Poet laureate's ode to 'seductive' town by the sea
- Credit: Weston Mercury
In 1962, the poet John Betjeman wrote a poem about Sidmouth.
Then in his fifties, Betjeman was a genuinely popular and widely read poet. He would later be knighted and would succeed Cecil Day-Lewis as Poet Laureate in 1972.
Betjeman is often today remembered for his vicious 1937 poem about the town of Slough, now in Berkshire. “Come friendly bombs and rain on Slough,” he wrote, “It isn’t fit for humans now.” A few years later, the widely anticipated air raids did come and Slough was one of many places to be bombed by German planes for real.
Written a quarter of a century later, his poem, Still Sidmouth, was a much cheerier affair. At 178 lines long, the poem can be read in about the same amount of time that it will take for you to read this article about it.
Betjeman read the poem on ITV as part of a series in which he delivered poems that he had written about his favourite West Country haunts. The other places included were Clevedon, Sherborne, Marlborough, Bath, Swindon, Crewkerne, Devizes, Weston-super-Mare and Malmesbury. The list reads like a West Country railway timetable from an era before the Beeching Report. Betjeman’s affection for Sidmouth was not unique then but it was quite genuine. On the programme, Betjeman’s words were heard over the top of assorted images of the town. The films were directed by a young man, Jonathan Stedall, who would remain friends with Betjeman until the end of his life in 1984.
Betjeman had mixed feelings about TV which he sometimes referred to in typically silly style as “telly welly.” “I don’t think Television is anything but minor art – except now and then,” he said, but conceded. “It can be the poetry of today.”
Each film was broadcast once by the ITV franchise, TWW (Television Wales and the West) in 1962. But were then quickly forgotten. By complete chance, the films were in a dusty pile of tins and were found in the HTV studios in 1993, by a TV producer, Gerry Dawson. The films were in a state of some neglect but Dawson nevertheless realised what an amazing find he had on his hands. The films were fully restored and broadcast as The Lost Betjemans on Channel 4 in 1994. With the soundtrack for the Sidmouth film lost, Betjeman’s words were now spoken by the Late Sir Nigel Hawthorne. The poem was reproduced as a booklet in the year 2000, a development praised by Lady Wilson of Rievaulx, President of The Betjeman Society. “It is such a pleasure to read a poem which rhymes and scans!” she said, praising the poem as “beautifully descriptive of the town.” As Mary Wilson, the wife of the former Prime Minister, Harold, she herself had had two books of poetry published.
“Thus Sidmouth looked a hundred years ago, Still much the same as it lies those hills below,” Betjeman begins. In many ways, the town has changed little in the sixty years since Betjeman’s time, the one exception being the increase in road traffic (which Betjeman hated).
Whether referring to architecture or capturing the overheard gossip of old ladies, Betjeman’s familiarity with the town is obvious throughout as is his ever-present sense of fun. “Broad crescents basking in the summer sun,” he wrote. “A sense of sea and holidays begun, Leisure to live and breathe and smell and look, Unfold for me this seaside history book.”
Four lines are now immortalised on a plaque to John Betjeman in Connaught Gardens: Pause on Peak Hill, look eastward to the town, Then to the Connaught Gardens wander down. And in the shelter of its tropic bowers, I see its bright and outsize Devon flowers.
The poem concludes: Farewell seductive Sidmouth by the sea, Older and more exclusive than Torquay, Sidmouth in Devon; you’re the town for me!