History 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. …