Book Review: English Medieval Church Towers: The Northern Province by W. E. David Ryan

“Across the diocese from tower to tower,

The church bells ring compelling power”

It may seem unconscionably lazy to review an architectural field guide from an armchair, but a well-ordered, beautifully illustrated compendium of facts can make for compelling reading in its own right. W.E. David Ryan’s English Medieval Church Towers: The Northern Province[i] is just such a book, and one that Sir John Betjeman, whose lines preface this review, would have surely have treasured.

It’s a proper page-turner, even though it’s narrative consists of little more than a litany of secular facts about old church towers. I’m not sure what kind of person is unmoved by medieval architecture, or blind to its mystique and symbolism. Someone, perhaps, who sees no benefit in looking up form his or her smartphone. Perhaps David Ryan’s book will be the one to divert the most ardent technophile, and drag dedicated digi-types out into the country to twitch for church towers.

This smart little guide features a neat watercolour of each of the towers in the northern sector of the ecclesiastical landscape, and comes with an ergonomic cross-index, and an illuminating glossary of terms. The physical copy fits neatly inside a generous overcoat pocket, while the digital version offers ebook engagement that can only enhance the pleasure of owning this charming book.

Ryan is a retired architect whose book is as much about navigating the highways and byways of church-tower’d England as it is about obscure architectural terminology. The ebook version speaks directly to the googling generation, but savvy silver surfers will also appreciate the benefits of a hyperlinked supplement. Whether you favour physical over digital is no great matter. The author offers multiple means of orientation in the unfamiliar northlands and succinct explanations of spandrels and quoins.

Yet, Medieval Church Towers is much more than just a wayfinder around Norman architecture. Church towers are hard to miss and easier still to take for granted. Betjeman long mourned the lack of appreciation for ecclesiastical architecture, and all but wept at silencing of their bells.

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The steepling towers of England still inspire writers, artists and poets to flights of romanticism, no doubt lifted by the idea of purpose beyond the mortal coil. As landmarks they endure as fixed points at the heart of their respective communities, but they also preserve identity by being singularly named. They were often the first significant features in the medieval landscape, besides the castle keep, and their names ring like evensong down through the centuries and into the collective consciousness.

It seems all the more apposite here to praise the publisher Boydell and Brewer for having the presence of mind, ambition and diligence to modernize the field guide format with an electronic companion. The ebook that compliments the print version works beautifully on all the necessary levels. The general locations (dioceses) are hyperlinked from the contents page, while the links to the towers are listed alphabetically in the index pages.

The illustrations, lovingly painted by Ryan himself, are just as vivid on an iPad or Kindle. Moreover, the guide benefits overall from uniquely electronic features such as the easy-access search tool and drop-down definitions of ‘hot-buttoned’ architectural terms. Best of all, is the inclusion of links out from every entry to their respective English Heritage webpages where even more information can be found on the status of a particular tower.

I want to flag up Medieval Church Towers as something of a milestone in the evolution of ebooks. It is the most perfect example that I’ve seen so far of a physical book that is enhanced by the availability and functionality of an ebook version. It’s also important because it shows that ebooks are quite different creatures from their antecedents in print.

My only criticism is that the ebook performed most ergonomically in ‘scrolling mode’, as opposed to ‘page swipe’ mode. This will be a little counter-intuitive for some users and the option to switch to scrolling text may not be available on all devices. The reason for this is that the ebook has been authored in ‘reflowable mode’, as opposed to the ‘fixed layout’ favoured by publishers of factual and academic content.

Reflowable content is essentially scrolling text that has been shoe-horned into a ‘page view’ setting on your iPad or Kindle. Generally speaking, it’s easier to author a reflowable text for different devices and the ebook is user friendly on anything from a paperwhite Kindle to the latest models and variant devices.

The fixed layout places the content in specific locations within the ebook, so that it doesn’t ‘go over the page’. That is easier said than done if your aim is to roll out a fixed layout ebook that functions perfectly with across every single generation of all devices, and their constantly updated operating systems.

The Medieval Church Towers ebook weighs in at a hefty 763.3 MB, but it doesn’t require ‘L’ plates to navigate its many useful features and responds well to a light touch. Nevertheless, you will have to be sure that your device and Wi-Fi connection can handle the download. You also ought to spend a little time working out how you prefer to use the ebook’s best features. That is true of all software now, and it pays to informed about system requirements, specifications and updated versions.

Far from being a threat to print, ebooks can and ought to justify their existence by offering an experience that print cannot. Those of us whose most treasured possessions are conventional books already know what kind of experience the printed page provides. We know that there really is no contest, and to set ebooks up as pernicious threat to print publishing is a rather tiresome and desperate false flag.

The most wonderful thing about David Ryan’s book, however, is that it rejoices in language almost as much as it celebrates great architecture. One of my favourite books ever is English Place Names by Kenneth Cameron, which traces the linguistic origins of England’s villages, towns and shires. As you leaf through its pages, it’s not difficult to feel thrilled by a sense of poetic revelation. It could easily be a travelling companion for Medieval Church Towers, which can be read similarly.

The 500 churches and their towers are named for the saints and replicated often across each of the eleven dioceses in the Northern Province. Their locations, however, tether them to English place names that speak of history in a local vernacular, and must surely excite the prospective visitor’s curiosity. Thorpe Salvin is of Danish origin, and means ‘outlying village belonging to Salvin’ while the Anglo-French Hooton Pagnell signifies that you are about to enter ‘the hill-town of (Mme.) Pagnell’.

There is poetry in this book too, easily found at St. Michael and the Archangel, St. Kentigern, St. Akleda and Our Lady of Egmanton. There is even metric alliteration in the index where the page drops open at Darfield/Darrington, Darton/Deane, Dearham/ Downham, Disley and Driffield. You can almost hear Betjeman reciting from it as he gazes wistfully from a train carriage pulled by a steam locomotive.

The churches, the towers, their locations and the page references are so efficiently catalogued that you could easily plan your tower tick-listing activities around a perfectly convivial week’s holiday in the North. If you marry it to the ebook version, and couple them with a Satnav or Google maps, then you will be well on your merry, modern way on a journey through history made visible by a deeply knowledgeable author.

English Medieval Church Towers: The Northern Province W. E. David Ryan August 2018
500 colour, 2 line illustrations
344 pages
21.6×14 cm
ISBN: 9781783273539
Formats: Paperback £19.99/Kindle edition £15.18
Boydell Press

Reviewed by Michael Stephen Clark © 2108

[i] The Northern Province, or the Ecclesiastical Province of York, comprises eleven diocese – Blackburn, Carlisle, Manchester, Chester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Durham, Leeds, York, Sheffield, and Southwell & Nottingham. The Southern Province, or Ecclesiastical Province of Canterbury, is home to a further 1000 medieval towers, is perhaps beyond the realms of a comparably comprehensive follow-up volume. Nevertheless, Ryan, a retired architect, intends to produce a sequel in the shape of ‘Finest Towers of England’.