Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Dorset reperambulated

Michael Hill, John Newman, and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Dorset
Published by Yale University Press

Another year, another small clutch of revised volumes in Pevsner’s revered Buildings of England series. I’ve chosen Dorset for review because, although it’s not a county I know intimately, it’s a fascinating part of England and one that has given me a lot of pleasure, from its coast and coastal  towns such as Poole and Lyme Regis to inland places like Blandford Forum. I have therefore used the old 1972 edition of Dorset (in which Pevsner himself wrote about the churches while entrusting the secular buildings to John Newman) quite a bit over the years. Dorset has so much interesting architecture: great houses and historic castles, some terrific churches, and a lovely coast – lovely both scenically and architecturally, from Lyme Regis to Poole.

To reflect this richness and like every recent revision in the series, Pevsner’s Dorset has grown considerably (from just over 500 small pages in 1972 to 780 larger pages today), thanks to the addition of new buildings, more detail on those already covered, and the inclusion of structures that lay outside the original remit or that Pevsner and co simply missed – for even Homer nodded, and the busy compilers of the Pevsner epic, especially in a rich county like Dorset, a place of shady nooks and sunken lanes, may be permitted to have nodded in their turn. But Michael Hill, reviser of Dorset, can have left few stones unturned. A major centre like Poole now has a substantial section, incorporating various changes to the built environment and the generally beneficial effect of the conservation areas designated after the 1972 edition came out. The town’s new development is treated with discrimination – the Dolphin quays development criticised for its too-large scale (seven storeys dwarfing the nearby historic buildings), the RNLI College given praise. Poole is also a place to note what Pevsner does not cover. I’ve recently become fascinated by the use of architectural ceramics in Poole. Some of this is mentioned (the Poole Arms on the Quay, with its glowing green tiled gabled front, for example), but some isn’t.

Hill, like the other revisers of books in this series, treads around the original text with care. Gems from the old book remain, like the opening of the entry on Shaftesbury with its yearning quotation from Thomas Hardy’s Jude, all ‘vague imaginings’ and ‘pensive melancholy’, and the 1972 book’s comment on this: ‘Hardy was easily thrown into a pensive melancholy, but these are the right thoughts with which to approach Shaftesbury’. The original description of the famous Gold Hill is retained too, but in the new volume it merits a photograph, and a mention of Gold Hill Museum and its extension of 2011.

Some places, such as Lyme, benefit from large amounts of new detail. Lyme now has three perambulations instead of one, and some of the new detail makes me want to return to the town and look again. There’s apparently a 1930s cinema, unremarkable outside but with an interesting interior (a ’minor Art Deco gem’) and several other older buildings that the original edition did not notice. Hill also updates the coverage of Eleanor Coade’s wonderful house Belmont, with its ‘frenzy of decoration’, covering its recent restoration and the alterations to it which are controversial, but through which Hill tiptoes with tact. When new scholarship is available, Hill is informed by it. In Blandford, for example, Hill is sceptical of the role of the Bastard family as architects of the rebuilt 18th century town and notes that master mason Nathaniel Ireson may well have been responsible for the baroque touches in the town’s Georgian architecture.

The new Dorset is illuminating, then, and manages to incorporate the essence, and much of the text, of the old volume while adding much to it. The photographs are good as usual and there are several of the maps and plans that make the revised volumes still more useful than the old ones. Dorset, then, does well by this small but enchanting county and confirms that the old series in its new guise it still very much alive and kicking.

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