Sir John Betjeman loved Lincolnshire, after Cornwall it was his favourite maritime county.
Born in 1906 in north London, he lived in Highgate for most of his childhood. He went to school in Highgate and later to Magdalen College, Oxford. His first book of poems Mount Zion was published in 1932. He wrote extensively for newspapers and journals, and became well-known as a television presenter. He was knighted in 1969 and appointed Poet Laureate in 1972. He died in 1984 and is buried in the churchyard of St Enodoc’s, Trebetherick, Cornwall. His Collected Poems were published in 1958 and have since been re-issued in several editions including his verse-autobiography Summoned by Bells. John Betjeman was always concerned about the preservation of our heritage. Through his writing and TV programmes he showed us how to look at and appreciate townscape and landscape.
He was drawn to Lincolnhsire by friends, by his love of Tennyson, and by the fact that his mother’s side of the family hailed from the Spalding area. He also loved Lincolnshire’s churches and place names, interests that came together in the first of his Lincolnshire poems, A Lincolnshire Tale. It reflects a part of the wolds that he knew well from visits to his friend Noel Blakiston at his father’s rectory at Kirkby-on-Bain near Horncastle. Kirkby is in fact the first word of the poem. All the other place names in the poem are fictitious, though they sound authentically Lincolnshire. It is possible to speculate about which church fits Betjeman’s description, but it is likely that it is a conflation of several, perhaps including Haltham and the fine Georgian church of St Peter and St Paul at Langton-by-Spilsby, both of which have three-decker pulpits.
Betjeman’s second Lincolnshire poem, A Lincolnshire Church, is based on one specific church, St Margaret’s, Huttoft. The poem reflects on the poor state of the churchyard; a local woman (regretting Americans); inadequate restoration of the church building; and the post-war drabness of England (telegraph poles and tin). But, he enters the church and all is light and beauty! And there he meets Rev. Theophilus Caleb (an Indian Christian Priest), vicar of Huttoft from 1943 until 1959 (he is buried in the churchyard).
The third Lincolnshire poem is House of Rest set, apparently, in Woodhall Spa, although the location is unimportant: the subject is really about loss and loneliness in old age (Now all the world she knew is dead), and the struggle between faith and doubt.
Discover his links with Lincolnshire and why he loved the county so much in this leaflet - On the Trail of Sir John Betjeman