Aerial Journeys | Looking at the British landscape from the air

A Letter from John Betjeman

Ideas for the first 'Bird's Eye View' episode.


Page 1 of 7

17th July, 1968.

Dear Eddie,

I was just going to write to say that I thought an idiosyncratic treatment was the best one, when your letter arrived confirming this impression.

I am therefore subpending a preliminary treatment, which at least may give us some locations to consider, and others to knock out - even if I yawn as I sketch it out and you fall asleep before you get to the end of this letter, and we find that the whole thing anyhow will only take ten minutes.

I think we must start the film with man as a settled agriculturalist in England. I don't think it is up to us to bother about all those nomadic people, who left broken hits to pot about for Stuart Piggott to dig up, even though some of them may have settled down permanently. I think we start with the Saxons, who got such a bad look in, in that other film I saw, poor old things, because the film had a Celtic bias. The Saxons came up creeks and rivers and they were shipbuilders and used to working in wood, rather than stone. Therefore the earliest English houses were of wood, and have perished. King Alfred's Palace at Wantage was of wood. Not a trace of it remains. The only public wooden building to survive is a church at Greenstead in Essex. The Celts on the other hand, and they remained in the western parts of England. in pockets in other parts, built in stone. If Robert Jordan's niece - hereinafter referred to as R.J.N. can find a Saxon village from the air, just as a plan, with its strip fields so much the better. I feel sure I have seen models of Saxon villages, and of early lake dwellings which look very like the kind of thing one sees from an aeroplane on the island; near Singapore. From the Saxon settlement seen from the air, one would go down by helicopter into Tewkesbury, and stop outside the wireless shop there, which belongs to Mr. Wall, and outside is like any wireless shop. Upstairs however in his drawing room above the shop there is a perfectly preserved example of Cruck construction, that is to say two curved branches of a tree meeting together, as in a tent. This will give the impression, which is a truthful one, that many houses of a humble nature in old


English towns are often inside older than they look from the outside. I don't say that Mr. Wall's house is Saxon in origin. It might quite easily be Norman. At the Avoncroft Museum at Bromsgrove, Michael Thomas the Director, can probably give R.J.N. notable wooden constructions. They are mostly to be found where building stone is scarce. e.g. Worcestershire and Warwickshire, and Kent and Sussex and East Anglia. This will all be small stuff, and perhaps to contrast with it, it would be a good idea to use the helicopter for something it only could show, and that is the collection of Cetic beehive stone cells of a mixed Celtic monastery on Skellig off the south west coast of Ireland. This is practically unapproachable most times of the year, and could only be seen for the remarkable settlement it is, from a helicopter. It should prove an interesting contrast with the flat river settlements of the Saxons.

I don't see how we are going to get in to these little hovels, whether Celtic or Saxon, which survive. There is a good collection of them preserved as a Museum, with some interiors to match, and therefore a little bit dead, at Craignish, right at the very southern tip of the Isle of Man, and near the Calf of Man. As the Manx are a mixture of Celt and Viking, it might come in useful. My goodness it is all boring isn't it, just like a Geography lesson with a little History introduced. Well I don' think we can ignore the hovels which are the ancestors o the Council houses and suburban semi-detached of every big cities' home counties.

I will continue to follow this hovel theme, and deal with the stately homes stuff in a separate section. We ought to see a largish English village from the air, where one can see the street and the church and the Manor House or Castle, and the small houses sheltering near the Big House, and then we could dive down through the village street and stop and look at various cottages. This could be done for various representative villages of different districts. e.g. cob and thatch villages in Dorset or Devon. Timber frame and reed thatch in Norfolk. Slate in Cumberland and Cornwall. Limestone in the Cotswolds, and as to the interiors of these places, goodness knows what we can do. They are either stockbroker Tudor or China Dogs, and today a bit of both.


Probably it will be best to look at the plan of selected villages from the air, and at villages which have entirely disappeared, except for the rnarks of their streets in summer fields. A book called "Fieldwork in Local History" by W.G. Hopkins, Faber & Faber, 1967. is very interesting about the boundaries of parishes, the shapes of fields, and the plans of villages. It is the arrangement of cottages in villages which is more interesting to the eye then conjectural ideas of what their interiors were like. I think that W.G. Hoskins, who could probably be found through Jack Simmons at Leicester University, could supply us with information. He has visual sense, which is rare in the world of rustic antiquity.

Part of the cottages are the farmhouses whose labour comes from the cottages - I mean part of the cottage theme. The earliest sort of farms I know are built of stone, and can be found in the stone wall district of Derbyshire - near places Flagg. These early farms are the cattle
and the household under one roof. The cattle at one end, a dividing wall, and a two storey cottage made of the end. Prom these one can go to the groups of farm buildings, and the best of these are to be found where large estates survive, which can afford to keep large barns and cowsheds in their original condition. These farms, the really big ones of the South of England look from the air like villages.

Now we come to the stately home stuff, and I suppose it begins with castles, and a Norman one at that. Oddly enough there is no complete list of the castles of England, and I think they are more interesting from the air, where you can see their lines of fortifications, than they are from inside. For no castle survives with its original furniture. Though Castell Goch outside Cardiff is a brilliant reconstruction of one, and is ancient in origin. It is the only truly mediaeval looking castle interior I know.

Whether, when men ceased to live in castles and dared to enlarge their windows, the enlargers of the windows, and the builders of the unfortified houses, were the descendants of the castle builders or not, does not I think much matter. What does matter is the rise of the cloth trade and the consequent building


of manor houses and merchant's houses, in the wool districts. With these of course went the world of 15th and 16th century churches and guildhalls, supplanting the monastic life which was the alternative to castles, in the days of the Barons.

I don't think the big house becomes visually interesting from our point of view until Elizabethan times. Then it is largely a matter of gardens. Nature was not thought a polite thing to admire, though flowers were. Gardens were patterns enclosed in walls and seen from first floor windows - the first floor was always the chief floor of the Elizabethan house, or almost always - just as the dining hall with its raised dais was the chief roam of the castle and earlier manor house. These Elizabethan gardens were thought of as tapestry and one could turn from the tapestry to the patterned garden outside. There is a formal one of this sort at Belton in Lincolnshire, where one side of the house is Elizabethan and hung with tapestry and looking on to a reconstructed garden, and the other side of the house is 18th century looking onto a rolling park in the Capability Brown manner.

From the patterned garden comes the formal garden of the 17th century, which may be seen at Bramham in Yorkshire, and Melbourne, Derbyshire, and which forms part of the architecture of late 17th century houses and palaces, like Hampton Court. i.e. you looked down an avenue and you saw the house at the end, and a fountain or a pool between you and the house. The thought that nature abhors a straight line and the beginning of landscape gardening of the wild sort, with of trees and streams, dammed to look like lakes, originated
I am told from the "wilderness" gardens that were made deliberately winding and mazelike between the straight avenues of Chiswick Hoe. Anyhow the growth of gardening round houses can be traced by means of those aerial engraving that were done in the 17th and 13th centuries and paintings to actual aerial views of the place today. R.J.N. will be able to find several from books like those by Geoffrey Jellicoe.

The house and garden of the Capability Brown period of the 18th century, is probably best illustrated at Syon, Middlesex, where the house is square and formal and clumps of trees and vistas are all curves, and the landscape seems never to end. This sort of gardening derives from the pictures 18th century landowner brought back from Italy and France. They wanted to have a Poussin or Claude-like view from their windows, as well as on their walls. Hence eye-catchers and


temples and clumps of trees and sheets of winding water.

The passion for regularity which inspired country landowners, also affected merchants in towns, and landowners who wanted town houses. Thus you have several country houses joined into one to form a terrace, and I believe the first examples in England are Queen's Square, Bath, and Grosvenor Square, London. From their front windows they looked onto a communally owned landscape park. The pattern went on into squares, crescents, and eventually S-bends, as at Lansdowne Crescent, Bath, communal parks in squares became larger, hence you get Regency Spas with their gardens and lakes, as at Cheltenham, Leamington and Tunbridge Wells, and when it became fashionable to take to bathing in the sea, you get seaside towns like Weymouth and Brighton, where the sea becomes the communal park onto which the gentry looked.

What changed the 18th century landscape way of life, and social stratification, was steam power, mining or coal, and ironwork and improved road transport. The splendour of canals and railways was celebrated by many artists. Turner, J. C. Bourne, Cotman and Wright of Derby. Klingender's book on Art and the Industrial Revolution gives you pictures of this and apt quotations to accompany them. Much of this splendid achievement in viaducts, aqueducts, tunnels, wharves and mills, except for the first two mentioned, does not lend itself to air views. That is to say the static part of it does not.

We will have to have the Industrial Revolution, for it is the only way in which we can explain the phenomena of 19th century housing - the crowded streets of the North- Northern industrial cities densely packed with worker's cottages, near the mill. The genteel suburbs and the remote great estates where the agricultural way of life went on, though there were model villages for tenants, as at Milton Abbey, Chatsworth and I don't know, R.J.N. will find out. They are the landlord's answer in the country to the mill owners slums and occasional model villages in the industrial towns. In the 19th century the more people prospered, the more they wanted to seem like landowners with an ancestry going back to Norman Barons. Hence the castles in a few acres


only. Outside Bristol and every industrial city. Hence Ealing, Wimbledon and Surrey in our own. They ran the ‘whole range these suburban villas from Italian and Classic to Elizabethan, Scotch Baronial and out into half timber, and even at the end of the century, a return to the formal Georgian.

This was for the rich part of the industrial revolution; the poorer part had its compensations by being divided into classes, with appropriate dwellings for each. The upper middle classes which consisted of Lawyers, Doctors, Accountants and Civil Servants lived in imitations of Georgian streets, in the cavernous formality of Pimlico and South Kensington, to take London examples. And the more open and leafy landscapes of Edgbaston in Birmingham, Pembroke Road, Bristol, Rock Park, Birkenhead, Croxteth Park, Liverpool, and something or other Bank, Manchester. The lower middle classes had cheaper imitations of these places, where the houses were closer together, the trees were fewer, the gardens smaller, the railway station nearer and there was no coach house - Balham, Tooting, you can see it from the air, you can see it down in the street. The artisans either lived in two storey cottages joined together as streets, or were lumped together by do-gooders into artisan blocks of flats. I have a book of coloured lithographs of these, but you can see them for yourself in three D, in Peabody Buildings, Iveagh Trust Buildings, and workman's dwellings, generally called industrial dwellings, all over the place.

This social stratification is shown even in death. The older and grander cemeteries are laid out with winding walks and mausolea on hillocks, as at Sharrow Vale, Sheffield. Kensal Green and Highgate Old Cemetery, London. The middle classes of the lower sort had marble tombs, each differing slightly in design in the back parts of these cemeteries, and even the artisans did their best to have a headstone - ranged in straight lines like their [eligible].

The architecture of escape becomes most evident at the end of the last century and lasts until the 1914 war. We have houses imitating old country manor houses, and these are for the very rich, whose ancestry may be not what the house implies. We also have the arts and crafts movement


and the first garden suburb for artistic people of moderate income as at Bedford Park, going on to garden cities like Letchworth and Welwyn. Everybody aspired to have a little country house of his own, and it is generally thought that the greatest contribution England made to the architecture of the word was the small comfortable cottage like houses by Lutyens, Norman Shaw, Voysey and so on, in places like Worplesdon, Hampstead Garden Suburb, Bournemouth and wheresoever electric traction and the motor car have burst open the towns and sent their inmates into the adjoining fields.

Two wars brought this escape architecture to a stop. Individualism died out. The Welfare State took its place. New do-gooders built taller blocks than ever Peabody dreamed, and we have the compulsory fun displayed in the new plan for Piccadilly Circus, and in those consciously cheerful chopping precincts and community centres of the new towns. Put your hair in the dryer sweet seventeen. Mother use the washing up machine. Granny mind the Launderette, while the rain pours down and the bus runs only every twenty minutes to the town centre.

At the end there I seem rather to have got carried away. I think we should confine the film to England, and you may find in all this rigmarole too many themes for one film, or you may see no film in it at all. But it is done with the grand sweep, and you may be able to reach it by helicopter - you and R.J.N.

John Betjeman

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Document Type | Letter

17 July 1968

Document version




A revealing letter from poet John Betjeman, the writer and narrator of an episode of 'Bird's Eye View', to producer Edward Mirzoeff suggesting locations for filming. From hovels to castles, from country estates to industrial terraces, Betjeman gives his views on what makes an Englishman's home and why.

Did you know?

John Betjeman was well equipped to write and narrate 'The Englishman's Home'. As this letter illustrates, Betjeman had decided views about and great knowledge of English provincial architecture. This partly stemmed from his work on the Shell series of English county guides for the new leisure activity of motoring in the 1930s.


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