Sightseeing in Surrey with the new Pevsner Architectural Guide

The expansion and revision of Nikolaus Pevsner’s celebrated architectural guides continues with the new edition of Surrey.  Containing 139 specially commissioned colour photographs, this update on the original 1962 version is packed with new information on Surrey’s Architectural history. From Waverley Abbey and Farnham Castle to Holloway Sanatorium and Guildford Cathedral, the guide to this small county illustrates its architecture of endless variety.

Charles O’Brien is joint series editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides and author and contributor to several volumes in the series. Charles is a child of Surrey and the second edition was his first introduction to the Pevsner series. He has spent four years writing and researching this volume and describes it as the most significant project in his 25 years of working on the series, because of his personal connections to the area.

Find out more about the revised Pevsner Architectural Guide to Surrey on our website.

Surrey: Where it all began…

The revision of Surrey for the first time since 1971 has also provided the opportunity to update and expand the oldest remaining descriptions in the whole of the series. They belong to the gazetteer entries for the Thamesside towns and villages that historically belonged to Middlesex and which Nikolaus Pevsner included his original volume for that county in 1951. They have been in Surrey since the 1965 redrawing of boundaries that absorbed most of the historic county into the new boroughs of outer West London.

The former urban districts of Sunbury and Staines, however, elected to throw in their lot with Surrey and now form the Borough of Spelthorne. By a curious twist of fate it can now be shown that it was in this very territory that the Pevsner Architectural Guides were conceived. In 1945, Allen Lane, director of Penguin Books invited Pevsner to Silverbeck, his home at Stanwell, by the River Colne. To quote Susie Harries in her biography, Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life – ‘As they strolled in the rose garden after lunch, Lane asked casually what kind of book Pevsner would publish, given a free hand.’ The result as we know was the multi-volume Pelican History of Art and the only slightly less-ambitious topography of Britain that began with the Buildings of England.

First edition of the Pevsner Guide to Middlesex

In the original volume for Middlesex, published along with Cornwall and Nottinghamshire as the pioneering trio in 1951, there is no mention of Silverbeck in the Stanwell entry, nor in the 2nd edition of Surrey, revised by Bridget Cherry in 1971, which took these Middlesex places into the gazetteer but without the opportunity for fresh investigation. For the new edition, I decided that it would be best to begin here, knowing that after seventy years and acknowledging the limits of research for the early guides, considerable changes to and expansion of the old text must be anticipated, more so perhaps than in the main body of the county. So it has proved. Like much of the zone of around the periphery of outer West London, Stanwell’s character has been shaped for several decades by the expansion of Heathrow Airport, which lies to the north of the old village, and the enormous reservoirs that began to colonise this zone from the late nineteenth century to supply the capital.

Stanwell Knyvett Monument

There is much of the low-rise suburban housing of the pre and postwar kind very familiar to anyone penetrating into outer London from the M25 which now functions as its girdle. Nevertheless there is a historic core around the parish church, itself quite characteristic of the Thames Valley with a C13 to C14 west tower, topped by a rather delightfully twisted spire. Inside is one of the showpiece monuments of modern Surrey, to Lord and Lady Knyvett, both of whom died in 1622, sculpted by Nicholas Stone; they are shown in the typical pose of the day facing each other and set within an arch covered in typical Jacobean decoration; a few hundred yard away is a notable early school built through the munificence of Knyvett’s will in 1624. Among other achievements he was the man who apprehended Guy Fawkes. More sadly, to the west of the village two forlorn gatepiers alone remain of Stanwell Place, a house which went with the landscape for gravel extraction after the Second World War but which was added to by James Gibbs, c.1750, and to whom no doubt these fine but vandalised piers can be attributed. 

Stanwell Place Gates

A little further out is the formerly separate hamlet of Stanwell Moor, again still with evidence of its rural beginnings in a few houses on the Colne, that in the C17 brought some prosperity as a centre for gunpowder milling. Nothing in my notes for this area suggested much of significant interest here but I was intrigued that the street map showed a close of houses called Silverbeck Way. The houses here are of very recent date but, tucked behind, and now converted to flats is the house where Lane and Pevsner had their momentous discussion.

It is not hard to see the appeal that it would have held for Lane, a small country villa – probably of about 1830 – with the river running through its garden and which in 1945 was comfortably distant from the capital but within easy reach of the site of the Penguin headquarters at Harmondsworth (now demolished). In the garden still remains a brick pergola, no doubt early twentieth century, which must have stood at the time that the two men plotted this great series. Now, alas, the house is unfortunately perilously close to the west end of one of the runways of Heathrow Airport, with the result that whatever peace and quiet may have existed when the house was new, is shattered by large jets taking off. Sites of national cultural significance are found in unexpected places. This is one of them.

Could Lane or Pevsner have imagined that from that single meeting would emerge what Marcus Binney has been kind enough to call ‘the greatest treasury of English architecture ever compiled’?

Silverbeck, Stanwell where Lane and Pevsner had their momentous discussion.

Charles O’Brien is joint series editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides and author and contributor to several volumes in the series.

Find out more about Surrey on our website, or ask for it at your local bookshop.

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Feature image: Horsley Towers, East Horsley, 1820-9 by Charles Barry and 1847-60 by the 1st Earl of Lovelace.  (c) Robin Forster

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