The Daily Telegraph Guide to English Parish Churches By Robert Harbison.Aurum Press, 2006.256pp. £16.99
If you're going to recommend just 500 of England's 16,000 parish churches, how do you go about it? Robert Harbison lays his cards on the table right at the start of this guidebook, an update of one published in 1992. He likes buildings that have evolved over centuries to become 'palimpsests', melding different styles, tastes and degrees of grandeur; has a Ruskinian preference for the unrestored, for 'mottled surfaces' and stone that shows its age; and admits to being 'heavily inuenced by setting', drawn especially to places off the beaten track.
So churches like those at Salteetby and Theddlethorpe in the 'archaic'-seeming landscape of the Lincolnshire marshes suit him down to the ground - the -rst with its leaning walls and mixture of greenstone and faded bricks, the second with its 'dappled stonework' and 'good Renaissance motifs in the screens'. But what also emerges in his (mostly 100-150 word) entries is a pleasure in spatial intricacy - for instance, at All Saints, Burton Dassett, with its seven different oor levels, where 'the whole is so irregular that? touring the building you feel you've been in many places at once'.
A few inclusions are less Harbison's personal preference, one feels, than insistent oddities:
for example, he -nds Joseph Bonomi's Ledoux-like St James, Great Packington, 'a work of the grimmest consistency' whose interior is 'monumentally bleak'. Unlike Pevsner's sometimes cryptic catalogues in the Buildings of England (BoE), there's no doubt in these entries exactly where Harbison stands.
Of course everyone will -nd favourite churches missing.
Given Harbison's liking for atmosphere and for the out-ofthe-way, I was surprised to see no mention of the little church at Up Marden on the South Downs: 'the remotest place on the Downs? one of the loveliest interiors in England, ' wrote Ian Nairn in the Sussex BoE. And there's no reference to Nairn in the guide to further reading (otherwise spot-on), though his contributions enriched the Surrey as well as Sussex volumes of the BoE.
And, although Harbison refers to changes that have occurred since the guide was -rst published, he doesn't say whether the remoteness he values is now more under threat - whether, at this time of the year, you still just hear larksong overhead without a constant hum of traf-c.
Harbison thinks that St Mary the Virgin, Ketton, in what used to be Rutland, has 'one of the most perfect situations of any church in England', so it's a little perverse that the 300 new colour photos that enhance the book don't include it. All the more reason to go there, perhaps. Otherwise, the only slight frustration is the sense that, in con-ning himself to such concise entries, Harbison has had to clip his wings. Admirers of his works such as Thirteen Ways and Reections on Baroque know that when Harbison follows a train of thought it leads to unexpected places. But, to the actual places featured in this book, he's an astute, engaging guide.