One volume in Nikolaus Pevsner's Buildings of England (boe) series was very like another. The books came rolling out on an impersonal production line, two every year, compressed and dry, packed with facts, negative on atmosphere. It was only when the old gentleman began to flag and let a few of the natives join in that some wisps of individual response were printed. But neither Ian Nairn (Surrey and Sussex), nor John Harris (Lincolnshire) lasted long.
Pevsner, to give him his due, did describe John Newman's cautiously sensitive two 1969 volumes on Kent as the best in the series. Bridget Cherry's London 2: South of 1983 and Edward Hubbard's Clwyd of 1986 were even better. They really launched the new look.
Pevsner had always intended the county studies to grow more scholarly and all-inclusive, heavier and more expensive. Lincolnshire has already gone through three radically different editions. Now here is David Verey's original, thorough but rather bloodless, Cotswolds of 1970 enlarged by Alan Brooks' research and revisits from 547 pages to 826. Verey wrote as if he was hoping not to bring too many tourists flocking in, and something of that judicious reserve hangs over Brooks' version.
This new text is amazingly thorough. Verey's Sheepscombe entry, for instance, mentioned four houses in the parish; Brooks lists seven, each with a sharp comment: 'Ebworth Park. C17 building, much enlarged and given a grand classical facade in 1731 ... deliberately set on fire as practice for the Stroud fire brigade.' Can any future edition go further than the account of Whittington Court where the staircase, apart from 'carved square newel posts' and 'large turned balusters', has 'a pretty (though restored) dog- gate'? Might some later boe researcher find out that Ernest Gimson had slipped over from Sapperton to effect the repair?
It is, however, all wonderfully rich and rewarding, even leaping county boundaries. I had never realised that the same Ferrara University-educated cleric, William Knight, who built that almost Renaissance loggia at Horton Court in 1521, went on, as bishop, to give Wells Cathedral that entirely Renaissance pulpit in 1545. Pevsner may have stinted on stately homes, but not Brooks.
On atmosphere Brooks is better than Verey, just as Verey was better than Pevsner. But the magical remoteness and oddity of Ozleworth - hexagonal Norman tower, round churchyard, round bath house and the gaunt Regency house - escapes him. If Brooks has a bias it is towards the Victorian. His Teulon, Bodley and Temple Moore churches come over more engagingly than Saxon and Norman work. His prose lightens at the mention of an encaustic tile and he is shrewdly analytical on nineteenth-century stained glass.
The coverage of Arts and Crafts work is exemplary, but ultimately the book's central theme has to be vernacular architecture, the real riches of the limestone belt; and here the rigid Pevsnerian format - illustrations segregated from gazetteer, gazetteer remote from the introductory essays - is unhelpful. Where Betjeman's Shell Guides educated the reader by easy stages - illustrations next to entries and the entries themselves challenging or even perverse - here there are 12 introductory essays.
Every one of them is excellent. But unless readers take in Arthur Price's detailed account of geology and building materials, and Michael Hill's three definitive accounts of the evolution of farm and cottage building in the area, they will get no further than a confused picturesque appraisal. A guided walk around one good market town or large village would have helped to familiarise readers with the technical vocabulary and the growing complexities of form. In their unemotional scholarship, are Pevsners growing inflexible and elitist?
Timothy Mowl is an architectural historian