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Response to Review no. 904

Nick Holder has written a generous and extremely positive review of the EPE paperback series. As he notes in the introduction, this was a series produced in ultra-quick time (at least by some academic standards) with a commitment to a mixture of volunteer input and material generated by specialists which did not always fit easily with the research spearheaded by individual team leaders, but which was essential to securing the breadth of coverage achieved in the books. What he does not mention is that each project is also accompanied by a web presence which includes material generated by the research and subsequently mounted on www.englandspastforeveryone.co.uk/explore. Readers may not easily relate paperback text to website material but the complementarity should not be lost since it has been an attempt to put together two types of information, in some cases involving primary source research undertaken by volunteers on the project such as the transcription of probate material, the analysis of census data and the surveying of buildings. It should also be said that the financial backing of the HLF, which was largely to encourage us to engage with volunteers and to develop training and education packages, was also responsible for the excellent presentation of the books, including the use of colour photography, professionally drawn maps, and an overall series design. While the VCH has every intention of continuing with the paperback series, keeping up the presentation standards will be a challenge for the future.

The key point which Holder has picked up and which should be emphasised, was that the series was an attempt to write and publish good quality local history without any preconceived theoretical model or any particular period or set of boundaries. As a result, the books range where the authors and editors wanted them to go, and he notes how only one book tackles a topic on a county-wide basis, how two take a major country estate and one a country house as their focus, two others examine small towns, three look at villages, and two at cities. Local history is impossible to straightjacket in terms of what it is, and although the VCH has traditionally concentrated on parish studies to a reference book formula, EPE was always seen as an opportunity to break those older boundaries and to allow research and authorial spirit to flow (at least within limits acceptable to the funders and the University of London as the host institution). What it has shown, above all, and as Holder emphasises throughout his review, is that the subject must be allowed freedom. We could not have written the history of Bristol, but we could use Bristol to work on one very significant aspect of that city’s evolution. Similarly we are committed to good architectural history, but we are not architectural historians per se and so books which had Bolsover Castle and Hardwick Hall at their core concentrated on the estates that surrounded these great mansions. Only one book, on Parham, examined a large house in detail. Codford, the single parochial history (although in this case a village with two parishes) impressed Holder because it was possible to write 200 pages about the community and still leave questions unanswered, while the guidebook style book appendix in the book on Burford produced yet another approach to local history, in this case in relation to a small town. Good quality local history, written from the source materials, fully and carefully illustrated, is not beholden to models or theory, but can range through a wide variety of interest areas and ways of operating. In this sense local history has a unique status in English academic life, and we were in a number of cases able to enhance the quality of the local history by employing experts in the analysis of buildings, including farmsteads, timber-framed buildings, churches, and workers’ housing. 50 years ago Hoskins pushed landscape and buildings analysis to the local historical fore: the VCH has often been accused of missing the revolution that he instigated. EPE shows we have adapted, and that working with a range of excellent authors and editors we have produced a series which Holder believes is likely to set new standards in the writing and presentation of local history. We would heartily concur.