Ten years in the making, Ruth Harman tells Stephen McClarence about her epic journey to update one of Pevsner’s iconic guides to Yorkshire.
For once, Ruth Harman is having a pretty straightforward journey. Twenty minutes on a bus from her Sheffield home to the city’s railway station, then half-hour on a train to Doncaster. A mere hop, skip and jump compared with some of the journeys she’s made over the past 10 years. Take her marathon round trip one summer’s day a couple of years ago. She started at 7.30am with a bus to Sheffield station for a train to Leeds. Followed by (and you may find a map useful here) a train to Halifax, a bus to Sowerby Bridge, another bus to Ripponden, another to Rishworth, a mile-long walk to a different bus stop for a service to Hebden Bridge, another bus over the moors to Mythholmroyd, a train back to Halifax, another to Leeds, and a final one back to Sheffield for the bus home. She got back about 11pm.
It wasn’t just a whim. Ruth, a former Sheffield archivist, has spent a decade working on a new edition of one of the celebrated Buildings of England guides – the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner’s epic county-by-county survey of what its title suggests. Her “patch” has been the southern half of the former West Riding (the guide to the northern half, including Leeds and Bradford, has already been published).
She has had to tackle a huge area, stretching north to south from the outskirts of York down to Sheffield and west to east from Todmorden across to Goole. It takes in Halifax, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Wakefield, Pontefract, Selby, Barnsley and Doncaster. Also, between pages 103 and 107, Barkisland, Barkston, Barlow, Barnburgh and Barnby Dun. No village too small; no hamlet too obscure.
“You needed a lot of stamina and a lot of sandwiches,” she says. “I used to take a Thermos flask with me, a picnic, chocolate and emergency rations; I sometimes didn’t know exactly where I was going to be when I finished.”
All told, it proved a much more demanding task than she anticipated. “I don’t think anyone – least of all me – realised what I was going to encounter,” she says. “The book just consumed my whole existence.”
With deadlines constantly looming, fellow architectural historians were drafted in to cover a few selected areas, and car-owning friends occasionally helped out with lifts. And now, a clearly relieved Ruth has emerged from what she calls her “Pevsner purdah”.
We’ve met, aptly enough, at Sheffield station (“A one-off design, quite classical,” she writes. “Notable refreshment room”). In his original West Riding guide, first published in 1959, Pevsner gave the station 10 words. Ruth, co-author of a 2004 Pevsner City Guide to Sheffield, gives it over 100.
Pevsner’s central focus was churches and grand houses: now schools, mills, bridges and considerably less grand houses are included. This massive increase in scope and detail helps explain why the new book runs to 840 pages and 300,000 words (plus almost 120 fine photographs).
The original Pevsner West Riding included the whole Riding and could just about slip in a jacket pocket. This update – staggeringly well-researched – feels more like the Bible which Pevsner guides represent for their admirers.
We’re taking a train to Doncaster, through a landscape that falls some way short of Cotswoldian charm. “There’s no way of pretending that the area I’ve been looking at is some unknown Shangri-La,” says Ruth.
And as the train passes a scrap heap, a retail park and an industrial estate, she shows me the 1970s Ordnance Survey maps she often took with her to work out where now-closed pits used to be.
“Research could be highly addictive, but you sometimes had to say to yourself: ‘No, the world can live without knowing who designed this stained glass window’.”
How, I wonder, did it feel to revise a book invariably regarded as the definitive commentary on English architecture? “You’re aware that these volumes have a worldwide readership,” she says. “So you’re always terrified of letting the side down. And I couldn’t possibly claim to have Pevsner’s range of scholarship and knowledge.”
For all his forensic factuality, Pevsner’s judgements could be brutal. As our train passes through Rotherham, I recall that he was notably dismissive about its public buildings: “There are none that deserve mention.”
Ruth, though less prescriptive, admits: “You’re not going to go on holiday to Mexborough or Heckmondwike, but people have unjustly ignored this part of the West Riding because they don’t know what tremendous things are all mixed up with the grot and industry.”
On cue, we pass Conisbrough Castle, its sturdy cylindrical keep standing to attention on a hill and helping make it one of her favourite buildings.
Arriving in Doncaster we gaze across from the station to the now-disused Grand Theatre, marooned between a shopping centre and a dual carriageway – “inexplicably discarded by planners” as she notes in the guide.
We set off on the sort of “perambulation” for which Pevsner guides are famous and nose around the Minster, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. “A landmark to travellers on the East Coast railway,” she writes. “The proudest and most cathedral-like of this fabulously busy and successful architect’s parish churches.”
On through the vibrant market, past the Minerva Cafe and along to the High Street, where Pevsner reckoned that, with the exception of one shop, there was “nothing of note”.
Past signs for Kasablanca Tanning and the Primal Art Tattoo Studio, we confront the massively plush and impressive Mansion House. “Crikey,” says Ruth. “They’ve done some regilding – all the capitals and the urns and the bunches of grapes.”
She describes the Mansion House as “a sort of fun palace where the mayor entertained. There were people in Doncaster who could say they were ‘Glovemakers to the Prince Regent’ because he spent so much time here at the races.”
In a sort of tribute to him, we end our short tour with the leafy elegance of Victorian Regent Square. “I’ve had my sandwiches here a few times,” says Ruth and walks back to the station for the train to Sheffield and the bus home. Another – less challenging – journey completed.
Yorkshire West Riding: Sheffield and the South (The Buildings of England) by Ruth Harman and Nikolaus Pevsner, Yale University Press, £35.