3 November 2013
Ben Pentreath

I love quiet dark Sunday evenings in the winter. And it’s amazing how dark it suddenly was in Dorset this afternoon. A storm is blowing in, and as I write rain is lashing the house, the shutters are drawn, a low fire is burning and apart from the sound of the wind in the trees and the rain spilling over the gutters, everything is completely silent.

It’s at moments like this that I recharge. It’s been quite a week.  Our lovely (blog) friend Deby from Canada invited me and Bride round to a lovely dinner in Spitalfields on Tuesday, complete with The Gentle Author, and Fiona Atkins of the beautiful Townhouse where Deby was staying (you too can stay here). I admit I left a little early suffering from a minor case of major tiredness. Wednesday was manic. Thursday saw a very early start down to Dorchester, where Leon Krier, the Poundbury masterplanner, was in town. Prince Charles came the following day for the 20th anniversary bash. On Friday we had fireworks (just) and a fine bonfire, in the pouring rain, in the village, and a very riotous evening to follow.

So I’ve had one of those days where apart from the odd phone call I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone. Bliss. My friend Will was staying yesterday but needed to head back to London early this morning. He tore off in his new (old, 1995, it’s all okay) Porsche, which we’d spent the day having a fun time in up and down the coast, and today I’ve had the quietest day ever known to man. Time to recharge.

I planted paperwhites:

There’s something very satisfying on these dark days about planting paperwhites. I had a little look back and you can see what I was up to a few years ago around about now. I think I said last week that I’m a creature of habit.  There is no evidence to offer to the contrary. (And basically, if I see a cracked china bowl in a junk shop, I’ll take it).

Okay… I think it’s true to say the bulbs have been in their box a week too long. But they will sort themselves out.

We’d had a great day yesterday. We popped into Bridport, and bought some beautiful books at my favourite bookshop in the world, more on which later. We made a last minute booking at Hix in Lyme Regis, which lived up to expectation. We went to inspect the crazy waves blowing in from the southwest on the Cobb, and noted that the Lyme fireworks display at 6pm might have been grander (but doubtless less personal) than ours in the village the night before.

I love Lyme. It’s the perfect little seaside town.

(I realise I’ve taken just about identical photos a couple of years ago). And then we called back via Jane and Johnny Holland’s, where my godson Gabriel was quite excited to have a sit in Will’s car with his dad.

I’m not sure Gabriel is quite so excited about the imminent arrival of his baby sister, but we are!!!

This afternoon I had a good look through some of the books from Rose and Caroline’s brilliant bookshop, Bridport Old Books.  There were these:

I’d heard of, but didn’t know, Alphabet & Image, edited by Robert Harling – who I’ve written about before here. Look at these beautiful pages:

(engraved letters by Reynolds Stone, who one day will surely be a subject of the blog)


(and very cool advertisements)

Basically, perfect.

Will had bought this beautiful little guide book (on the left) to Clouds Hill, T. E. Lawrence’s cottage, now owned by the National Trust.

How much more beautiful, we are all thinking, to the new guide book on the right.

One of these days I’m probably going to write a blog about the dumbed down National Trust. Most likely after a day encountering some well meaning but utterly grim “COSTUMED INTERPRETER” who I have been noticing a lot on recent visits. Dreadful.

But it was interesting to compare, briefly, the beautifully produced, beautifully written guide book of 1977 with the modern day copy. What was really weird – and this is what I mean by dumbing down – Will discovered that whereas the 77 book writes movingly and eloquently of Lawrence’s death, and reputation, the current guide book decides to ignore those questions entirely. Strange.

I love old National Trust guide books. I’ve got a whole stash which I found years ago in a box in a bookshop and bought the lot. I’d love to know who was responsible for this quiet, universal, timeless design. Perhaps someone will be able to let me know?

(nice colour there…)

(really nice colours…!)

The guide to Ashdown, which I failed to get to the other week.

Well dumbed down Britain will have to wait for another blog. For now, let’s enjoy the simple things in life; and dark, windswept evenings like this one, and days of doing absolutely nothing other than a bit of catching up, and bulb planting, and discovering some new books, and being very quiet indeed.

28 comments on this post


Bonkers! I live in the next door village Patrick!! B

lillian sharpsays:

I mean , cracked bowls.


Dear Lillian, hmm, they are not quite that cracked I suppose. Or I just don’t put them anywhere where it matters!

Diane thank you for the birthday greetings, a good time was had by all!

lillian sharpsays:

Ben, do the cracked bowl not leak? If so what do you do?

We grew up in Lyme Regis and I worked in Bridport. We have now moved to Exmouth to do a house renovation project . Great article – happy exploring. Ian

Deby (in Canada)says:

Oh Ben
How sweet to get a comment in the same paragraph as Bride and Prince Charles! My two and a half week trip to London is over for this fall and it is a wonderful blur of Lowry , champagne, Paul Klee, Mormons, St.John donuts,
old friends, new friends, Elizabeth I, the Gerkin and was topped by a peal of bells from Christ Church Spitalfields last sunday morning!
Love the old national Trust Guides… also have a few fond memories of staying in their properties- years gone at Cotehele and more recently at Tintinhull 🙂
Do you know if your paperwhites get top heavy they can be kept in check with a bit of Gin?

Margaret Powlingsays:

PS Forgot to say that I have one of those bowls, too, in which you have planted your paper whites. The large punch-bowl one, from the 18th century, that children decorated, hence their rather naïve decoration, in blues and russets. Mine is an inherited piece, handed down through the family.

Margaret Powlingsays:

And I thought I was the only one who looked out for NT guide books!!! I trust you collect Shire Books, too, Ben? Excellent books, both the old ones and the modern ones, often on some esoteric topics. Who could resist Betal Chewing Equipment of East New Guinea!
And you’ve reminded me – I’ve not yet planted any paper whites!!! But loads of tulips planted in 18 pots in our tiny garden.

Here are a few more snippets of National Trust guidebook history, provided by my colleague Oliver Garnett:

The first guidebooks for houses owned by the National Trust were produced by Country Life. The Trust gradually took them in hand but kept the green covers and small format, branded with the omega version of the oak leaf (designed by Joseph Armitage,

During the 1960s the National Trust developed its own style of guidebook, with those attractive three-band covers. Oliver isn’t sure who actually designed them, but I am continuing to try to find out. The text was initially set in Bodoni, which was changed to Baskerville in the 1970s.

In 1980 the Trust produced its first colour ‘souvenir’ guide, to Knole, with a cover illustration by David Gentleman (who would go on to redesign the Trust oakleaf logo in 1983). These souvenir guides had less in-depth information but numerous colour illustrations and were meant to supplement rather than replace the classic guidebooks.

In 1987 the Trust published the first full-colour in-depth guidebook (to Blickling Hall), sometimes called the ‘book of the house’ format (using a Bembo typeface). Inspired by Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House, these guidebooks focused on bringing out the social history of the houses and estates. Some of these guidebooks sold well, but after a while they were felt to be too heavyweight for most visitors.

From 2009 the format changed again, as part of the ‘refreshing’ of the National Trust’s visual identity by Wolff Olins. By this time it was clear that some content was moving online, and also that audiences were becoming increasingly diverse (or fragmented, depending on your perspective). These new guidebooks are designed to be more legible (in the sometimes low light levels inside historic houses), more flexible (so they can be adapted to different types of houses), and easier to use as a navigation aide in the house. Some of the art-historical information is published separately as online collections guides (

So I don’t think there is any real dumbing-down going on in the Trust, it is just that the knowledge and information are moving into slightly different places and formats. I am working on a catalogue of Chinese wallpapers in Trust houses, for instance – you can’t really get more niche and aesthete-ish than that, can you? 🙂

Just bought a bag of paperwhites myself today…! Great collection of cracked bowls you have there, perfect for them. Hmmmm. note to self.

It is interesting to see the passion that National Trust guidebooks inspire! I love the covers of those ‘classic’ guidebooks too – I will ask some colleagues who was originally responsible for their design. Inside they tended to be rather austere, though, with very few illustrations, and those generally in black and white. And, as this blog proves, we now all enjoy and expect good images.

I did a post a while ago about the changing designs of NT guidebooks (, from ‘austerity’ via ‘classic’ to – perhaps – ‘demotic’. In the 1960s and 70s the NT membership and visitors were very different from today – more of a cultured aesthete constituency (again much like the readership of this blog, I imagine:)), whereas now it has a mass membership. The current guidebooks inevitably reflect the need to cater to a wider spectrum of interests. At the same time the NT also produces more in-depth publications, such as the recent book about the amazing and socially fascinating library at Anglesey Abbey by Mark Purcell, William Hale and David Pearson (

The temporary opening of the Big Brother House to the public which the NT assisted with was an experiment in redefining what ‘heritage’ is and means – it certainly wasn’t intended as a money-making venture. Our London area director, Ivo Dawnay, enjoys provoking debate, and he certainly got that in this case:)


Dear all – thank you for your comments! Sorry (as ever) that I don’t always have time to reply individually. I think many readers of the blog are in harmony with paperwhites and old National Trust guides (and thank you Nicola for your outburst).

MTTS: There are problems with the email alerts at the moment – which we know about and will be getting around to fixing soon. i’m afraid the blog has been a bit overwhelmed with demand. I really apologise. The system has been creaking. My best friend Val doesn’t get the alerts and you can imagine how that goes down!

We are launching the new shop website in 6 days and next is the blog!!

Nick Morgansays:

I share your love of booklets, I particularly like the old Blue Handbooks to Ancient Monuments which are beautiful, erudite publications and my particular favourite the DoE guide to the Saxon Shore Forts, a lovely little piece of 1960s design

Pam Cartersays:

I also love your website and blog.

Pam Cartersays:

I like the bowls holding your paperwhites. Very pretty.


After your purple patch, it is good to see you back on track with your enthusiasms and betes noires. Also have a collection of NT guidebooks from the era of being dragged round as a child and while I might have enjoyed the socalled costumed interpreters then, I certainly don’t want their attentions as an adult We’ve lapsed as NT members for the first time this year. What were they thinking with the Big Brother House, even as a swift moneymaking exercise? Adam Nicolson at Sissinghurst expressed it well with the “trustification” or sanitisation of historical fact. Apologies for this outburst on your excellent blog.

Loved your piece in the FT this weekend. And love a good book shop. We have one here in Baltimore (Maryland, USA) that has free books, only open on weekends, and you can take as many as you like.


As entertaining as ever and I am certainly with you on both the beauty of paperwhites and the horror of costumed interpreters, but what I really want to know is why have I stopped receiving email alerts for your lovely blog. Technical problems?

Cornelia harrietsays:

Claremont landscape gardens….many a lovely sunday afternoon with the white doves and swans and my mother and the teashop cafe. I still have her national trust fruit knife in green engraved leather pouch. Bluntly appealing to my four year old. Beautiful paper whites…fill the cracks in bowls with gold to celebrate the Japanese the word for escapes me. But the meaning is to cherish..the simple beauty of fading old objects.


Yes you are right, the blues on the Plas Newydd and Ickworth guides are really very pleasant (understatement). I am going to have look up Petworth, the name is very familiar (ie I think I might have been there, but the memory entirely eludes me). Bon Hiver!


Didn’t James Lees-Milne write the NT guides to the houses he arranged: Stourhead?
Love the old Chinese punch bowls–the bulbs will look great!
Best, Ash


I have quite a large collection of British historic house/castle guidebooks myself with a good chunk of them being from the NT. (I rotate them on my table with the seasons, depending on the color of the front cover. Currently all orange and brown toned covers are on the top of the piles.) Some of them I have several older versions as well as the current ones. Its interesting to see how they’ve changed over the years as you are showing above. For my own purposes, as I like to have them to reference the pictures and plans in them, I find the newer ones have more of what I need to refer to. But the older ones certainly have their charm and I love the older NT ones with the pictures as you’ve shown above – I have a number of those.

Alison Ssays:

Love the look of all the treasures from the wonderful Bridport Old Books. Yes please to a blog on Reynolds Stone. He designed a bookplate for my very stylish Great-uncle Arnold (an antiquarian bookseller and a man with a very good library).


I love your blogs so much – wait all week for them and then a little sad when they are over for another week. Thank you.

deb millersays:

Loved your opening paragraph. It reminded me of when I used to live in a little cottage on top of a very windy hill, that’s the down side of having a 180 degree view and being the highest point around for at least ten miles, in deepest Somerset. I always feel strangely homesick for those dark, rainy, windy November evenings.

God. I love you writing. Books, a quiet day at home, and paperwhites. A slice of heaven. Thank you!


Your blogs are a breath of fresh air. Thank you so much for taking the time to write them. Photos are always a treat.

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