Pevsner Guides: Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire & Peterborough

Yale’s Pevsner Architectural Guides series has continued to grow during 2014, and now includes a  revised volume on Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough. This new edition is a welcome update of Nikolaus Pevsner’s original authoritative work in the Buildings of England series, which dates back to 1968. Each of the Pevsner volumes represents the culmination of years of meticulous work for our authors, so to celebrate the new volume, the YaleBooks blog interviewed Charles O’Brien, author of this new guide. Charles has been working on the book since 2008 and has also co-authored a number of other books in the series, as well as working as an editor for the Pevsner series as a whole. This conversation reveals the passion, care and commitment that goes into any single volume in the Pevsner Architectural Guides series.

Have there been any major changes to the counties since the last edition?

Yes, huge actually! The thing is that the three counties the book covers, when Pevsner was writing, were only really two. Huntingdon and Peterborough was a very short-lived county. It was only created in 1965. Peterborough was part of Northamptonshire before that, and it only lasted until 1974, so Pevsner just pulled out what he had written on Peterborough from the Northamptonshire volume, which had come out in 1960. He didn’t revisit anything, just stuck it in the new volume in 1968. And it’s now over 50 years since he looked at anything there, so a huge amount has had to be added.

Partly, as with all the counties, it’s about what Pevsner gave attention to, one has to look at the guides again and there’s always more to add. It’s also the stuff that he simply didn’t look at, both in terms of buildings since the 1960s and for 18th or 19th-century buildings that he simply wasn’t aware of or passed by. The same goes for medieval houses, which in the 1960s people were in the first stages of understanding, as a lot of the detailed survey work which has now been done on cottages and small manor houses was then just getting going. So those are the things that typically have expanded the new entries.

And similarly Bedfordshire: Pevsner, by the mid-60s volumes, he was in a major hurry because he had to try to do one every holiday away from his university teaching and he had a million and one other roles that he had to perform in public life. I bet he must have been in a rush to do this one, and I don’t think he liked the Midlands particularly; reading through it is unusually terse even for him. He didn’t have time to think about how places had developed, didn’t have time to explore places looking for things. So he dusts off a lot of places quickly and you find, looking at the books from that period, that the entries often don’t get beyond the village church, and that’s it really. Quite a lot of the information was supplied to him after the event so you get entries in brackets to show he hadn’t seen them.

So yes, there’s a lot: the new volume must be twice as long as the old one, and I’ve had time to do it! I’ve only worked part-time but I started in 2008 with Peterborough and it took me to the middle of last year to finish work in Bedfordshire. So that meant whenever I did have time I would go up and visit to go and find smaller houses that were slightly out of the way, see inside them if necessary, do proper investigations of the towns to give a fuller account. So like all the books there is always a huge amount to see, take in and condense.

Do you ever get a sense of travelling in Nikolaus Pevsner’s footsteps when researching the new editions?

That does happen. I had an extraordinary experience in Turvey, which is on the western edge of Bedfordshire, to see a house Pevsner had mentioned, a very complicated house in that it had been remodelled practically every century, but it still had some medieval features. It would have been incredibly hard for Pevsner to un-pick, but I did have time to look in detail. It’s now a convent, but one part is also a monastery, and I was taken by the Sister who oversees it to meet an extremely elderly monk, in the residential part. And he remembered Pevsner, not from the 1960s but from Germany. He must have been in his nineties, but he remembered skating with Pevsner.  But quite a few people here are of the sort of age where they were at Cambridge when Pevsner was giving his Slade lectures, and even if they weren’t ‘art history people’, his reputation was such that they would go and attend them.

But being in his footsteps, I’ve never met anyone who remembered him visiting their house. Probably given the nature of the area, not many people or families have remained from fifty years ago. But I definitely did have moments of retracing his footsteps … For example, I was in a bit of Bedfordshire, where Felmersham was the major church, a very fine 13th-century church. He did an odd thing in the text where he drew attention to a feature in one of the transepts, saying he’d come back to it later but then doesn’t, which is very unlike him. It is a very odd feature and he’s obviously getting round to explaining it and then he doesn’t do it! I then went to two of the other churches in the immediate vicinity and in both places there were uncharacteristic slip-ups and errors and I’ve decided that this was one of the occasions of being in his footsteps when he must have been dog tired –  having to see so much in a day. He was really just losing his grip and by the evening when he came to writing up his notes, these details escaped him. One finds that occasionally with him, and it’s a nice moment in a way – you’re in contact with the human side.

In Barnack, which is one of the principal Anglo-Saxon churches and has a very fine Saxon church tower, a colleague who worked on Northamptonshire, Bruce Bailey, realised the description Pevsner gave of the tower was confused with the equivalent  tower in Earls Barton, Northamptonshire, so he’d invented some of the actual architectural features of the Barnack tower, because he had so much of these details roaming around in his head!

It’s always nice actually, to feel you can see exactly what he was seeing.

How do you decide which new buildings to include?

It’s tricky. Some things are obvious, buildings which Pevsner didn’t know about or were slightly beyond the period he was interested in (not withstanding his very broad range), and some of them are flagged up just by being granted listed status since the 60s, so there you’ve got a ready-made indicator of significance. But actually a certain amount of it is just what you find on the ground, and I think this is particularly true in the towns, with the commercial buildings of the 20th century, which are now somewhat neglected. But it’s about having your radar alert to look for things, which actually may be rather better than people think they are, or they’re too recent for listing and may have been overlooked. In the towns I tend to start with what Pevsner wrote, walk out to that perambulation, and as I go I note down things that are actually good representatives of their period and architecturally interesting. To some extent it’s things where you are fairly likely to be able to identify, particular dates and architects and so on. Things that come in now are typically banks, civic buildings from the 20th century: libraries, gasworks, buildings whose purpose have been outlived and are often in another use. Partly it’s based on the sort of things we expect our authors to include and applying that yourself, but also it’s just what experience encourages you to look for.

That does mean occasionally, you stumble on things and realise that people haven’t really looked at them before and they’re in surprisingly good condition, things like shops in towns, which have been routinely destroyed, or a pub interior, where it’s remarkable that it has made it through really. Occasionally it means that putting it in here [taps book] will hopefully mean that someone thinks its worth putting forward for listing, or even just at a local level that they should look after it better.

Are there any interesting facts about the counties that you unearthed during research?

[Laughs] Interesting facts? Well it’s an odd area: Bedfordshire is a tiny county, it’s known well by people who live there, but because of where it is, its sort of just outside the home counties ring around London but it’s not sufficiently far into the Midlands to feel disconnected from London. It’s more a place that people travel through. If you go up the M1 you’ve gone through Bedfordshire before you’ve kind of blinked really. So, I think the point I make in the introduction to the book is that it is terra incognita for most people. I hardly met anyone who would say ‘Oh Bedfordshire, yes I know…’. Most people have never been there and yet it’s only an hour from London.

And Huntingdonshire and Peterborough; people aren’t really sure what that means, because they were abolished as counties in the 70s. Again, other than people who live there it’s not somewhere people are particularly familiar with. Which is a shame really because there is a distinct architectural identity. But in terms of interesting facts … it’s interesting in that there is quite a lot more than you imagine. I felt, when I was there, that I was constantly seeing things that I just hadn’t expected, particularly with the quality of the buildings.

I guess that shows the usefulness of this series then? In that these buildings are not being overlooked and that hopefully people will then visit them.

Yes, I hope so because I think that the renowned counties will always sell quite well because they’re well-visited. People know them, they have well known buildings in them, but in a way the purpose of the series is to do right by these less vaunted places and to remind people what is in them, that there is a lot more than one might imagine and for these areas our books really should be the first port of call, not just for those interested in buildings but for those interested in places.

Were there any differences between this volume and previous ones you have authored?

This is the first one I’ve done completely solo, I’ve been co-author to other volumes, but the last one I’ve had to really do a lot of visiting and writing for was East London, so the issues were completely different there. You’re talking about an intensively urban environment and only on its absolute fringes are you getting any sense of rural settlement, whereas this was predominantly rural, aside from quite big towns like Luton and Peterborough. Most of it was small villages, even with the overdevelopment of dormitory-type housing in those sorts of places. So it is different; most of East London I could do on foot from tube stations but here you are absolutely reliant on your car for getting about.

Also here I was dealing with buildings that are predominantly medieval churches, so quite different from the sort of things I’d previously been doing. But of course I’ve contributed to various other volumes principally authored by others, so it wasn’t a totally new experience.

Would you say that the challenge for an urban area is that the pace of change is so rapid, whereas with a rural area it’s more about finding places?

Yes that’s true, certainly in London, very certainly in East London, which, when we started in 1997 not a lot had really started happening. Compared with the image now of that part of London it was really quite different back then, a lot of the regeneration was yet to happen, so a considerable amount of change and destruction took place. In fact by now that book will, in some respects, be out of date because of the pace of change in the city. But that also means there is a lot more to find out about buildings and their uses because they are just part of the background noise and one has to work harder to really find out about them.

Generally speaking the villages have changed less, so it’s more about giving a better, fuller account of the same buildings. I think the biggest thing, particularly in counties that have these major road corridors, is that the villages have doubled in size since Pevsner’s day in terms of population, with a lot of very unremarkable housing erected around their historic core.

Did any new architectural terms suggest themselves when working on the book?

The old repertoire pretty much sees you through; the occasional times when you have to use something new are technical terms for engineering in recent buildings…but the old glossary of terms still serves pretty much everywhere you go!

Look out for our Cambridgeshire video with author Simon Bradley, coming soon to YaleBooks YouTube.

Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough in the Pevsner Buildings of England series is now available from Yale.

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