Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Bath and Betjeman

My eyes light upon a paperback in the National Trust bookshop, and I pick it up for a quick perusal. The cover art shows a pastelised, pastoral scene by Duff Tollemach, an idealised village nestling in an English valley, complete with cows in the foreground, church in the centre and rolling hills behind. It conjures up images of Laurie Lee, of butter churns and milkmaids with rubicund cheeks. The title reads 'Trains and Buttered Toast' by John Betjeman, and it is a collection of radio talks he gave during the years before, during and after the Second World War. The chapters are short, snappy and evocative, as anything designed to be read aloud for thirteen minute bursts should be.
My eyes fall to a small byline above the title of the book, and I cast a furtive glance around the shop as I struggle to make a purchase decision. The byline reads 'A Richard & Judy Selection'. I imagine starting to read this book on my train journey home. What would my fellow passengers think when they saw my reading material? Would they think 'Ah! A man of taste and culture. He reads poets' or would they think 'Look at that sap. Uses Richard & Judy as a literary guide'.
Of course, they would think nothing of the sort. They would probably fail to even notice me, as they squat in their London-bound seats with their cellphones glued to their ears as the brain tumour throbs ever larger.
I move to the counter and pay for my new acquisition, being sure to ask for a small bag to protect it from the soft rain that billows outside. Stepping from the shop and into the moistened twilight, I gaze across the small plaza to the buildings opposite, the Roman Baths and the adjacent Pump Rooms. I visited them earlier, saw the steam rise from the sacred spring of Sulis Minerva, followed in the footsteps of such luminaries as Beau Nash, William Wilberforce and countless other Georgian and Regency nobles. How predictable were the habits of the old aristocracy. Three hundred years ago, Queen Anne came here to try the waters and the town subsequently blossomed as the upper classes followed her example like sheep. Well-dressed sheep with big country houses. Other towns cashed in - Cheltenham Spa, Tunbridge Wells, even a cluster of small towns in Powys have the 'Wells' appellation.
Night falls easily the week after the clocks go back. This is not my first visit to the city, but it is the first time I have seen it at dusk, and it is even more beautiful. Barely an hour ago, in the grey dampness of the day, I supped a coffee in the crypt of the church where Jane Austen buried her father, and where Fanny Burney rests with her beloved husband and son. Before that, I marvelled at the cutting breeze as it blew round the Royal Crescent and threw drizzle into my face. I slipped through a side door into the magnificent Gothic box that is Bath Abbey and watched as a choir sung to the heavens, their voices permeating the walls, the pews, the very fan-vaulting, as the interior of the mighty church flickered in dancing candlelight. Now I stand, Abbey to my left, Roman relics to my face, and aim for the gap between them, the gap that will lead me past the teashop where I will have my dinner before heading back to the train station and the 90 minute journey to the indifferent bustle of Paddington. The lights bathing the Abbey reflect and twinkle on the damp paving beneath my feet.
Bath is a beautiful city on a sunny day, but is far more beautiful on a wet Autumnal evening. The journey home will draw me into another world, the world of that 'poet in a churchyard, behind the shifting sands'*, into a world of fading rusticity, architectural regret and addictive eccentrics, the world of the man whose footsteps I followed when I wrote of London Churches, whose Smithfield dwelling is now a restaurant bearing his surname, and whose spirit still walks the Cornish coast which I worship.
I still think Chesterton was the better poet, but Betjeman is closer to my heart, and Bath Spa closer to my senses and sensibilities

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