The Shell Guides were originally a 20th century series of guidebooks on the counties of Britain. They were aimed at a new breed of car-driving metropolitan tourist, and for those who sought guides that were neither too serious nor too shallow and who took pleasure in the ordinary and peculiar culture of small town Britain. In the three decades after the Second World War the Shell Guides provided a surreptitiously subversive synthesis of the British countryside.
The series started in June 1934, with Betjeman's Cornwall, and continued until 1984, by which time about half the country had been covered. The series was sponsored by the oil company Shell. The original guides were published on a county-by-county basis, under the editorial control of the poet John Betjeman and (later) the artist John Piper.
During the early 1960s a series of 48 cheaper Shilling Guides appeared, much to Betjeman's annoyance, especially as they sold in greater numbers. Published by the Shell-Mex and BP joint venture, each had just 20 pages with a full colour card cover, representing highlights of the county covered, and included a two colour map of the area, preceded by an essay on the history and landscape, and followed by a short gazetteer of main towns and tourist attractions. The original artwork for this series was sold by Shell in 2002 at an auction held by Sotheby's.
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, a series of general titles under the Shell Guide banner were produced, covering most of the countries in northwest Europe. Guides to subjects such as rivers, islands, viewpoints, archaeology, gardens, flowers, history, wildlife and museums were also published.
In 1987, Shell issued a final series of New Shell Guides, published by Michael Joseph and generally covering rather larger areas (eg. Northern Scotland and the Islands) than in the earlier series. Whilst the original Shell County Guides are now highly collectible, the later titles (published by Faber & Faber, Ebury Press or Michael Joseph) tend to be shunned by collectors and book dealers alike, as supply exceeds demand.
- Of the original pre-war guides, it is generally thought the best include Betjeman's Devon (1935), Paul Nash's Dorset (1936) and John Piper's Oxon (1938). Bizarrely, the latter excluded the city of Oxford, though this had much to do with Betjeman's 'An Oxford University Chest' (also 1938) which included a gazetteer of the city.
- The more interesting and/or collectable post-war guides include Betjeman and Piper's Shropshire (1951), David Verey's Mid-Wales (1960), W.G. Hoskins' Rutland guide (1963) and James Lees-Milne's Worcestershire (1964). In her biography of John Piper (2009), Frances Spalding highlights Henry Thorold's Derbyshire (1972) as one of the best later titles. Thorold also wrote the last book in the series, Nottinghamshire in 1984, published the same year that Betjeman died.
- Wynford Vaughan-Thomas's South-West and Mid-Wales is a good example of the 1987 New Shell Guides series.
- Exhibition on Shell Guides
- Guardian article on Shell Guides exhibition
- Mawson, Chris (2010). "A History of the Shell County Guides". http://www.shellcountyguides.co.uk/. Retrieved 2011-01-24.
- Shilling Guides.
- Shell County Guides website (from 2010)
- Shell and BP Shilling Guides to the counties of Britain
- David Heathcote's A Shell Eye on England