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Cross Country Guide

This is a book which, along with a packet of extra strong mints, deserves a place in the glove compartment of every car.

23 October 2010

10:00 AM

23 October 2010

10:00 AM

The Shell Country Alphabet edited by Geoffrey Grigson

Penguin, pp.440, 9.99

This is a book which, along with a packet of extra strong mints, deserves a place in the glove compartment of every car.

This is a book which, along with a packet of extra strong mints, deserves a place in the glove compartment of every car. Any motoring trip into the British countryside, any hillside picnic or stroll will be made the more interesting with The Shell Country Alphabet to hand. In these pages you can find out about singing sand, church architecture and fossils. You may learn that heart burial was common in the Middle Ages, that marine luminescence causes ‘herrings to glow on a plate in a dark larder’ (the book was written in the 1960s, when dark larders were still ubiquitous), that a blackthorn winter is a cold snap in late March.


But don’t expect your guide to be friendly. Geoffrey Grigson is an impatient teacher and this book is rather like being accompanied by a pedantic and irritable retired schoolmaster. In a good way: Grigson’s tetchiness adds greatly to the pleasure of this book. At times he can barely disguise his boredom and impatience with the level of the reader’s curiosity. If the sight of daffodils waving their heads in the wintry sun reminds you of Wordsworth, you’re in for a sound ticking off. And don’t refer to William’s sister as Dorothy: she’s Miss Wordsworth to you.

If passing a country church sets you to wondering about the origins of lychgates, he’ll rap you over the knuckles for being dense enough to think these covered gates are of any interest or antiquity. Pay attention at the back of the class! They’re just places for coffins to pass through. Wondering about place-names is also to be discouraged: ‘The rule about them is don’t guess; they do not usually explain themselves’. And don’t get Grigson started on Druids. ‘Druidical remains’, he tells us, ‘do not exist.’

If this guide were to be compiled today, some expert with a Phd in country lore might have been recruited as its editor. Grigson was not a specialist, but a poet. He belongs to that great British tradition, the amateur. This is what makes The Shell Country Alphabet so lively, so pleasingly written and such fun.


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