Remembering a friend

by

One that got away, Sir John Betjeman at Broad Street Station, photo Lord Snowdon (click for picture in original context)

A friend has died. We never met face to face, but used to chat by e-mail because our posts in another place often saw eye to eye. He liked steam and contributed the log of his voyage down the Thames in a small open steam boat to “If Not Duffers…” one of my early blogs. He sailed on the East Coast and was involved in the restoration of a much bigger steam boat, the herring drifter Lydia Eva, and invited me to visit the boat with him. Sadly, other things got in the way and my visit never took place. Today’s post about Sir John Betjeman is dedicated to the memory of Laurence Monkhouse.

Essex by Sir John Betjeman

“The vagrant visitor erstwhile,”
My colour-plate book says to me,
“Could wend by hedgerow-side and stile,
From Benfleet down to Leigh-on-Sea.”

And as I turn the colour-plates
Edwardian Essex opens wide,
Mirrored in ponds and seen through gates,
Sweet uneventful countryside.

Like streams the little by-roads run
Through oats and barley round a hill
To where blue willows catch the sun
By some white weather-boarded mill.

“A Summer Idyll Matching Tye”
“At Havering-atte-Bower, the Stocks”
And cobbled pathways lead the eye
To cottage doors and hollyhocks.

Far Essex, – fifty miles away
The level wastes of sucking mud
Where distant barges high with hay
Come sailing in upon the flood.

Near Essex of the River Lea
And anglers out with hook and worm
And Epping Forest glades where we
Had beanfeasts with my father’s firm.

At huge and convoluted pubs
They used to set us down from brakes
In that half-land of football clubs
Which London near the Forest makes.

The deepest Essex few explore
Where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers
And out of elm and sycamore
Rise flinty fifteenth-century towers.

I see the little branch line go
By white farms roofed in red and brown,
The old Great Eastern winding slow
To some forgotten country town.

Now yarrow chokes the railway track,
Brambles obliterate the stile,
No motor coach can take me back
To that Edwardian “erstwhile”.

Sir John Betjeman not only wrote about railways in his poems, he also made TV programmes about them and campaigned actively to popularise Victorian architecture. Sadly his work came too late to save the old Euston Station, but the survival of St Pancras Station virtually intact and much of Liverpool Street Station owes a great deal to his influence. He also helped railway groups, such as the Swanage Railway Society, with their campaigns to save their local branch lines. Now if only we had a person of Sir John’s calibre in Poland to campaign about Polish railway heritage.

More John Betjeman (on You Tube):

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One Response to “Remembering a friend”

  1. Michael Dembinski Says:

    Sir John gets a frequent name-check on my blog – my favourite poet since first reading him for O-Level English. His TV-poem ‘Metro-Land’ is a great work of art; his musings on the subject of suburbia, development, nostalgia, lonelyness, old age and death are timeless.

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