A beguiling feature of Nikolaus Pevsner’s original Buildings of England series is his discussions with churches and mansions, teasing out their histories. Thus, almost at random, in St Nicholas, West Tanfield, North Yorks [or North Riding as it was in Pevsner’s time] :
The rest is Perp i.e. the ashlar-faced tower, the N chapel of one bay, and the windows as far as they are not Victorian; for the church was severely restored in 1859-60. The N chapel has a most interesting motif, a small recess in its S wall connected with the chancel by a two-light opening to the S and a single-light above a two-light opening to the E. Could it have been a tiny chantry? A chantry was in fact founded for masses to be read for Maude Marmion, who had died in 1335. Licence for the foundation came in 1363. But can this little Perp stone box be so early?
The conversational tone makes for good bedtime reading, since one can raise a detailed picture and plan in the mind, together with a reasonable evocation of the atmosphere. In her monumentally-detailed and superbly readable biography of Pevsner, Susie Harries neatly contrasts his ‘pedantic’ approach with the ‘poetic’ approach of Betjeman’s English Parish Churches:
If the door seems to be locked, turn the handle the other way and push hard. Then feel on the wall plate of the porch for the key. Then look under the mat. Then lift the notice board from the porch wall and look under that … Church keys are usually 6” or 8” long and easy to find.
Pevsner, comments Harries, ‘has by now dated the roof, attributed the windows and is back in the car, while Betjeman is still on the doormat savouring the ambience.’ Pevsner’s too-tight timetable was of his own making, in order to accommodate BofE travels in the summer vacation, and the terse, sometimes inadequate descriptions answered publishing constraints. Nonetheless, his informed attentiveness is nearly always satisfying, to use one of his own words of approbation. And often the clipped sentences are unexpected as well as perceptive:
Fylingdales Early Warning Station: Three perfect white globes of great size on three perfect black plinths in the grandiose undulating silence of the moor. The geometry of the space age at its most alluring and most frightening.