Betjeman and Buildings


Our Zoom talk on 7 September by John Vigar was about the poet John Betjeman, not about his poetry, but his life and his passion for architecture. John told us how Betjeman had, from childhood, a great curiosity about his surroundings. This grew into his critical conviction that buildings belonged to their locality, were shaped particularly by the local building materials, and had to be understood in their context.


John Vigar illustrated this with many excellent photos of great buildings, including many Norfolk Churches and Castles. Betjeman believed the monastic buildings were the best refined of buildings because monastic life was so well ordered - and we can still see that at Castle Acre and Beeston Priories. Betjeman loved the theatre of architecture, calling it living history. He was a regular visitor to Holt, staying with his former girlfriend, Lady Harrod, and that was a base for his discovery of Norfolk Churches celebrated in his 1974 TV programme “A Passion for Churches” - still to be found on You Tube. He particularly admired Wymondham Abbey Church and its astonishing altar screen designed by the victorian architect Sir Ninian Comper. Betjeman also treasured Railway Stations, his favourite being London Liverpool Street (where he spent his wedding night!), and “everything coastal”.

Betjeman was fully involved in the community life of his hometown of Wantage. He started a subscription library in a small shop. When that did not survive competition from a newly opened public library, Mrs Betjeman opened the shop as a cafe called King Alfred’s Kitchen - where according to local legend, many cakes were burnt!

Betjeman is buried in the churchyard of a small, remote, church in Trebetherick, Cornwall. One of many memorials to him is a stained-glass window by the artist John Piper in Farnborough Church, where Betjeman lived from 1945 to 1951 (pictured here).

A most enjoyable talk that left me wanting more of Betjeman and more of the buildings that he admired and wrote about so extensively.

David Riddle