Top positive review
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A marvelous volume for browsing, but don't try slipping it into your pocket!
on 23 July 2011
This is a wonderful book: a feast for the eye and a constant spur to visit such and such a church if ever we find ourselves in ....... Every page is a visual temptation.
Betjeman's lengthy original introduction, some 75 pages, is reproduced in full, a real delight for the knowledge and sensibility displayed there, but also for the characteristic 'voice' which made him as much a national treasure as the buildings he so loved. The entries have been substantially updated and reduced in number.
The volume is laid out by counties of England, with Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Channel Islands each having their separate sections. There is a glossary of architectural and relevant ecclesiastical terms and indexes of place and of artist/architect. Each county entry is prefaced by a short essay on characteristics of the local architecture and a large map with major towns and all referenced churches clearly indicated. The individual entries give OS and GPS references, dates, architects where known and key elements of interest. Churches of particular interest are denoted by a single or double star, inevitably a matter of personal taste, but books such as this demand such individual choices.
Given the considerable size (almost 900 pages) and weight (2.3kgs), this is NOT a field guide: as I have suggested above, this whets the appetite and allows plans to be made if holidaying or visiting a particular area. And the number of churches referenced (over 2500) makes it unlikely that one would ever be too far from somewhere interesting.
However, its inclusivity (despite the reductions) highlights difficult compromises: after one or two fairly random dips into it, I have to acknowledge that I wish more had been written about a number of churches I know, perhaps at the expense of some less interesting ones with which I'm also acquainted. For example, my local parish church is pleasant and attractive, with an interesting and substantial memorial to the workmen killed in the Bramhope railway tunnel disaster in its grounds. But I think I would have sacrificed it for more detailed and wide-ranging information about, say, Beverley St Mary's: no mention is made of the ceiling decoration of nave and chancel, other than that they are painted, nor of some beautiful corbels. (The Nave ceiling is ultramarine with gold stars, while the chancel is spanned by images of the kings of England, such as one might find in a medieval manuscript.) There is a corbel representing a lamb and a brother showing a rabbit. All delightful! Such details might open the eyes of the visitor a little more, or tempt the armchair traveller into greater determination to make a well-deserved visit, though, admittedly, perhaps at the expense of Otley!
This book's nearest rival, Simon Jenkins', says more about fewer churches (including those details I refer to at Beverley) but with far fewer (16) and far less sumptuous illustrations. In Bedfordshire, to take one example, Jenkins writes about 14 churches compared to 30 in the Betjeman. Jenkins' Bedford St Paul is given about 300 words: Betjeman's, approx 120. The Betjeman guide is more academic in tone, Jenkins more evocative, though not always successfully. He also gives snippets of historical background to add 'colour' to the place. Value judgements obviously vary too: the first church in the Betjeman Bedfordshire entry, Bedford St Mary, is given fewer than 25 words of description but one star, a high rating in that volume: Jenkins completely ignores it. Jenkins admires Cockayne Hatley for 1 1/2 pages but you won't find it in the Collins guide. (It sounds interesting!) The Betjeman/Surman glossary is far superior to Jenkins'. But for 'field' use, while I could just about force the latest paperback Mr Jenkins into my jacket pocket, the Collins guide is far too overweight ever to stray from home. Of course, Jenkins does not venture beyond the boundaries of England, an important consideration, one would have thought, for many.
Forced to choose one, I'd stick with Sir John/Surman. Were I a prospective purchaser in a bookshop, I would have the two volumes side by side to compare and simply try to work out which best suited my needs and preferences. Ideally, I'd have both!
What is certain is that this is a wonderful book which will give pleasure and some instruction for years. (Incidentally, I note the dj advertises a 'Betjemann's Best British Churches' app: had I an appropriate phone I'd be very tempted by that as one hasn't always planned so carefully ahead in one's travels and some version of this book in one's pocket would be very useful! Inexpensive Kindle version, anyone!!)
PS. There seem to be two paperback versions of Jenkin's book available, the one I reference dated 2009 and one which is dated 2000/2 which is larger in size and has many more illustrations than I mention, and in colour too. A nice edition. Unfortunately, the Betjeman / Jenkins dilemma is made no easier by this fact as the paper quality is better (to take the improved illustrations), and the weight and size of the book significantly greater. This is no pocket guide either!