Shell Guides
The Shell Guides were originally a 20th century series of guidebook
GUIdebook is a website that contains screenshots of computer software.It shows a visual history of the software's user interface. It includes operating systems like Mac OS and Windows, desktop environments like GNOME and KDE, portable operating systems like Newton OS and Windows CE, and...

s on the counties of Britain
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

. They were aimed at a new breed of car-driving metropolitan tourist, and for those who sought guides that were neither too serious nor too shallow and who took pleasure in the ordinary and peculiar culture of small town Britain. In the three decades after the Second World War the Shell Guides provided a surreptitiously subversive synthesis of the British countryside.


The series started in June 1934, with Betjeman's Cornwall, and continued until 1984, by which time about half the country had been covered. The series was sponsored by the oil company Shell
Royal Dutch Shell
Royal Dutch Shell plc , commonly known as Shell, is a global oil and gas company headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands and with its registered office in London, United Kingdom. It is the fifth-largest company in the world according to a composite measure by Forbes magazine and one of the six...

. The original guides were published on a county-by-county basis, under the editorial control of the poet John Betjeman
John Betjeman
Sir John Betjeman, CBE was an English poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who's Who as a "poet and hack".He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture...

 and (later) the artist John Piper
John Piper (artist)
John Egerton Christmas Piper, CH was a 20th-century English painter and printmaker. For much of his life he lived at Fawley Bottom in Buckinghamshire, near Henley-on-Thames.-Life:...


During the early 1960s a series of 48 cheaper Shilling Guides appeared, much to Betjeman's annoyance, especially as they sold in greater numbers. Published by the Shell-Mex and BP
Shell-Mex and BP
Shell-Mex and BP Ltd was a British joint marketing venture between Shell and British Petroleum. It was formed in 1932 when both companies decided to merge their United Kingdom marketing operations, partly in response to the difficult economic conditions of the times.The parent organisations...

 joint venture, each had just 20 pages with a full colour card cover, representing highlights of the county covered, and included a two colour map of the area, preceded by an essay on the history and landscape, and followed by a short gazetteer of main towns and tourist attractions. The original artwork for this series was sold by Shell in 2002 at an auction held by Sotheby's.

From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, a series of general titles under the Shell Guide banner were produced, covering most of the countries in northwest Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

. Guides to subjects such as rivers, islands, viewpoints, archaeology, gardens, flowers, history, wildlife and museums were also published.

In 1987, Shell issued a final series of New Shell Guides, published by Michael Joseph and generally covering rather larger areas (eg. Northern Scotland and the Islands) than in the earlier series. Whilst the original Shell County Guides are now highly collectible, the later titles (published by Faber & Faber, Ebury Press
Ebury Publishing
Ebury Publishing is a division of the Random House Group Ltd, and is a well-known publisher of general non-fiction books in the UK.Under its umbrella are the imprints BBC Books, Ebury Press, Rider, Time Out and Vermilion—each with their own, distinct identity and specialist areas of...

 or Michael Joseph) tend to be shunned by collectors and book dealers alike, as supply exceeds demand.

Selected books

  • Of the original pre-war guides, it is generally thought the best include Betjeman's Devon (1935), Paul Nash's Dorset (1936) and John Piper's Oxon (1938). Bizarrely, the latter excluded the city of Oxford, though this had much to do with Betjeman's 'An Oxford University Chest' (also 1938) which included a gazetteer of the city.

  • The more interesting and/or collectable post-war guides include Betjeman and Piper's Shropshire (1951), David Verey's Mid-Wales (1960), W.G. Hoskins' Rutland guide (1963) and James Lees-Milne's Worcestershire (1964). In her biography of John Piper (2009), Frances Spalding highlights Henry Thorold's Derbyshire (1972) as one of the best later titles. Thorold also wrote the last book in the series, Nottinghamshire in 1984, published the same year that Betjeman died.

  • Wynford Vaughan-Thomas
    Wynford Vaughan-Thomas
    Lewis John Wynford Vaughan-Thomas CBE was a British newspaper journalist and radio and television broadcaster. In later life he took the name Vaughan-Thomas after his father....

    's South-West and Mid-Wales is a good example of the 1987 New Shell Guides series.

External links

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