Shell Guides

As anyone who reads my blog will know, I have been deeply influenced by the style, character, typography and everything else, including probably a lot of the prejudices, of the Shell Guides, with which I was brought up and of which I have a reasonably extensive, but sadly incomplete, collection.   Before going on holiday I was reading David Heathcote’s admirable A Shell Eye on England:  The Shell County Guides 1934-1984, which provides a comprehensive analysis of how the guides evolved, beginning rather haphazardly with Betjeman’s guide to Cornwall, published in 1934, with its surreal mix of sans-serif and Victorian typefaces, through Robert Byron on Wiltshire with its wild photomontage cover by Lord Berners, until the series began to settle into some of its definitive characteristics with Paul Nash on Dorset in 1936 and his brother John on Bucks. the following year (the early guides used abbreviations in the titles, I assume as a Betjemanesque joke).   What Heathcote reveals is how much the early guides depended on the aesthetic of surrealism – the interest in detail, the prehistoric and the ordinary.   Stephen Bone on the West Coast of Scotland was apparently a best seller.   Heathcote ascribes Faber’s decision in 1984 to end the guides to changing tastes and the fact that people were going on holiday to the Mediterranean, but it must also have been due to the increasing competition from Pevsner and because the formula eventually became a bit stale – less good authors and a loss of Betjeman’s vim.


5 thoughts on “Shell Guides

  1. Dick Humphreys says:

    I must get David’s book.
    Amazingly I acquired a copy of Nash’s Dorset guide many years ago for about 50p!
    If only I could find a copy of his Urne Buriall now for that sort of money…

  2. robheal says:

    I wrote the Hertfordshire Shell Guide and am now the only living Shell Guide writer. Incidentally, in the year in which my Guide came out I acquired 4 very early Guides in Brighton for 50p each.

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