Archive for the ‘Sir John Betjeman’ Category

Three anniversaries

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Vacancy – Polish Poet Laureate


Grand Central Terminal in New York. Photo by Fcb981.

(Click image to expand. Click here for details of licensing.)

Three railway-connected anniversaries have featured recently in the mainstream media. The first is the centenary of Grand Central Terminal in New York which was celebrated on the BBC’s WWW News Magazine in an admirable article by Princeton University Professor of History, David Cannadine.

At the time of its construction, Grand Central was acclaimed as an engineering marvel. In the subterranean depths of Manhattan, a huge space was carved out, where trains could be boarded from platforms at two different levels, which were approached by gently sloping ramps rather than inconvenient stairs, and in terms of lighting and power, it was one of the first railroad stations to be all-electric…

…Above ground there arose a spectacular beaux arts creation, all marble and chandeliers and sculpture and glass, the centrepiece of which was a huge and lofty passenger concourse, which drew the eyes of awe-struck passengers heavenwards, where they could marvel at a vast, barrelled ceiling, painted blue and decorated with the signs of the zodiac.

I had no idea, until I read Cannadine’s piece that the preservation and restoration of Grand Central Terminal owes much to the growth of architectural conciousness which followed the public outcry after the demolition of Grand Central’s neighbour, the Pennsylvania Station in 1963.


Pennsylvania Rail Road Station shortly after completion in 1911.

(Click image to see original on Wikipedia.)

Penn Station, as it became known, was was faced with pink granite and built in the classical Doric style similar to the late lamented Euston Arch. The main waiting room, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, was at 150 feet high, the largest indoor space in New York City and one of the largest public spaces in the world.

Penn interior

Penn Station concourse shortly before closure and demolition.

(Click image to see original on Wikipedia.)

The interior of Penn Station’s 1910-built steel and glass train shed uncannily resembled the interior of London’s Liverpool Street Station which was opened in 1874. Liverpool Street Station has had a radical facelift, but was saved from demolition and comprehensive redevelopment thanks to the efforts of Sir John Betjeman and the Victorian Society.

Which brings the subject round neatly to the fortieth anniversary of the broadcast of Betjeman’s Metro-Land.

Sir John, one year into his 12-year tenure as Poet Laureate, took spellbound viewers on a 48-minute trip along the line from Baker Street, in central London, to Amersham, Buckinghamshire, through the suburbs created by the Metropolitan Railway between 1910 and 1933.

He met a birdwatcher in Neasden, the carnival queens of Croxley Green and a man who had bought a Wurlitzer cinema organ and rebuilt it in his home in Chorleywood. He visited semi-detached homes with freshly-mown front lawns and cars on the driveway that demanded a ritual Sunday sponge and suds clean.

The above piece comes not, as might be expected from the BBC website, but was published by the Daily Express. The BBC, one an icon of all that was best in broadcasting, has strayed far from the path laid down for it by Lord Reith and seems to be doomed to continue its decline and fall.

And the 3rd anniversary is, of course, the 150th anniversary of the journey of the world’s first underground train. Celebrated in style by LUL and given generous coverage by all of Britain’s mainstream media. The extract below from a sympathetic blog article by Dave Hill on the Guardian’s website is typical.

Two things stood out from my steam train ride yesterday evening down the route of the first ever London underground railway journey from Paddington to Farringdon: one was the nostalgic charm of the experience, especially the smells; the other was the enthusiasm of the many spectators gathered on the platforms of the stations we chuffed past.

Perhaps we need a rail-minded Poet Laureate in Poland to set the public’s imagination alight about the country’s railway heritage and and halt its wanton destruction?

Now who can remember the last regular, steam-operated, passenger service train on the Underground?

Remembering a friend

Saturday, 21 June 2008

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):