My love-affair with the writer, poet and broadcaster John Betjeman began when I was about twelve years old. With my brother we used to enjoy going into the Chiltern Hills, not far by car from where we lived in Pinner, and have days out in the school holidays visiting churches and having picnics in the Chiltern beechwoods. Two things happened to stimulate this interest – one was the publication in 1958 of the “Collins Guide to English Parish Churches”, edited by John Betjeman, with that truly marvellous and evocative historical introduction. It pointed us to some gems among the Buckinghamshire and Middlesex Churches that we might otherwise have missed and gave just enough information to whet the appetite. The other stimulus, once we acquired a TV set in about 1960, was the nine-part TV series which John Betjeman made with Ken Savidge, a producer with BBC West of England, from 1960–67 called “John Betjeman’s ABC of Churches”. Sadly they have nearly all been lost, except for the first programme on Aldbourne in Wiltshire, which begins:

“I have been looking at churches as long as I can remember. I can’t think why I first started but once the mania gets you, nothing can get rid of it and you go on looking and looking!”

St Enodoc, Trebetherick, Cornwall. The little church nestling among the sand dunes where John Betjeman is buried, near to the graves of his parents, was one of his favourite churches. (Courtesy of Stuart Vallis, A Passion For Places, Amberley Publishing)

I have a vivid memory of watching one of those programmes, which began with John Betjeman walking up the path to the church porch, commenting briefly on the exterior of the building, and then turning directly to the camera, beckoning conspiratorially, and saying “Now come inside ...” I was captivated, feeling that John Betjeman wanted me personally to share his knowledge and enthusiasm, and as eager to experience the excitement of the interior as he was. That sense of anticipation, and eagerness to see things through John Betjeman’s eyes when visiting a church has never left me.

He once told a journalist in 1955, “If I have a mission, it is to show people things which are beautiful so that they will very soon realise what is ugly. When you look at things, instead of just looking through them, life starts absolutely crackling with interest and excitement.”

Hafod, Uchtryd, west Wales. This wooded and landscaped estate in Ceredigion became in the eighteenth century a celebrated picturesque estate, created by Colonel Thomas Johnes between 1790 and The print by J. C. Stadler shows the house and countryside in 1795. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, A Passion For Places, Amberley Publishing)

In my book, I am making the point that John Betjeman’s particular way of looking at churches and the built environment, and so the way he wanted to encourage us to look, is in danger of being lost or forgotten in the face of a more academically driven and analytical art-historical approach to buildings, especially churches. His more poetic, parochial, and personal response to the built environment I contend, has still got much to teach us, and particularly resonates today in the cultural environment of the post-modern world. My book is an attempt to highlight and celebrate John Betjeman’s particular vision of England, his Passion for Places, to slightly hijack the title of one of his best-known TV documentaries, which I think deserves a fresh appraisal, and to be acknowledged as an important contribution to topographical appreciation. Betjeman liked to present himself as a practical man. He was self-taught rather than academic. His celebration of the eclectic and the undiscovered, the ability to focus on the ordinary and the everyday in a personal and rhapsodic style, as well as his frank expression of his inner life and spiritual longings, was all in complete contrast to the restrained, intellectual and analytical style of his great rival, the art historian Professor Nikolaus Pevsner, who launched his Buildings of England guides in 1951, much to Betjeman’s annoyance.

With the passage of time it is clear that Pevsner has decisively won the battle of the books, in that “The Buildings of England” series, since extended to cover “Scotland, Ireland and Wales”, is still very much in print, in a continual process of revision, and much admired across the world. By contrast “The Shell Guides”, started by John Betjeman in collaboration with Jack Beddington, and launched with the publication of “Cornwall” in 1934, are now all out of print and only available on the second hand market.

John Betjeman
St Nonna, Altarnun, Cornwall. (Courtesy of Stuart Vallis, A Passion For Places, Amberley Publishing)

However, although John Betjeman lost the battle of the guide books, it is my contention that he has in fact won the war, in that cultural taste has changed and developed over the years since his death, so that we now value the intuitive and emotional response just as much if not more than the rational and the analytical.

John Betjeman’s anti-intellectualism, and his more intuitive and subjective approach to architectural appreciation, was itself a carefully chosen intellectual posture, combining a music-hall persona with an encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure 18th and 19th century writers and architects, and his own personal mystical and poetic approach to buildings and landscape. This sense of the mystical, in which “past and present were enwrapped in one” is present in the early “Shell Guides” and was like a thread through John Betjeman’s best work, his TV series “ABC of Churches, “A Passion for Churches”, and his other programmes, such as “Time with Betjeman. It is impossible to fully understand and appreciate John Betjeman without taking account of the importance of the life of faith to him. He was a consummate performer who wanted you to share what really mattered to him – and to help people to really see and imaginatively inhabit the buildings and streetscapes they were surrounded by, and which they so often took for granted. I believe, in our so-called Post-Modern culture, which values afresh the intuitive, subjective, emotional, and yes romantic, approach – John Betjeman’s vision and his “Passion for Places” has much to teach us, and to offer especially to those who are interested in buildings but don’t normally read books on architecture.

Over 60 years ago I caught that “passion for places” from him, and I want others to be encouraged to see England through his eyes in the way that has given me delight all through my life. That is why I wrote my book, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

David Meara's book A Passion For Places: England Through the Eyes of John Betjeman is available for purchase now.