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in the footsteps of pevsner

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people; Bringing a Pevsner up to date is a labour of love as well as a work of scholarship. Bill Wilson and Alan Brooks have recently completed this daunting task for Norfolk and the Cotswolds respectively by tony aldous

The latest two volumes of Pevsner architectural guides, covering parts of Gloucestershire and Norfolk, contrive to keep to their founder author's two-books-a-year strike rate, but what began as a cottage industry has now become a large-scale research exercise.

Nikolaus Pevsner, a busy academic, was able to devote only a few weeks in the summer vacation to touring the selected county and seeing on the ground what his research assistants had identified in national and local records. After a full day's viewing, he would straight away write up his notes that evening in a pub or hotel bedroom. His explorations were also constrained, in the early days, by post-Suez petrol rationing - which also distorted the selection of buildings for the early statutory lists: Ministry inspectors were told not to stray too far from main roads.

Today's Buildings of England authors can afford to be more thorough and are often working on their home patch. Thus Alan Brooks, whose volume on the Cotswolds came out in August, and is reviewed in this issue, though originally from Middlesex, has lived in Gloucestershire for 25 years; Bill Wilson, whose second Norfolk volume is also reviewed in this issue, has lived and worked in Norwich since the early 80s and was employed to update the county's listed buildings. He now practises as a historic-buildings consultant.

A Scot from Wemyss Bay on the Firth of Clyde, Wilson read art history at Manchester, took a PhD, and then moved to London in search of a job and found himself working as a tax inspector ('I hated every minute of it.'). His opening came in 1981 with the demolition of the Hoover building. That, he says, so infuriated Michael Heseltine that he ordered re-surveys of the English listings. Wilson applied for several; Norfolk was the first he was offered. He has been there ever since, and must now be reckoned the expert on the county.

His two Norfolk volumes, in contrast to the early Pevsner paperbacks, each run to around 800 pages; they also took longer. He started on an unpaid basis, but then found Pevsnering was an almost full-time occupation and stopping him from earning a living. The Buildings Books Trust paid him a grant to speed things up. Even so, the original 1991 completion date slipped by quite a few years. His thorough exploration of Norfolk parishes has thrown up much that Pevsner inevitably missed: medieval monastic ranges inside ugly nineteenth-century barns, for instance, or timber-framed hall houses behind Georgian or Victorian brick. He has great respect for Pevsner's original text, but sometimes disagrees with his judgements, and then - like series editor Bridget Cherry in her London volumes - simply records Pevsner's comment in a footnote.

Will Bill Wilson do another Pevsner volume? Cherry has talked to him about Suffolk, but his consultancy is booming: a lot of work for English Heritage, plus reports and expert-witness work for developers. In his reports, he tells it like it is ('You won't get consent unless you keep that part of the structure.').

Developers, he says, are often surprised not to receive more compliant advice; some then dispense with his services. Those who follow his advice generally find it pays off: he has appeared at 29 inquiries and been on the winning side 27 times. But, he says, when a client is paying you £600 a day, he doesn't want you to be preoccupied with the latest Pevsner entry.

Alan Brooks, by contrast, has the advantage of being retired. He studied comparative European literature at London University, but soon became much more interested in architecture. He says he bemused his examiners by comparing Racine with English Georgian street architecture, Tennyson with George Gilbert Scott. Pevsner's Middlesex volume helped him to discover Victorian architecture at a time when enthusiasm for it 'was still considered slightly odd'. He went to a church in Southall to look at a Wren font and discovered a magnificent Blomfield interior.

Brooks moved to the Cotswolds to teach, and recently retired as a primary- school head. His new volume updates not Pevsner himself, but one of his early collaborators, David Verey, who was stronger on the Cotswolds than on some other parts of the county. Brooks is now updating Gloucestershire:2, which includes not only the Vale and the Forest of Dean, but the south of the county, including Bristol's intensively developed northern fringe. The planned publication date is 2002.

This raises one of the nagging problems with the series: not just how to catch up in coverage of much-changed urban areas, but how to produce at least some volumes which - like the recent slim Docklands and City Churches flexibacks - sell for £10 rather than £35. If Cherry can get Heritage Lottery Fund support, she hopes shortly to publish a similar Manchester city-centre volume. Bristol, where much development is currently under way, could be another candidate for this treatment, as could Birmingham.

The Buildings of England - Gloucestershire 1: The Cotswolds, by David Verey and Alan Brooks. - Norfolk 2: North-West and South, by Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson, are reviewed on pages 48 and 49.

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