HE famously sledged Slough, willing “friendly bombs” to fall upon it, but adored Highworth whose buildings were as “ripe and beautiful as autumn apples” and which he dreamily brought to mind whenever he was abroad and wanted to recall “a typically English town.”

After initially skewering Swindon, Sir John Betjeman, who rarely minced his words on matters of architecture, developed a soft spot for our town which, despite an obvious lack of structures that could be compared with lush autumnal fruit, he often referred to with some warmth.

Now the Swindon Civic Voice wants to highlight the connection between the late Poet Laureate and the town it champions with a blue plaque at a spot used by the revered writer/broadcaster for a TV documentary more than half a century ago.

The site he chose for a panoramic view of the town – where some winsome shots of youngsters larking around were also filmed – is where tiny Raggett Street stumbles into Dixon Street before the pathway descends into a sloping alleyway.

The gap in housing provided a fine vista of the railway works – but 54 years later it is a very different view with the Brunel shopping complex and the David Murray John tower all but blotting out what remains of the old GWR works.

The Civic Voice’s latest publication Surprising Swindon – a Past and Present Explorers’ Guide to New Swindon 1840-2015,* pinpoints the spot with the words: “Viewpoint to town centre, used by John Betjeman in a 1962 film about Swindon... blue plaque proposed.”

Trustee Martha Parry said: “There is a lovely view of the town centre from this point although it’s obviously changed a lot since Betjeman came here and used it for his film.”

The proposed plaque – a permanent sign-cum-historical marker installed in a public place to commemorate a link between the said location and a famous person or event – is now being pursued by the organisation.

Betjeman, “the man who brought poetry to the masses,” was ten years away from his appointment as Poet Laureate when he arrived in Swindon in 1962, camera crew in tow, to make a film for an ITV series In The West Country with John Betjeman.

By then he was a figure of national repute due to TV appearances which saw him tramp around the country, sometimes in his Mini, other times by rail, clutching a faithful straw shopping bag filled with maps, guides and railway timetables.

His poetically expressed views on heritage, tradition and architecture were enhanced with a “comforting voice and crumpled appearance that made him as much a public institution as the monuments he helped to preserve,” according to Betjeman author Stephen Games.

He was, Games added “an aesthete and a popular celebrity who, in campaigning for national treasures became one himself.”

Betjeman’s angle for this particular film was to contrast the fortunes of once prosperous North Lew in Devon, “a place the railways cut short,” with those of Swindon, “a place the railways made great.”

“People may call Swindon ugly,” narrates the poet and hack (his description) over grainy black and white footage. “I’ve come to love it because I know so many of its people.”

It is a wonderful film with a time capsule quality that was for years thought to have been destroyed until its rediscovery in the mid-1990s, a decade after the poet’s death, when it was restored and issued as a video, Betjeman Revisited.

“There they are,” intones railway buff Betjeman, with a palpable sense of awe, “the Swindon Works where steam locomotives have been built for the Great Western since 1841.”

Namechecking chief engineers Daniel Gooch and Frederick Hawksworth, he goes on: “There’s a long list of names that are thrilling to lovers of railways.”

Perhaps side-stepping the harsh, dangerous conditions workers sometimes experienced there, particularly during the earlier decades, he proclaims: “In Swindon it has always been an honour to be employed in the works – ‘inside’ as it is called in town.”

After some gritty shots of the works in fiery, clattering action the passionate defender of Victorian architecture focuses on the Railway Village, commenting: “And here survives what must be the first garden city in the world built by the Great Western for its employees out of stone taken from Box Tunnel.”

The town that emerged around the works is, says Betjeman, “a fascinating history of industrial England, an open book to you who have the eyes to see it.”

He goes on: “As the town grew in prosperity as more people came out of the flat Great Western Valley up the hill, private speculators spilled their ribbons of houses. The richer you were, the higher you moved up the hill…”

Swindon’s growth, including new estates to accommodate 20,000 workers “imported from London,” was “hygienic, high-minded, high-thinking” – an approving nod, perhaps, to Swindon Council which, it is understood, once threatened to sue the future Sir John.

“You wouldn’t know you were in Wiltshire. You wouldn’t know you were in Swindon,” he says of its “impersonal” but “well meant” chunks of new housing such as Walcot. Swindon’s expansion was not haphazard, he opined, but “sudden and deliberate, like a bomb.”

All this was necessary, he concludes, to preserve Old Swindon – “this bit of real Wiltshire” – from the rampant expansion below.

The hill that was crowned by the old market town remained “an oasis of quiet,” he reported with some satisfaction.

“Traffic changes everything,” he tells viewers. “First the railways, then the motorcar – but it hasn’t changed Old Town,” which back in ‘62, remained “an old country town, preserved and alive, Thank God, in the biggest borough in the county.”

  • Surprising Swindon, Past & Present Explorers’ Guide, New Swindon 1840-2015 is available price £1 from Swindon Central Library. Betjeman Revisited, comprising six films from the West Country, made it onto DVD and can be acquired via the internet. A selection of the poet’s TV commentaries from his travels around the country – including the Swindon film – was published as Betjeman’s England by John Murray in 2009.
  • IMAGINE the scene in the innermost sanctum of Swindon Town Hall as two of the nation’s greatest 20th Century literary figures received a steely once over from Mr Swindon.

    The meeting presumably took place amidst a fug of industrial strength smog, all three principal players being keen smokers.

    John Betjeman had been summoned to the office of Swindon’s no-nonsense town clerk David Murray John to explain himself...

    Fearing he may face legal action, Betjeman brought his solicitor and also – for moral support – his good pal Evelyn Waugh, acclaimed author of Vile Bodies, Decline and Fall, the soon-to-be-published Scoop and a few years later, Brideshead Revisited.

    One of Waugh’s best known quotes is “punctuality is the virtue of the bored” but it is unlikely they were late on this occasion in 1937 as Betjeman feared a serious dressing down.

    He had infuriated Swindon with radio remarks that it was “floundering about like a helpless octopus, spreading its horrible tentacles out of the quiet village places… a warning to all England to keep clear of the speculative builder.”

    He added: “People who don’t live in Swindon consider it a blot on the Earth.” 

    The streets, he added “are depressing rows of two-storey semi-detached houses packed closely together and hardly any trees.”

    Documents relating to the meeting were in 2002 sold at auction for £230.
    The council obviously forgave Betjeman as they hired him to contribute to its 1950 publication, Studies In The History of Swindon.

  •  MARLBOROUGH College pupil Betjeman (1906-1984) knew Swindon since he was 20 and had much to say about the town.

    He singled out the lattice girders of the Bristol Street railway water tower as “beautiful.”

    In the 1970s he joined a failed bid to save the Baptist Tabernacle from demolition, telling the Department of the Environment: “It is to Swindon what St Paul’s is to London.”

    He was once so inspired upon hearing a peal of bells from Christ Church in Old Town that he swiftly wrote a poem about it.

    Betjeman eulogised the Georgian house at 42 Cricklade Street – now flats – as “one of the most distinguished town houses in Wiltshire.”

    He became president of Swindon’s long running Adastrian Drama Club, and once brought a friend – the Bank of England’s Chief Cashier – to a performance at the Arts Centre.

    The man today hailed as “one of the most popular British Poets Laureate and a much-loved figure on British television” was described by this newspaper upon his death as “a modest, kindly soul.”