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Stuart Roper

Wantage, words and (not just) John Betjeman!

John Betjeman, Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984, had a long association with Oxford, and the Vale of the White Horse which inspired some of his best known and most nostalgic poetry
Linn Kerr

He took an instant dislike to his tutor, CS Lewis...

The autobiographical ‘Summoned by Bells’ captured a London childhood and time in Oxford: a ten-year old John Betjeman arrived in Oxford to board at The Dragon School in Summertown, and then in 1925 he became an undergraduate at Magdalen College


There he apparently took an instant dislike to his tutor, Narnia creator CS Lewis and later left without a degree. According to the younger man, CS Lewis was a "breezy, tweedy, beer-drinking" man, while Betjeman aspired to be part of an aesthetic set, cultivating the friendship of poets such as WH Auden. "There was always an atmosphere of leisure surrounding Christ Church undergraduates. They gave the impression they were just dropping in on Oxford on their way to a seat in the House of Lords," he said.

Wantage by Sylwia Presley


Auden was at Christ Church, which attracted the kind of well-to-do young men that Evelyn Waugh captured in Brideshead Revisited (1945), and as Betjeman was renowned for carrying his teddy bear, Archie, wherever he went, Waugh is believed to have used Archie as the model for Sebastian Flyte's bear, Aloysius, in his novel.

While at Oxford, Betjeman was editor of a University newspaper, Cherwell, and contributed poetry to a second, Isis. Shortly afterwards, as Assistant Editor of the Architectural Review, he built a reputation as a champion for the revival of the Gothic style, campaigning to prevent the demise of threatened buildings of note, and producing documentaries on the state of British architecture. His work as poet, journalist and broadcaster was recognised with a knighthood in 1969.

Living in Uffington and Wantage, for many years, it’s no surprise that a number of Betjeman’s poems were written about the towns and the surrounding area including ‘Uffington’ (1966) and ‘On Leaving Wantage’. In the tower of Wantage’s Parish Church tower, a copy of his poem ‘Wantage Bells’ is written in his own hand, apparently for the wedding of his daughter Candida:

Where are the words to express
Such a reckless bestowing?
The voices of birds utter less
Than the thanks we are owing,
Bell notes alone
Ring praise of their own
As clear as the weed-waving brook and as evenly flowing.

Three decades after his death, Betjeman is still held in widespread esteem for his lyrical and gently satirical poetry, which so evocatively captured the English way of life.

Today a Blue Plaque at Garrards Farmhouse, Uffington, marks where the poet lived from 1934 until 1945 before he moved to The Mead in Wantage in 1951, which long remained the family home. A display in Tom Brown’s School Museum in Uffington houses a display on the Betjeman family, and the new Betjeman Millenium Park in Wantage contains 6 poetry plaques inscribed with quotations from John Betjeman’s work, designed by local stone-carver Alec Peever, on a trail of informal footpaths winding through wildflowers and woody glades.

To celebrate Betjeman’s legacy and the rich cultural history of Wantage, the first Wantage Betjeman festival of literature was held in September 2011 and each year continues to grow. Now known as the Wantage (not just) Betjeman Festival, the event also encompasses other authors with local links – for example Thomas Hardy set one of his most famous novels, Jude the Obscure in neighbouring Letcombe Bassett where ‘Arabella’s Cottage’ can still be seen, and in the novel Wantage is barely disguised as Alfredston and Oxford is clearly the model for Christminster, depicted this year in Ordance Survey style by Oxfordshire Artweeks designer-maker Tony Davis.

The 2015 Wantage (not just) Betjeman Festival runs from 24 October until 1 November and will feature not only authors and poets (with headline events including talks from Fay Weldon and Terry Waite) but also artists, historians, musicians and comedy group ‘Austentatious’, whose improvised performances are a ‘must-see’ for Jane Austen fans.

Over in Wantage’s Vale and Downland Museum the beauty of words is celebrated with an art exhibition by Oxfordshire Artweeks lettering artist Lin Kerr. Inspired by a story written by her Oxford-based daughter Megan which won the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition in 2012, Linn portrays the tale in a series watercolour paintings which will be on display for the first time this October alongside a limited edition of a hand-bound book containing the illustrated story.

‘‘My daughter and I both love words. She is a writer and I am a lettering artist/illustrator; so when she wrote the short story titled Rope of Words, I was in my element!’ enthused Linn.

‘The story is about a woman and her lover who collected words. The woman lost both her words and her lover and spends the rest of the story looking for them. She vows never to cut her hair until a reunion and her hairs flows as the words run.’

‘The woman in the story is a universal woman’ says Linn, ‘and when I read the story, I wanted to portray her as a nude, to transcend historical periods and fashion: the first challenge therefore was how to stylise her so having sketched and taken photos of a real woman, I studied work by artists such as Picasso, combined these ideas with the bright colours and simple “floating” shapes for which Matisse is famed, using colour symbolically to depict the Woman’s mood.’

‘This has been a fabulous project spanning three generations of Women Who Love Words. A bequest from my mother enabled us to produce this book and I feel it honours her. In fact by sheer chance the word “erudite” landed next to her name in the acknowledgement. Very appropriate! But my favourite word is still Zenzizenzizenzic,’ Linn smiles.

You can look this up (it means the 8th power of a number, often represented as the square of a square of a square) on the accompanying website along with some of the other interesting-sounding and/or obsolete words with which The Rope of Words is resplendent. Discover that a sesquipedalian is a long word and that, if you discount the meaning, cellar door is traditionally the most beautiful sounding phrase in the English language!

To see the original art and the book itself, visit the Vale and Downland Museum, Church Street Wantage from 20–31 October (9.30am–4.30pm Mondays to Saturdays).

Linn is also launching a new handmade book in October called Dance, a collaborative work of calligraphic paintings with poetry by Christopher Ellot, Head of English at Radley College, and more on this project and the rest of her work can be see at linkerrdesign.co.uk.

Linn and Megan Kerr are running a number of workshops in conjunction with the Wantage (not just) Betjeman festival – for details on these and the rest of the festival visit wantagebetjeman.com.

For more on Wantage today, see wantagetales.com.


- Esther Lafferty, Festival Director of Oxfordshire Artweeks


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