I’m trying to work out how best to do something I’ve wanted to do here on the Brownhills Blog for a while. Many of you will know that I’m very keen to share with readers formative things from my youth, be they maps, photos, old music fanzines or items of local ephemera. One of the things I’d really like to share is a long out-of-print book that I still treasure to this day, and first discovered, unloved, in the corner of my school library.
I first picked up the dusty, faded copy of ‘Staffordshire: a Shell Guide’ by Henry Thorold in secondary school in the mid eighties, just as I was starting to explore the county by bike on my first ‘real’ bicycle. It’s essentially a gazetteer of Staffordshire, and features an alphabetical list of villages and towns, arbitrarily selected for interest. Each entry features a short appraisal of the place, concentrating on the church and any interesting architecture. The reviews are utterly arbitrary, quite snobbish and written in a stiff but flowing way that could only be carried off by an English gentleman of a certain period. Scattered throughout the guide are pictures of notable features of the county, all in atmospheric black and white.
When I came upon this fascinating work, it was dusty and unloved. It hadn’t been booked out since 1979, presumably when it was first procured. The publication date is 1978, whereupon it cost the princely sum of £4.50. It’s a hardback, and is over 200 glossy, monochrome pages long. I devoured it. I used it with an old map to plan rides to places that sounded romantic or strange – Ingestre, Ipstones, Croxall, Clifton Campville. I learned from it about church architecture and the halls and history of my beloved county. That’s the old lost one, not the modern, truncated Staffordshire. The coverage stretched from the Black Country to the Moorlands. I was young, nosey and eager to explore, and in the absence of a human guide, Henry Thorold took the lead and I followed him around this fine shire.
I’m not afraid to say that after coveting and borrowing the book repeatedly, I nicked it. I think the librarian knew, and was glad it went to a good home. I read it over and over, and still do. My original stolen copy was lost in a bad loan, and I was bereft for a while, but in he mid nineties I came upon another copy at a fete at Shelfield School, whose library it had clearly just been released from. It was similarly unloved and unloaned. I was reunited with my spiritual Staffordshire guide.
The book was published as part of a sponsorship deal with the Shell Petroleum Company, who were big on tourist guides at the time. Henry Thorold wrote several for them, and indeed, has quite a cannon of work, yet I know little about the man. I suspect he may have been a member of the clergy of some kind, but the book doesn’t say. His knowledge of Church Architecture is stunning. I want to share it – and the book – with readers.
To scan the work in one section is out of the question. The .PDF file would be huge at a respectable quality, and I don’t want to degrade the pictures if I can help it, so I’m going to do it in short sections. I’ll put up the first one next week, but for now, I’ve included a random page to show you what it’s like. It’s a very significant, formative work for me, and it shaped much of how I think about rural Britain and it’s architecture. I can’t emphasise enough just what an effect this book had on a teenage BrownhillsBob. I was, and still am, a very strange child indeed.
Please stay tuned, and do contribute. Henry Thorold’s work may soon be lost like so much of this type of ephemera, and were it to pass into obscurity unrecorded it would be a terrible crime.