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John Betjeman and Wiltshire
By Dr. Paul Williams
University of Exeter

John Betjeman
John Betjeman had a number of personal links with the county of Wiltshire

Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), knighted in 1969 and appointed Poet Laureate in 1972, was one of the most popular British poets of the 20th century.

His education at Marlborough College, which formed a memorable part of his blank verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells (1960), is well known.

However, Betjeman had several personal links with the county, and Wiltshire figured in many different guises in his work as a broadcaster, writer and poet.

In the early 1960s, Betjeman wrote and starred in a series of short documentary films on places in the South West.

When the time came for Betjeman to re-enter Marlborough College, his director Jonathan Stedall commented: "It was a major struggle to get him through the gates. I had to practically push him."

Betjeman was educated at Marlborough from 1920 to 1925, the year he began attending Magdalen College at the University of Oxford.

Watching the film he made with Stedall in the 1960s, it is not difficult see why Betjeman might have been reluctant to return. He records his 'dread' of insufficiently heated showers and asks parents of boarding pupils to be generous with their financial gifts: "Recall the hunger that a schoolboy feels."

John Betjeman
Wiltshire figured in much of Betjeman's work as a poet and broadcaster

The Marlborough chapter in Summoned by Bells adds to these memories the pain of casual beatings administered by older pupils and the 'most terrible disgrace' that was to be had in the Upper School - 'basketing'.

Boys undergoing this ritual punishment were partially stripped of clothes, smeared with ink and treacle and hoisted among the beams in a huge waste-paper basket.

While Betjeman emphasises the feeling of 'impending doom' in his memories of Marlborough, his school friends insist he was a popular boy during his time there.

His friend and biographer Bevis Hillier lists several aspects of school life Betjeman enjoyed, such as the expeditions to the Wiltshire countryside undertaken in art classes, and Ramsbury Manor was one of Betjeman's favourite places to sketch.

Following his marriage to Penelope Chetwode in July 1933, Betjeman often had homes near Wiltshire, in Uffington, Farnborough, and Wantage.

When the Betjeman family had to leave Uffington in 1945, they considered moving to Avebury, and Betjeman was involved in the campaign that began in 1959 to save Avebury's Great Barn from collapse.

His daughter and son-in-law, Candida and Rupert Lycett Green, moved near Calne in the 1970s, and a party to celebrate Betjeman's seventieth birthday was held at their home in 1976.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Wiltshire places such as Bromham, Chippenham, Devizes, Dilton Marsh, and Malmesbury featured in Betjeman's poetry and films for television.

Betjeman's films and poems on Wiltshire are characterised by some of his key preoccupations: how can we organise our towns, villages and cities in order to maintain our communities? Can an appreciation of the social history preserved in the environment re-connect us to the places we inhabit?

Focus on Swindon

Betjeman focused on Swindon on several occasions, and the town was the subject of his poetry, a television film, and a history published by Swindon Borough Council.

In 1962, Betjeman declared he had come to love Swindon because of its people, but he was extremely dubious about the new housing estates. He wrote: "there aren't enough playing fields yet, it seems, for the children. Everything looks impersonal, though it's well meant. Is this Swindon?"

Betjeman loved the bits of the town that were not the result of post-war planning. These were the parts of Swindon that offered a living environment where the borough's past could be appreciated, notably Christ Church in Swindon Old Town and the houses built by the Great Western Railway.

Apart from Marlborough, the importance of Wiltshire to John Betjeman's work is not well known, but it deserves to be.

In his films and poetry, Betjeman draws attention to the small details of the places we walk through every day, details like railings, porches, and windows.

In his film on Devizes, Betjeman tells us to "always look down alleys if you want to find the real history of a town."

He is constantly looking down alleys, as well as down lanes and passageways and gardens, hunting out the stories from the past that are embedded in buildings and landscapes.

Through his eyes, unnoticed aspects of the Wiltshire environment reveal the histories of the people who shared these places hundreds of years before.

Dr. Williams would welcome anyone who has memories of John Betjeman's visits to Wiltshire to share them with him directly at p.g.williams@exeter.ac.uk.




SEE ALSO
Betjeman's Broads experience
06 Aug 09 |  Nature & Outdoors
Plans to protect Metroland
15 Jul 09 |  People & Places
William Golding's Wiltshire roots
17 Sep 09 |  History


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