’s Oxfordshire is not a land of touristic sensation. Old England is allowed to be also a modern lived-in country. A photograph of clustered advertisements which would have troubled purist preservationists is fondly captioned ‘a tree of knowledge’, and an oval photograph with faded edges evokes nostalgia only to affront it with a big sign advertising a ‘super cinema’.

Betjeman gave his writers special instructions to look at places not previously thought worthy of mention, particularly ‘the fast disappearing Georgian landscape of England’. He wanted the Shell Guides to include ‘churches with box pews and West galleries; handsome provincial streets of the late Georgian era; impressive mills in industrial towns; horrifying villas in overrated resorts’. Seeing Britain with Shell meant looking beyond authentic windy villages to enjoy fakes and masquerades; it meant adopting a Georgian taste for classical architecture and antiquarian eccentricities.

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11 thoughts on “Shell Guides

  1. Gaw
    November 22, 2010 at 12:19

    I wonder whether the time is ripe for an updated series of county guides… Can anyone think of a suitable sponsor?

    November 22, 2010 at 12:33

    I should think TomTom would be a good sponsor! Or motorway dietary staple, Ginsters Slices.

    I’ve always wanted to read Betjeman’s Cornish Shell Guide to do a comparison with the modern day place, would be very interesting I think. I have a half dozen shell guides. My two favourites are the Shell Country Alphabet and Mysterious Britain, both of which are about arcana, unusual follies, wonky buildings and strange local stories…which make for excellent bedtime reading.

    ian russell
    November 22, 2010 at 12:56

    Man, I remember reading this, in a layby on the A30, waiting for the billy to boil.

    I don’t think there’s a shortage of guides thesedays, is there? If you B&B as much as me, you’ll know the hostess’s bookshelves are often fair to bending under the strain.

    November 22, 2010 at 13:33

    ahhhh…the only thing more british than the shell guides – making tea in a layby. 🙂

    November 22, 2010 at 14:49

    ‘The Shell guide to traffic jams’ sponsored by the Allied Irish Banks.

    November 22, 2010 at 20:02

    The Shell Guides are wonderful guidebooks and I have a shelf-full of them, most of them at least 40 years old, to which I still refer. Betjeman was very much trying to break away from the rather fusty, antiquarian outlook of previous series of guides, especially the ‘Highways and Byways’ series and the ‘Little Guides’. In his book First and Last Loves there’s a marvellous essay called ‘Antiquarian Prejudice’, in which Betjeman brilliantly satirizes guide-book writers who are not interested in anything younger than late-Medieval churches, and who write entries without even going to the places they’re writing about. Parts of this essay are hilarious, and very much reminiscent of the after-dinner games Betjeman and the Pipers played at Fawley Bottom.

    Toby Ash
    November 22, 2010 at 20:32

    Great stuff. I had completely forgotten about the Shell Guides. As a Cornish resident I have now ordered a copy of Betjeman’s guide and, as Worm suggests, I will be able to do a comparison with the modern day place.

    Gadjo Dilo
    November 23, 2010 at 05:33

    I’ve never seen one of these Shell guides. I’d like to think that they are all reproductions of the actual handwriting of Betjeman and co, as the Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells were in Alfred Wainwright’s.

    November 23, 2010 at 08:38

    Would be very interested to read a report of your discoveries Toby!

    November 24, 2010 at 15:52

    Fascinating stuff! Shell was also responsible for a series of records – The Shell Nature Series in the 1960s, which had beautifully illustrated record sleeves. There’s one of these still available at ShopCurious.

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