diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 13, 2013

METROPOLITAN: Betjeman's Metro-land hideaway

Sir John Betjeman's most obvious connection to the Metropolitan railway is the documentary he made for the BBC in 1972, alas one summer too early for me to have been one of the supporting characters. Metro-land celebrates the joys of the quintessential suburban railway, from Baker Street out to the Buckinghamshire countryside, and has been the subject of much discussion on this blog before. But what's perhaps less well known is that for the two decades leading up to the documentary's broadcast Sir John's local Underground station was on the Metropolitan railway. That station was Aldersgate, now better known as Barbican. And Betjeman's flat was in Cloth Fair, a medieval street literally round the corner from Smithfield.


Cloth Fair's not a long street, but it packs a lot in. A meat market at one end, almost, a Poet Laureate's residence in the middle and a 900-year old church alongside. You'll have heard of St Bartholomew's Church, or the Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great to give it its proper name, or St Bart's, being the major hospital nextdoor. It's just like Sir John to want to live opposite a great Anglican place of worship, so close that each peal of bells would punctuate his day. Highly appropriate too because the Chapel of the Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor was inside, and Sir John became one of those while living here. The church would have been free to enter in his day - obviously as a member of the congregation it still is, otherwise now you pay £4 for the privilege.

One end of Cloth Fair is rather narrow, the other rather wide, which is an after-effect of that medievalness I mentioned. It made sense to keep the entrance from a cattle market narrow, although I suspect the many taxis which now use the street as a short cut wish there was two way traffic. The wider end had an important role for many centuries as the focus of the Bartholomew Fair, one of London's greatest charter fairs held annually on and around 24th August. This started out as a cloth sale in the 12th century, extending gradually to become a major international trading hub, then a massive pleasureground with sideshows, and eventually a debauched piss-up (which in 1855 got the whole event cancelled). Up until 1910 the street was still gated, this being one of the independent liberties of London in which St Bart's church ruled supreme. Now only the name survives as a reminder of the area's former fame, and you can't buy anything here, let alone a roll of cloth.

John Betjeman moved into 43 Cloth Fair in August 1954. The flat belonged to the aristocratic architect who lived next door, in what's reputedly the only house in the City to have survived the Great Fire of London. Betjeman rented from Lord Mottistone for the sum of £200 a year, for which he got the run of two rooms stacked above a shop on the corner of an alleyway. A side door led inside, then right up a flight of stairs to the perfect poet's hideaway. Here Sir John had space enough for the writing of more fine verse, while his secretary tapped away in response to correspondence. Her carelessness led to a fire caused by an overheating reel to reel recorder, which forced Betjeman out to live in Rotherhithe while the interior was restored. Sir John moved out for good in 1973, first to Chelsea, then to Cornwall where he died in 1984.

If you fancy a look inside Sir John's former home you can, because it's hired out as a holiday home by the Landmark Trust. You'll have to fork out £805 for three nights in September, which is about 500 times the rate Sir John paid, but that does include access to the roof terrace through the first floor kitchen. The property's been kept with as many original fixtures and fittings as possible, including a William Morris wallpaper called Acorn, which is no longer made in lurid salmony-pink, but has been reprinted specially. The shop below evolved into a wine bar called Betjeman's, but that's since been taken over by London's first vegetarian organic Italian restaurant.

The restaurant stays firmly closed on Sundays, and Saturday daytimes, which is entirely in keeping with this sleepy City neighbourhood. The only people I bumped into were another photographer snapping Cloth Fair, and a man in a red-lobster motif suit* who parked up a Mini bedecked in flowers outside the church and then wandered off. I like to think Sir John might have noticed him out of his sitting room window and maybe written a brief verse. I doubt he'd have been quite so pleased by the Coke can left on the windowsill beside his front door, but he'd have approved of the blue plaque above. There are no rows of semi-detached homesteads here, but this remains an unsung corner of Metro-land.

*Lobster Man turns out to have been the designer Philip Colbert, turning up at St Bart's for his wedding to Charlotte Boulay-Goldsmith. (Thanks @sharktastic)


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