We used to picnic where the thrift / Grew deep and tufted to the edge; / We saw the yellow foam flakes drift / In trembling sponges on the ledge JOHN BETJEMAN Trebetherick
John Betjeman (1906-1984), the most popular of all our poets laureate, is buried in the churchyard of St Enodoc, which lies just off the Cornish Coast Path half a mile from Trebetherick village. I climbed the sand dunes to get there. Bizarrely, the church is almost completely surrounded by a golf course. I know of no other church in the middle of a golf course. But... why not? In fact Betjeman himself used to play golf there. He loved this part of Cornwall - which he used to visit on family holidays when young - and several of his poems affectionately evoke the area. Later he even bought a house here.
Let me state from the outset that I'm not a big fan of Betjeman's poetry, which I find old-fashioned and defiantly unmodernist. The tumpty-tumpty rhythm, to be honest, drives me mad. However, for me, it's redeemed in part by its wry humour, and its nostalgic references to a between-the-wars England which, quite frankly, would make even a hardened cynic go weak at the knees. Ovaltine! Robertson's marmalade! Liberty lampshades! Sturmey Archer bicycle gears!
Betjeman was a journalist, poet, writer, and broadcaster on both radio and TV - which he relished. He cultivated a bumbling, fogeyish image which completely charmed his listening and viewing audience. And he loved teddy bears - naturally another big plus with the English public. His own teddy bear, improbably named Archibald Ormsby-Gore, accompanied him to Oxford, where Betjeman - and Archibald too for that matter - failed to get a degree, another endearing trait which captivated the popular imagination. (Incidentally Archibald, or 'Archie' as he was known, became the model for Sebastian Flyte's teddy bear, Aloysius, in Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited.) As you can see, Betjeman's big saving grace was that he never took himself too seriously.
In the end, Betjeman is important to me because he was a passionate lover of English country churches, and a tireless defender of Victorian architecture. At a time when the planners and developers were itching to destroy our heritage of 19th century civic and commercial buildings, Betjeman, as a founder member of the Victorian Society, took them on. Without Betjeman's championship, the magnificent Victorian-Gothic facade of St Pancras Station in London would have been bulldozed long ago, and replaced by some brutalist, soulless, concrete affair.
God rest Sir John. He represents an English era that's now gone, but one of which, thanks to his efforts, many traces still remain. And these include St Enodoc, a church of 12th century origin - marooned in sand dunes, and situated in the middle of a golf course! Which brings us back to the beginning...