I recently acquired a collection of the late Sir John Betjeman’s radio broadcast talks, and was surprised and delighted to find mention of our neighbourhood in his account of architecture in British towns and cities.
|Sir John Betjeman (image copyright BBC)|
On Friday 11th June 1937, John Betjeman (as he was then) spoke about Exeter in a series called “Town Tours”. He wrote of the traffic jams in Exeter’s High Street, the “inappropriate fronts of shops clapped onto medieval buildings” there, and the olde gift shops (so olde that they must be new). But, he said, there is another side to Exeter, a city of fine buildings that the racing motorist would miss. So, “move to Mount Radford or Victoria Park Road” where the retired people of the city are in a place as quiet as a Devon village. “The houses are covered with cheerful stucco. They are plain and set back in large gardens filled with all the shrubs and flowers that grow so easily in the mild Exeter climate”. “What a genius the man who designed these houses must have been”. The poet describes a walk along one of these roads, not identified, where “with the blue afternoon sky, the flowering creepers, the yews, the long walls, the warmth, I felt I was in Italy”.
(It is interesting that he refers to the area as Mount Radford. Ordnance Survey maps of the 1930s show the area as St Leonard’s Ward, with the Mount Radford name attached to a small part of the neighbourhood.)
However, after this praise, he continued: “I wish I could say that her newer houses were good. I have seen worse. Indeed one speculative builder’s estate, on the road to Topsham and opposite the barracks, is really excellent – a well-chosen brick and well-proportioned houses. Each house is designed to command a view. The Exeter Council estate at Burnthouse Lane is not as good.” (He is referring with favour to the houses around King Henry’s Road, some of which were designed in the arts and Crafts style by the noted architect Louis de Soissons.) In a second broadcast, two weeks later than the one he gave about Exeter, he summed up what he had found as he toured several provincial cities. “in no town, except one small estate [in Exeter] did I find speculative builders’ estates that were anything but an eyesore”.
Besides his scorn of the council’s design of an estate, Betjeman was critical of the way that the council had allowed developments in the 1920s and 30s in the city to be “treeless deserts of red brick”, because he had found the 19th century streets to be blessed with their many trees.
What would Sir John feel if he could return to St Leonard’s today?
(extracts taken from “Trains and Buttered Toast”, John Murray, 2006 (edited by Stephen Games))