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A RECENT news story reported that Lady Blackstone, the Heritage Minister, and Tessa Jowell, the Culture, Media and Sport secretary, are campaigning for concessions from the Treasury for stately homes in the shape of allowing owners to claim repair bills against tax. This should help to keep the historic buildings open for visitors who like to step inside the worlds of the nobility and Jane Austen.

These concessions would allow owners to embark on phased programmes paid for from their own resources at a time when English Heritage grants for historic buildings are diminishing. This is all the more remarkable as it is part of a socialist agenda; the philistine Tory line was that if an owner could not afford the upkeep of his home he should sell it. This guide might then become a relic.

This is a hymn to the best of this country’s architectural, cultural, historical and natural beauty, and with more than 2000 alphabetical entries, a raft of contributors belt out our history: Penelope Hobhouse selects the best 20 gardens, Simon Jenkins gives us his list of 20 of the most spectacular and unusual churches and John Julius Norwich glides through the most interesting country houses and castles. Authors from English Heritage, the National Trust and the Georgian Group describe the highlights of their areas. Each entry gives the historical background to its subject: the architects, the famous residents, the provenance of art collections and the designers of gardens, all littered with more than 2000 photographs.