Tuesday, 21 February 2017

WOEFUL IN WILTSHIRE: JOHN BETJEMAN AT MARLBOROUGH



The late John Betjeman, who was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972, and remained in the role until his death in 1984, leaves behind a wealth of evocative verse and prose, describing the places he knew and visited around Britain so vividly that he transports the reader back to an earlier time redolent with nostalgia.  One of his best known works is the autobiographical 'Summoned by Bells', which recalls his childhood, his school days and his time at University.  Chapter VII of the collection covers his time at Marlborough College, a boarding and day school in the attractive small Wiltshire town of the same name which he attended in the early 1920s.

File:Entrance to Marlborough College on the Bath Road. - geograph.org.uk - 1509846.jpg
Entrance to Marlborough College. Photo by Steph, via Wikimedia Commons

Betjeman was allegedly quite miserable at Marlborough College, where he spent five years (“Thank God I’ll never have to go through them again”) and he does not miss an opportunity to have a dig at it in his poetry, referring to it as “my prison house”.  Winters were a particular endurance test, described as “Black as our college suits, as cold and thin”.  Mealtimes did not bring any solace, with cakes “harder than the rocks”, tea which is “made from stewed up socks”, and a Dining Hall smelling of Irish Stew.  The teas at the College were described as a joke – “you only ate them when quite stony broke”.    

Sports formed a large part of life in the College, and Betjeman bemoaned the fact that for five years he and his fellow pupils “shivered in exiguous shorts”.  While at the College he founded a satirical magazine called ‘The Heretick’, which made fun of this obsession with sport.  Other negative memories recalled in the poem include the “casual beatings”, the stone flag passages and the iron bars.  In the early 1960s Betjeman made a documentary film about Marlborough, part of a series which became lost, but were subsequently rediscovered.  The director of the piece on Marlborough recalls that it took some persuading to get him to go through the gates of the school for the filming on his first visit there for 40 years, such were his feelings about it.

It wasn’t all bad though, because he liked the town and adored the surrounding countryside.  He used to walk along the River Kennet, which he recalls in the poem with the line “The smell of trodden leaves beside the Kennet, On Sunday walks with Swinburne in my brain” (a reference to a fellow English poet).  He also cycled to Silbury, “by burnt-up hawthorn edged again with white from chalk dust whirled by Fords and Lancias” (Marlborough is in the middle of a predominantly chalk terrain) and to “sepulchral Avebury “.

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Avebury Ring. Photo by Simon Barnes, via Wikimedia Commons
Marlborough used to be an important pit-stop on the old road from London to Bath, and the quaint old inns lining its main street are a reminder of that time.  Its most notable feature is its generous High Street, the second widest in the country, with a pleasant mix of pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops.  In fact, for a town of its size it has a surprisingly decent selection of shops, probably because the continued presence of Betjeman’s hated College lends the town an upmarket air.  The chalklands around Marlborough are full of fascinating ancient sites.  Silbury, mentioned above, is home to Silbury Hill, an artificial prehistoric chalk mound, and Avebury is famous for its Avebury Ring, a henge monument containing three stone circles.  These two Neolithic monuments, along with the West Kennet Long Barrow, are part of the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage Site.

File:High Street, Marlborough from St Peter's church roof - geograph.org.uk - 460662.jpg
The High Street, from St Peter's Church. Photo by Brian Robert Marshall, via Wikimedia Commons

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