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.