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Touring Derbyshire 1930s’ style with a Shell Guide

PUBLISHED: 10:34 23 March 2015

This fantasy landscape by Stanley Badmin (1906-89) showing Derbyshire in microcosm was used to promote the 1972 'Derbyshire' Shell Guide

This fantasy landscape by Stanley Badmin (1906-89) showing Derbyshire in microcosm was used to promote the 1972 'Derbyshire' Shell Guide

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Peter Seddon recalls the iconic Shell Guides which encouraged a new age of motorists to explore Britain’s counties

The brighter look of the 1972 'Derbyshire' reflected changing timesThe brighter look of the 1972 'Derbyshire' reflected changing times

In 1900 there were only 8,000 cars in Britain – this restricted ‘a run in the country’ or ‘motoring holiday’ to the privileged few. Other travellers took a train – perhaps armed with a ‘Bradshaw’s Guide’ latterly beloved by colourful railway devotee Michael Portillo.

But car manufacture soon became easier and cheaper – by 1933 there were 2 million licensed vehicles on British roads. Although car ownership didn’t yet embrace ‘the masses’ – that came in the fifties and sixties – the trend created newly-mobile ‘explorers’ who needed a new kind of guidebook.

The niche was filled by the Shell Oil Company and a young man not long out of Oxford (with no degree!) employed as assistant editor of the Architectural Review. The ‘young fogey’ had both a passion for the ancient and a sneaking eye for ‘the latest’ – already a car owner he had ‘tootled’ the byways extensively. He was John Betjeman (1906-84) – set to become a knighted national treasure as writer, Poet Laureate and heritage champion – then just 27 and seeking new directions.

Betjeman urged Shell to sponsor a guide ‘aimed at the motoring bright young things, illustrated and quite shallow, but informative and able to fit into a glove compartment.’ The company agreed, moving off cautiously in 1934 with Betjeman’s ‘Cornwall’ published by his employers Architectural Press.

'Young fogey' John Betjeman hams it up in 1933 - a year later his 'Cornwall'  launched the 'Shell Guide' series'Young fogey' John Betjeman hams it up in 1933 - a year later his 'Cornwall' launched the 'Shell Guide' series

Its success burgeoned into the eclectic ‘Shell Guide’ series ending in 1984 with Nottinghamshire – 35 counties by then covered. Betjeman was series editor, joined in 1962 by his friend John Piper (1903-92) the painter and photographer – coincidentally both men forged lasting personal links with Derbyshire.

The commissioned writers were often acquaintances of the editors. ‘Derbyshire’ was done in 1935 by Old Etonian barrister Christopher Hobhouse (1910-40), an Oxford graduate. Although native to Birmingham and only 25 he knew the Peak County well – he had joined the 1932 ‘mass trespass’ of Kinder Scout demanding ‘access for all’ to open country.

Despite this nod to solidarity, Hobhouse was a ‘near aristocrat’ whose writing could appear snooty – one acquaintance labelled him ‘tall, conceited, and brilliant – lots of people of both sexes were in love with him’. That suited Betjeman – he was delighted to land his man.

In card covers with wire spine ‘Derbyshire’ sold for two and sixpence. The opening chapter ‘HOW TO SEE DERBYSHIRE’ plunged in with the core message. ‘The motorist has an advantage that the railway traveller lacks. He can tackle a country that is new to him by its main contours, its natural masses and lines of communication. Derbyshire is perfectly made for such a method of attack. By rail it is perfect chaos.’

The guide targeted the then ‘middle-’ to ‘upper-middle class’ motorist travelling purposefully with a touch of style. A section on trout and grayling fishing recommends ‘good sport for 3s. 6d a day from the Izaak Walton Hotel near Dovedale’, while at the Peacock in Rowsley (dry fly compulsory) a whacking 10 shillings secured ‘the first-class waters of the Wye or Derwent with no necessity to wade’. Meanwhile at The Peacock in Baslow the proprietor T. W. H. Webster ‘knows all there is to know about dogs.’

Such quaintness abounds in the 64 pages – that is its charm today – but 80 years ago par for the course... when golf too was almost compulsory for the ‘right sort’ of visitor. The bulk of the guide examined Derbyshire’s geography, history and industry in almost textbook fashion, but with Hobhouse’s chatty touch. Debating the key watercourses the Derwent, Dove, Wye and Erewash, he quietly reminds us that ‘nine-tenths of Derbyshire is actually drained by a single river – the Trent.’

Elsewhere he muses that ‘the High Peak is not really so very high – only a few acres of it rise above 2,000 feet. It is a country for easy walking’. It works well – Hobhouse paints a vivid picture of an interesting county, with photographs, quotations and poetry completing an alluring medley.

Huge tracts of Derbyshire countryside remain largely unaltered since 1935, but Hobhouse’s text betrays abundant evidence of retrospective change. Chatsworth is ‘more a home than a showplace, but during May, June and July usually open to the public, although un-commercialised.’ Derby is a ‘town’ of 142,000 inhabitants. The guide pre-dates the creation of the Peak District National Park (1951) and the completion of Ladybower Reservoir (1945) – Ashopton and Derwent not yet the ‘drowned villages’. As such Hobhouse’s ‘Derbyshire’ presents a snapshot in time which makes for a great game of ‘spot the difference’.

Betjeman considered it only part satisfactory and steered later volumes towards better formats. Hobhouse’s gazetteer of Derbyshire places was particularly weak – just four pages of mostly scanty entries.

Yet ironically his longer Matlock drew most criticism: ‘It is a place for unlicensed hotels, conferences, picture postcards, souvenirs, slot machines, and above all posters. Matlock seems to contain more poster hoardings than any town of its size in England.’ Vested interests were so angered by this perceived slur – especially when repeated in a 1939 reprint – that in later copies of the second run the publishers pasted over the Matlock entry with a total re-write: ‘Its climate, cures and beautiful scenery have made it deservedly popular.’

Hobhouse was certainly prone to loftiness – of ramblers coming by bus from Sheffield and Manchester he observed: ‘The Peak in summer is extremely popular with the young men and women of the industrial towns; it is positively yellow with their nether garments. If you dislike these people, you had better spend your weekend in the mud-bath at Smedley’s rather than on Kinder Scout.’

Khaki shorts, exposed vests, carelessly-discarded bloomers? It’s not entirely clear. But that was a rare aberration – overall Hobhouse does Derbyshire proud. Of his circular tour he concludes: ‘After the wonders of the Peak you will return to Derby having seen more wonderful country than you thought that England held.’

The 1939 Faber re-print was hardback at 3s 6d – more durable than the 1935 edition. But both are now scarce, few surviving the war intact. Tragically Hobhouse perished too – after joining the Royal Marines he was killed by a bomb in Portsmouth in 1940, aged 30 and married barely three months.

Shell Guide production ceased in wartime, but revived from the 1950s. So much had changed that early editions were re-written for a more ‘popular’ market. The ‘country run’ became increasingly popular – travelling rug, Thermos, stately home, walk – a familiar formula. By the early 1970s there were 15 million vehicles and 45 per cent of households had a car.

The bright new 130-page ‘Derbyshire’ appeared in 1972 – promoted by a clever poster by Stanley Badmin depicting the county in microcosm. The author was again an ‘outsider’ – once more an Old Etonian. Lifelong bachelor the Reverend Henry Croyland Thorold (1921-2000) was the archetypal antiquarian clergyman. Born into a landed Lincolnshire family, the genial eccentric chose to write about Derbyshire because ‘I had a long affection for that county, and Hobhouse’s was the first Shell Guide I acquired, so I wanted to pay it homage.’

Thorold repeated much of Hobhouse’s narrative – minus the ‘yellow nether garments’ – but expanded the gazetteer to 87 pages. Supported by fine photographs, it is the guide’s real strength.

But the text hardly addressed the ‘ordinary motorist’, often reflecting Thorold’s intense interest in church architecture at the expense of the more mundane. He deplores ‘grim little houses in drab Victorian streets’ and lists Derbyshire’s recreations with no mention of Derby County or Derbyshire County Cricket Club – while waxing lyrical on Norman fonts, box pews and Gothic naves.

He wisely praises Matlock – but instead insults Swadlincote, re-quoting a diatribe by journalist-broadcaster Rene Cutforth (1909-84) who was born there: ‘It is known locally as ‘Swad’ and is a bit of a joke. It was so ugly it made you laugh’. The lengthy passage becomes progressively more scathing, a complete demolition job! Poor ‘Swad’ – today it has much to offer... even a ski slope.

Yet Thorold’s guide is irresistibly readable – as are his Staffordshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. In comparing the counties’ relative charms, one reviewer seemed unimpressed by our dearest neighbour: ‘Nottinghamshire is less well-known than Staffordshire, and even duller than Lincolnshire, possibly combining the demerits of both.’

Despite life’s relentless progress the Shell Guides could certainly be used even today. But they are cherished only by nostalgic collectors – few ‘glove compartments’ carry a Hobhouse or Thorold. There are now 32 million cars on the road, yet millions of drivers elect never to explore what is at their very door – indeed the National Trust has recently rolled out its ‘Outdoor Nation’ campaign aimed at ‘overcoming the apprehensions that ‘townies’ hold about rural Britain and the great outdoors.’

The breezy line ‘You can be sure of Shell’ once confidently promoted that British countryside idyll. The slogan has long-faded, but ancient landscapes and their added attractions live on. For those that seek it out – much of it for free – there can be no apprehensions about the ‘Peak County’. As Hobhouse and Thorold both articulated in their distinctive ways – ‘You can be sure of Derbyshire’.

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