A poet in Highgate and Cornwall

IN 1916, A FAMOUS poet, TS Eliot (1888-1965) taught at Highgate School in north London. I was a pupil at this establishment much later, between the year when Eliot died and 1970. One of Eliot’s pupils during his short spell at Highgate was to become one of Britain’s Poet Laureates: John Betjeman (1906-1984). Betjeman wrote (quoted in https://bradbirzer.com/2015/07/06/john-betjeman-remembers-t-s-eliot-as-teacher/):

“In 1914-15 I spent two unsuccessful terms at Highgate Junior School. Mr Eliot was a tall, quiet usher there whom we called ‘The American Master.’ Some of the cleverer boys from Muswell Hill (I was from Highgate) knew he was a poet. How? I have often wondered, for I cannot imagine him telling them or anyone that he was a poet, and I did not know that he had published any poems in England as early as that.”

Betjeman’s association with Highgate where he lived as a child briefly and was educated for less than one year was much shorter than his association with the county of Cornwall.

Betjeman’s family had a house in Trebetherick, near Polzeath in Cornwall, where many holidays were spent. In later life, the poet resided there. The small church of St Enodoc is about 930 yards south of Trebetherick. In the middle of a golf course overlooking the sea, the church dates from the 13th century. Much of it was built by the 16th century. Over the centuries, St Enodoc has often been submerged by drifting sands from the nearby beaches. Between the 16th century and the mid-19th century, the church was completely submerged. In 1863-64, the church was freed from the sand and restored under the supervision of James Piers St Aubyn (1815-1895).

When staying or living at Trebetherick, Betjeman visited St Enodoc regularly. In 1945, he published a poem “Sunday Afternoon Service in St Enodoc Court, Cornwall”, in which he describes his impressions of the church affectionately. Author of much poetry and several books about Cornwall, Betjeman died in his home at Trebetherick. He was buried in the small graveyard that surrounds St Enodoc, a building that still appears to be partially buried in the hillside. His grave is marked by simple stone with a beautifully carved inscription. Born in Lissenden Gardens, now in the Borough of Camden, Betjeman lived briefly in Highgate’s North Road in a house opposite Highgate School. However, it is with Cornwall rather than Highgate that most people connect with the former Poet Laureate. As a former pupil at Highgate School, I was pleased to pay my respects at Betjeman’s grave in Cornwall.

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