Cover of A Shell Eye On England
Cover of A Shell Eye On England: The Shell County Guides 1934-1984, £24.95
(Image credit: David Heathcote, Libri Publishing)

The last Shell Guide to the counties of England, Wales and the west of Scotland was published 25 years ago, but these slim, sometimes rather dotty books remain easily the best, most engaging and most nearly comprehensive guides to the country we have, despite a very crowded field. First launched in 1934, at a time when car ownership was finally becoming affordable to the massed middle classes, they were an early example of enlightened commercial sponsorship, encouraging drivers to explore England's highways and byways (and to refuel at Shell petrol stations in the process).

But their real success, and their occasionally eccentric character, was thanks to two artists: the architectural critic (and poet-laureate to be) John Betjeman, who commissioned his posh chums to write the early volumes; and the painter John Piper, who took over as general editor after Betjeman's resignation in 1967.

The Shell guides were Betjeman's idea in the first place, and it's interesting to see how his influence on the gloriously imaginative early guides to Cornwall, Wiltshire and Dorset was gradually supplanted by the more sensible - and more commercial - influence of John Piper in later editions. In the end, no doubt thanks to their balancing interests (Piper's especially in atmospheric black-and-white photography), the guides reached their final form: quirky, entertaining, hugely informative and often passionately written guides to almost every village and town and city in England and Wales.

They're most often compared to Pevsner's architectural guides to Britain, but while Pevsner's methodical approach meant that, in the end, his guides were more comprehensive (the Shell guides never got round to Yorkshire, Lancashire or the eastern half of Scotland, for example), his narrow architectural focus means that the Pevsner guides are less broadly useful, and the dryness of their text makes them far less enjoyable to read. Pictorially, too, the Shell guides are far superior.

A Shell Guide On England, the new book by sometime Wallpaper* contributor David Heathcote, offers an excellent and thoroughly researched overview of the history and development of the Shell guides, from their early days right through to the last volume, Nottinghamshire, which saw the light of day as recently as 1984. It's an engaging read in its own right, and though the text is uncomfortably small and densely packed, and the editing could be a little sharper, I'd recommend it to everyone who has caught the (extremely addictive) Shell guide-collecting bug, as well as anyone who wants to discover more about these most appealing of all tourist guides to the British Isles.

Front cover of Cornwall Shell County Guide

Inside the book: Front cover of Cornwall Shell County Guide, 1934

(Image credit: press)

An A-road by Maurice Beck

Avenue of trees on an A-road by Maurice Beck, Devon County Guide, 1935, pp.16–17

(Image credit: press)

Title page of his Oxon

Title page of his Oxon, 1938, by John Piper, with an image of a scarecrow that acts as a surreal self portrait of the author

(Image credit: press)

Book Shell

Derbyshire, 1935, p.53

(Image credit: press)

Waterfall at High Force

Waterfall at High Force, Teesdale (title pages), County Durham, 1980

(Image credit: press)

Fishtoft', Lincolnshire,

Waterfall at High Force, Teesdale (title pages), County Durham, 1980

(Image credit: press)

A portrait of Jack Beddington

(Image credit: press)

‘These Men Use Shell: Farmers', John Armstrong, 1939 - incorporating a portrait of Jack Beddington, 'who was by all accounts very suave in real life,' says David Heathcote

Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire

Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, 1978, pp.70–1

(Image credit: press)


‘At the chairmaker's', Bucks, 1937, p.43

(Image credit: press)

Manchester City Galleries

(Image credit: © Manchester City Galleries)

Left: Frontispiece, The Lighthouse, Newlyn (1893) by Stanhope Forbes, 

Right: Cornwall title page with Osbert Lancaster cartoon

Cover image by Will F.Taylor

Cover image, Hampshire, 1937

(Image credit: Will F.Taylor)

Murray's Buckinghamshire Guide

Image 163, Murray's Buckinghamshire Guide, 1948, p.111

(Image credit: press)

Betjeman, An Oxford University Chest

Betjeman, An Oxford University Chest, OUP 1979 reprint, p.30

(Image credit: press)

Ramsgate and St Leonard's, double-page montage,Kent

Ramsgate and St Leonard's, double-page montage,Kent, 1935

(Image credit: press)