Western Europe has always had a fruitful artist legacy. One artistic tradition the English have always excelled in is poetry. The isolation of our country and the butting and morphing of our hybrid language has fostered writers like Shakespeare, Dryden, Sackville, Keats, Darley, and Betjeman.
Sir John Betjeman was a widely read poet famed for his sentimental style and self-deprecated sense of humour, referring to himself as “a poet and hack”. He was born in the early 1900s by the name of John Betjemann; during the first world war, his father changed his surname to Betjeman out of fear his original family name sounded Germanic. Betjeman studied at Oxford University under the tutelage of novelist C.S Lewis, Who regarded Betjeman as an “idle prig.” Their fractured relationship never was mended, despite Betjeman’s literacy accolades.
John Betjeman was also a journalist, broadcaster and vice-chairman of the victorian society and campaigned to preserve St Pancras railway station. He was honoured by the Victorian Society in 2007 with a statute erected in the station. Betjeman wrote many poems about travelling.
Harrow on the Hill is one of his poems about a nostalgic child travelling back from their holiday in Cornwall, where they can still feel the sea breeze but are heading towards the smoke of city life. First published in Harrow School magazine in 1949, then in Punch Magazine in 1953, today, John Betjeman’s poem Harrow on the hill is available on Spotify and YouTube for all to enjoy.
Harrow-on-the-Hill by Sir John Betjeman.
When melancholy Autumn comes to Wembley
And electric trains are lighted after tea
The poplars near the stadium are trembly
With their tap and tap and whispering to me,
Like the sound of little breakers
Spreading out along the surf-line
When the estuary’s filling
With the sea.
Then Harrow-on-the-Hill‘s a rocky island
And Harrow churchyard full of sailor’s graves
And the constant click and kissing of the trolley buses hissing
Is the level of the Wealdstone turned to waves
And the rumble of the railway
Is the thunder of the rollers
As they gather for the plunging
There’s a storm cloud to the westward over Kenton,
There’s a line of harbour lights at Perivale,
Is it rounding rough Pentire in a flood of sunset fire
The little fleet of trawlers under sail?
Can those boats be only roof tops
As they stream along the skyline
In a race for port and Padstow
With the gale?