John Betjeman in Ilfracombe
‘I hadn’t been able to believe there was going to be a town after all those miles of bleak North Devon fields’ (266). Betjeman arrived into Ilfracombe by train, and I was reading a published transcript of the radio programme he made about the town. I drove, but this sense of coming to ‘the end of everything’ was something I could relate to. The North Devon Link Road, built in 1989 to make North Devon less isolated, only goes as far as Barnstaple. Ilfracombe is another ten miles along narrow roads and lanes. The ‘bleak North Devon fields’ were not so long ago part of Exmoor, ploughed up to fight food shortages in World War Two. Digging for victory. They are now also home to England’s largest onshore windfarm, though what Betjeman would have made of that I wouldn’t like to imagine.
I sat on a bench in a gorse and blackthorn-covered local nature reserve. It is from here that Betjeman would have had his first view of the town in the height of its popularity as a seaside resort, a hive of ‘noise and glitter’. At its peak, ten thousand people a day arrived at Ilfracombe station to enjoy what Betjeman called ‘the people’s playground’. But no longer. The branch line was decommissioned in 1970, a mere twenty years after Betjeman was writing. In its place, surrounded by a barbed wire and chainlink fence, is the Pall Corporation Life Sciences Division factory, where they manufacture ‘fine and ultrafine filters and accessories for gas, liquid and diagnostic product applications’. I have no idea what that means, but there is no sign of the station anymore, and the train line has mostly been converted into a cycle track. The tourists have long-since dwindled to a hard core of English seaside enthusiasts and aerophobes. And yet, sitting here, we still seem to ‘hang in air on a clifftop, with the town two hundred feet below us, silvery slate cliffs, sea and the far-off coast of Wales beyond.’
Betjeman writes with a tone of authority, not at all shy of passing judgement on a place, often tinged with a taste so developed it borders of snobbery, and is certainly elitist. So to come here and find him so wrong feels peculiar. He was broadcasting at a time, just after the Second World War had been won, when Modernist optimism clashed with conservative nostalgia – those who wanted to forge a new world and those who wanted to recreate a golden age. A compromise was reached, enforced by by new planning legislation, that decided which developments were appropriate in a particular location. This was the debate Betjeman was involved in – what should England look like?
Betjeman’s particular pet hate was for Victorian renovation. He imagines visiting a Devon village in about 1860:
But stay! What is the activity outside the parish church? Mr St Aubyn, the London architect, has just been here; the old box pews and three-decker pulpit have been cut down at his command and taken away for panelling or firewood. Bright new pitch-pine pews replace them. The old, uneven roof has been tiled afresh and neatly guttered. The old stone walls have been repointed with cement to that they look quite new. The clear glass windows that buzzed with bluebottles and gave a view of elmy slopes are to be filled with greenish glass, which gives no view at all. (34)
Betjeman approves of the ‘sophisticated’ taste of the Morris movement, but despises the modern age that ‘ruined the wild west coast with bungalows and strung the sky with wires, littered the roadside with shacks and hoardings, turned old inns into glittering pretension and floodlit the whole with fluorescent light’ (38). His taste has a moral edge to it as well as being purely aesthetic. In the Golden Age,
A happy village was like a family, with the squire as father and his wide as mother, the latter with her daughters bringing round soup and jellies to cottagers who were ill. The father with his sons as keen on sport (except of course poaching) as his tenants, and providing work for the men. (36)
The change in countryside power structures is a sign of moral degeneracy – the family without its parents, and he appeals to the state to become the countryside’s foster parent, preventing disorder through the planning laws.
‘In a place called Cuddeford’s Passage, off the High Street, I found Clovelly-like cottages built of slate and whitewashed. This was real old Devon’ (267). Cuddeford’s Passage is no doubt still ‘Clovelly-like’, but surrounded by fake new Devon. However Clovelly itself, Betjeman’s model of authenticity, is privately owned and visitors must pay an admission charge to enter. Donkeys still walk up and down the steep streets, and the modern world has not ravished the slate cottages with satellite dishes or repointing. It is a theme park, Real Old Devon World, preserved to capitalise on nostalgia.
The whole time I spent outside the Pall Life Sciences factory a strong westerly wind battered my back, rifled through my notes and bit at my fingers. Nearby, a great tit called for his ‘teacher teacher teacher teacher’, and seagulls played in the turbulent air currents. Dog walkers wished me a good afternoon, and in the clear sky the sun and gibbous moon were both up, occupying opposite hemispheres. Betjeman’s broadcasts were ideal for the radio, that ethereal medium, invisibly everywhere, and utterly fleeting. It was the work of a moment, for a moment. Out of date guidebooks are fascinating cultural artefacts, but most of all they make you laugh at their errors. A town like Ilfracombe will always seem so much more solid and fixed, inviting you to write about it, and then making a fool out of anyone who does.
I was reading the chapters on ‘Victorian Provincial Life’ and ‘Ilfracombe’ in Trains and Buttered Toast, by John Betjeman, edited by Stephen Games and published by John Murray in 2006. It’s a Richard and Judy Selection, so can’t be all that bad.