Some implications of "digital" for scholarly writing and publishing

How not to find things with Pevsner

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Pevsner Bedfordshire cover

I hesitate to criticize Pevsner’s Buildings of England series; I have used the books with immense pleasure for many years. Pevsner appears not only to have seen everything, but to have an informed and perceptive (and often pointed ) comment about what he sees. However, if I were to complain, it would be about the information navigation rather than the content. I’ve just bought the volume for Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough, which, as the title might suggest, was probably not the easiest volume to put together. After several years of using the series, this is the first time I’ve suggested some improvements to the navigation:

  1. Include one index per volume. If you must, have one index for people, one index for places. But having a separate index for Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire in one volume is just a nightmare. In fact, several aspects of this volume raise questions. According to the Foreword, the first edition of the book got off to a bad start; research began in 1964, then in 1965 the County of Huntington and Peterborough was formed. This county was then abolished in 1974. Given that Pevsner volumes were being published alongside all these county boundary changes, it is perhaps not such a surprise when publishers admit that three villages were omitted from Pevsner altogether in the muddle of changing county boundaries between editions of individual volumes.
  2. I can understand the problems of county reorganisation, but why does a 2014 edition stick with the county boundaries of 1974? Don’t stick to a superseded taxonomy. English county boundaries of 1974 is not a good organising principle.
  3. Perambulations (the glorious Pevsner term for guided walks) are a nightmare and I always get lost. I defy anyone to follow a perambulation in its entirety. The style is to list only buildings of interest, so whole rows of buildings, even whole streets, are ignored while we magically follow Pevsner in his quest for beauty. Trouble is, the building he refers to is often only by such cryptic terms as “further down” (not stating clearly that the next building described is several blocks away from where you are currently standing). For perambulations  follow the system in Pevsner city guides – a much clearer description of walks, and one that is easy to follow.
  4. Improve the maps – include some features such as roads and/or railways (to be fair, this is now starting to happen in the recent volumes). Drop the unique grid reference system and replace them by OS grid references. This would enable things to be found via satnav systems.
  5. We are steadily moving towards a digital world. There exists already an incomplete  Pevsner index ( from 1999, but this URL was broken, and of course, as the volumes are revised, the index will go out of date again.
  6. Have the pictures adjacent to the text they are describing. This is done very successfully in the Pevsner City Guides.
  7. Don’t start each entry for a town or village with the Church of England church, followed by Catholic and other denominations – it shows an outdated pecking order that is not appropriate or even very sensitive.Even the Pevsner City Guides start usually with the cathedral (at least, my City Guide to Sheffield does).

The final problem, perhaps one of the most challenging to address, is that in a book of several hundred pages, it is very difficult to find out which things to see. There is an introduction, which requires you to sit down and consider a county in its own right without any of its neighbours (and Cambridge has five counties within a few miles), but it is very easy not to notice a fascinating church or building just a few miles away. Simon Jenkins with his star ratings for the 1,000 best churches in England gives me the comfort that I haven’t missed anything major in the vicinity.


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  1. “English county boundaries of 1974 is not a good organising principle.”

    You make some good points, but I disagree with this for several reasons. First, modern county boundaries have a habit of being changed, so by always using the “modern” ones, you just introduce confusion when the government next decides to change them. Second, the “traditional” counties have long been in use, so they are stable and unchanging. Third, using the traditional boundaries allows one to compare current research or books with antiquarian sources or old books.

    Anybody who has had to use a book that references “Avon” (for example – Bond’s font book, updated by Waterstones, being a classic example where they change the text to use the “new” counties) will know only too well what a pain it is – Avon doesn’t exist prior to 1974, nor after 1996.

    The “Buildings of England” (Yale) is correct in using the old boundaries in their revised editions.

    • Agreed, a good comment. The 1974 county boundaries seem a bit more stable than what has happened since. And Pevsner has to follow some organising principle – there is no ideal. I’ll stick to my point though when a volume such as Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire have separate indexes, one for each county, one of which no longer exists!

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