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)

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan20  Feb20  Mar20  Apr20  May20  Jun20  Jul20
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19  Jun19  Jul19  Aug19  Sep19  Oct19  Nov19  Dec19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream