Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 5, 2010

The Shell Country Alphabet (1966), by Geoffrey Grigson

The plan was to rely on the Kindle while we are overseas. I was determined not to buy any books to make the suitcase heavy, and had resolutely resisted the lure of the souvenir guides in the British Museum, the Museum of London, St Paul’s Cathedral et al.  But on our last day in London the London Review Bookshop beckoned as we strolled the streets of Bloomsbury, and we went in ‘just to look’…

It is a most wonderful bookshop.  Whoever does the buying has excellent taste for there were many of Australia’s finest writers – not just on the shelves but also on prominent display on the tables.  They had a splendid selection of literary fiction, the best I’ve ever seen in any bookshop anywhere, and it was very difficult to be strong-minded about the suitcase.

I could not, however, resist The Shell Country Alphabet, subtitled The Classic Guide to the English Countryside by Geoffrey Grigson.  It’s all about the countryside, and we were about to set off for the Cotswolds and Wales.  It was essential research that would heighten our enjoyment of our travels!

And so it has proved to be, even now when I am still reading it in urban Dublin.  It is full of enchanting snippets of information about how traditional housing was built, how to identify where an ancient barrow or Roman road might lie, or what stone was quarried to build the local housing.  (In the Cotswolds, it’s that distinctive oolitic limestone, and he explains about drystone walling too, of interest to us because there’s so much of it at home in Victoria too.)

Grigson, (1905-1985) was a poet, reviewer and writer, and he enjoyed debunking myths.  There are no such thing as druidical remains, he declares, citing 19th century scholarship and 20th century archaeology to show that dolmens and Avesbury belong to the Neolithic era and Stonehenge to the Bronze Age long before the arrival of the Iron Age Celtic peoples in Britain.  Druids there were, but not druidical remains, and I suspect that Grigson would be writing cross letters to The Times were he alive to see the nonsense that goes on around Stonehenge today…

He’s very good on church architecture, explaining all about naves, chancels, and bosses though I wish there were illustrations of some of these. I particularly enjoyed his explanation for why communion rails were needed: after the Reformation there was some disconcerting lack of respect for the altar.  People would lean on it when they gathered around to take communion, and dogs were known to come into the church with the parishioners and lift a disrespectful leg.  So the altar was moved right up next to the east wall, and a rail erected around it to signify its symbolism – and deter the dogs…

From Mr Grigson I have learned that fields have names, though had I known to ask him, The Spouse could have told me that.  At Shady Acres, the family farm in Macclesfield (Macclesfield in Victoria, not the UK) all the fields (into which I never ventured, for fear of encountering a cow) had names, with one sad distinction from British practice.  Should one buy a farm in Britain and not know its field names, there is an English Place-names Survey one can consult, but when Shady Acres was sold, the Harding family’s field names were lost to posterity.

Grigson writes well about forests too, amplifying what I already knew from Simon Schama’s brilliant Landscape and Memory.  Forests were the preserve of the king’s hunting grounds so there were very strict rules about protecting the habitat, especially that of the deer. There were very severe penalties not just for poaching but for anything that interfered with the hunt as the court moved about the realm because the hunt provided the food for their feasting.

The deer, therefore, also had the right to rampage beyond the forests without interference.  These deer could not only travel over the land of the humble as much as they liked (to eat the vert i.e. trees, underwood and thorn thickets) but the humble had by decree to build their fences low enough for the deer to leap over, and once within, the deer could only be evicted by forest officers.  I bet there was a bit of grumbling about that and the temptation to poach an invader must sometimes have been overwhelming.

This is an enchanting little book.  The personality of its author shines through in his choice of topics, his scholarship, his tart opinions and his sense of humour.  Highly recommended, even if you’re not travelling country lanes in the UK.

It was Book of the Week at the Guardian in August 2009, and I recommend you read the entertaining review by Kathryn Hughes there too.

Author: Geoffrey Grigson
Title: The Shell Country Alphabet
Publisher: Penguin 2009 (first published in 1966)
ISBN: 9780141041681
Source: Personal library, purchased at the London Review Bookshop £9.99

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