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Visiting the Vale

Gloucestershire 2: The Vale and the Forest of Dean By David Verey & Alan Brooks. Yale University Press, 2002. 888pp. £29.95

Alan Brooks mildly downslants this, his own book, in the comparisons which he draws between its architectural material and that of its Buildings of England twin, Gloucestershire 1: The Cotswolds, which he revised and enriched in an equally scholarly new edition (AJ 11.4.99). This can only be explained by his personal predilection for vernacular cottages, perpendicular 'wool' churches and Victorian stained glass, because - with Gloucester Cathedral, Tewkesbury Abbey, Regency Cheltenham and Berkeley Castle - the Vale of this new volume is far richer and more various than those dry Cotswold uplands.

More than twice the size (and 15 times the price) of the old Verey-Pevsner edition of 1970, this opens with 21 essays ranging from geology and prehistory to the later-20th century, by various experts - Linda Hall and Brooks himself featuring prominently.

Somewhere between Neil Holbrook's 'Roman Vale' and Carolyn Heighway's 'Anglo-Saxon Period' is a gap where it is never decided whether the county got its Christian sites from the Welsh or St Augustine; which seems a fault.

Dealing with major monuments such as Gloucester Cathedral, Brooks is clearer, deeper into the building's European context, and tactfully more accurate than Verey, who based his account on Pevsner's own analysis.

That 1970 edition wrote of the 'delightful' angels sitting on the sedilia as 'original C15 sculpture'. Brooks agrees that they are delightful, but adds, after a discreet semicolon, 'C19 figures by Redfern', proving that you can be scholarly as well as appreciative.

The gazetteer is admirable not just for the range of its interests and its thorough coverage, but for the warmth which charges the descriptions. There is time to relate that the Duke of Wellington rejected Highmeadow, a vast proto-Baroque house in the forest, as a reward for Waterloo because the scenery reminded him of the Pyrenees. In the Verey edition, to take one example, the entry on Oxenhall records the 1865 church and nothing else. Brooks doubles the account of St Anne's, lists two farms, one of which has been in the same family since the early-15th century, then adds the intriguing industrial archaeology of an intact, water-carrying reach of the lost Hereford and Gloucester Canal with lock house and 2km-long tunnel.

This western half of the county has industrial relics ranging from a Roman iron mine at Milkwall, converted into a 19th-century garden maze, to Warmley's 18th-century brass foundry that doubled as a Rococo garden. Brooks is so successfully painstaking in his fieldwork that it came as a relief to find that at Warmley, like myself, he failed to find a way into the grottoes under the house where, in an English version of Bomarzo, there is an archway shaped as a gaping monster mouth. Even after Brooks there will be a few discoveries to be made.

One disturbing tendency which Brooks has picked up from Pevsner is the assumption that pre-1900 revivals of historic styles are permissible ('sweet' is a favourite adjective), but that if they occur in a 20th-century sacred to Modernism they are contemptible.

This is most un-Brooks, as he is usually generous to a fault. But when he comes to the imaginative Gothicisation of Berkeley Castle by the eighth and last Earl in the 1920s, he dismisses Herbert Keeble's work as a 'rather spurious remodelling' by a cabinet maker.

More seriously, after acknowledging that Cheltenham's building stock was at risk from insensitive infilling, he describes Ralph Guilor's inspired completion of Imperial Square with a complete Classical terrace as 'Regency pastiche of 1996-7, unfortunately with mansard roofs'. Most architecture since the Renaissance can be attacked as 'pastiche'.

It is a Pevsnerian term of abuse that could well be rested for a few centuries.

Timothy Mowl is an architectural historian

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