Monday, 28 December 2015


So far in this blog I have posted pieces about locations in Britain featured on the big or small screen, or in literature.  This one is a bit of a departure, because it concerns a series of radio broadcasts by the late poet laureate Sir John Betjeman.  I have just been reading a book called Trains and Buttered Toast, which includes transcripts of Betjeman’s radio broadcasts, and I found them fascinating as an insight into a Britain long since disappeared, chiefly covering the period between the wars in the 1930s.  I have picked out three of the broadcasts, covering Swindon, Plymouth and Exeter.

Swindon is often reviled for its dubious town planning and the plethora of roundabouts in its road system, but it seems things were not much better in the 1930s if Betjeman’s description is anything to go by.  He comments that “you can stand among the red brick villas which compose its streets and find it impossible to believe that the loveliest country in England is only a few miles away”.  Although he does concede that “there are no real slums in Swindon”, and that its people have “good hearts”.  He also highlights the role of the railway in the town’s development, which led to the building of Swindon New Town, but he despairs that “the building went on”, and bemoans the lack of public parks in the town.  Betjeman seems to reserve a particular disdain for the houses making up the suburbs of towns up and down the country.  In Swindon’s case, he sneers at the “stained glass windows” and “sham beams” of mock Tudor houses, quipping that they are “no more Tudor than I am William Shakespeare”.  Among these suburbs he singles out the “rows of speculative houses situated in the pleasant purlieus of the gasworks”.  I particularly love his portrayal of Swindon's outward growth, describing how the town “flounders about like a helpless octopus, spreading its horrid tentacles into quiet, untroubled places”.  

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Swindon Steam railway museum. Photo by Jim, via Wikimedia Commons

Plymouth will no doubt have changed dramatically since Betjeman spoke about it in the 1930s.  Since there is an important naval base there, much of the city was flattened during World War II, and much of the rebuilding that has taken place since includes some spectaculary ugly examples of mid-20th century architecture.  In his 1937 broadcast, Betjeman notes the nautical air of the city, talking of “pink-faced naval officers drinking pink gin in exclusive bars”, while in the houses “the model ship has ousted the aspidistra in the window space”.  Union Street, which was once notorious as a red light district servicing visiting sailors, at the time of Betjeman’s broadcast about the city had “Devonport’s magnificent but decayed civic centre” at one end and at the other St Catherine’s Church, the Athenaeum, the Royal Hotel, the Assembly Rooms and the Theatre Royal.  Again he has a go at the suburbs, in this case a “special sort of villa that has spread like a rash”, with the ones on the Totnes Road “among the ugliest in England”.  He does reserve praise, though, for Albemarle Villas, the Proprietary Library, St Michael’s Terrace, Wyndham Square and Union Street itself, and he comments that there is almost as much in Plymouth worth preserving as there is in London.  Unfortunately, the Germans put paid to that idea just a few years later. 

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Plymouth Hoe. Photo by Paul Buckingham, via Wikimedia Commons

Betjeman’s broadcast about Exeter predates the coming of the M5 motorway, which had arrived at the city by 1977.  Back in the days before motorways and ring roads, traffic was forced to go through city centres, and Betjeman describes the “appalling jam of traffic which there always seems to be in Exeter High Street”.  He also rails against the “inappropriate fronts of multiple stores clapped onto mediaeval, Stuart and Georgian buildings” – a situation which has since become far worse in the era of garish chain stores in city and town centres up and down the land.  He looks on the city as a “sort of lesser Stratford-upon-Avon but with a cathedral thrown in”.  However, he applauds the Georgian architecture of Southernhay and the crescents near it.  Unfortunately, like Plymouth, Exeter suffered massively during  World War II, particularly in 1942, the year of the so-called “Exeter blitz”, part of the “Baedeker Raids”, which singled out targets for their cultural and historic significance.

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Exeter Cathedral. Photo by Rüdiger Wölk, via Wikimedia Commons

So what of the present day?  Well, Swindon makes much of its railway heritage, and is the home of the Steam - the Museum of the Great Western Railway.  Wives of railway buffs can leave their husbands to view the train memorabilia while heading over to the Swindon Designer Outlet for some retail therapy.  Plymouth’s city centre may be uninspiring architecturally, but it retains the seaside charm of the Hoe with the red and white striped Smeaton’s Tower lighthouse.  Nearby is the quaint quarter known as the Barbican, one of the few areas of the city to escape the wartime bombings, with an enticing array of pubs, restaurants and shops, and the more recently built Sutton Harbour with yet more places to eat and drink, as well as a marina.  Unfortunately, the Royal Hotel mentioned by Betjeman received a direct hit during the bombing raids, as did the Greek Doric-style Athenaeum, which was replaced by a hideous modern building which has been its home since 1961.  Exeter still has its cathedral with an attractive cathedral close, and down in the lower part of town there is a waterside development at what is known as the Historic Quayside, with restaurants, bars and shops, as well as kayaks for hire which can be used to explore the Exeter Ship Canal. 

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