For many of us, a visit to a church involves a quick walk around the aisles with a casual glance at the stained glass windows, and perhaps the altar.

Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman was different - he described himself as a 'church crawler'.

He wanted to absorb everything a church, a castle or other place of interest had to offer and now his methods have been captured in a new book by Kidlington author David Meara.

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The poet said a 'church crawler' needed a notebook to sketch and write remarks, and in towns, he wanted to see not only the obvious antiquities, but the railway station, the town hall, the suburbs, the shops and the local crafts.

His enthusiasm for such detail is described in a new book, A Passion For Places, written by Mr Meara, who is a member of the clergy team at St Mary’s Church, Kidlington.


The former Archdeacon of London never met the writer, poet and broadcaster, but attended his memorial service at Westminster Abbey in 1984 to pay tribute to a man who “first kindled in me a love of church buildings, railways and Victorian architecture”.

He said: “It was an extraordinary and moving occasion when the writer who had been dismissed as a joker in the 1930s, ridiculed as a poet by modernist critics in the 1950s, and looked down on as a lightweight television performer in the 1960s and 1970s, finally achieved his apotheosis as a national treasure with his poetry, writing, campaigning and television work.”

His love affair with Betjeman and churches began at the age of 12 when he read a guidebook he had edited and saw him in a TV series.

The TV image of Betjeman walking up the church path, commenting on the exterior of the building, then turning directly to the camera and saying “Now come inside”, captivated the young viewer.

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That enthusiasm is reflected throughout the book, which traces the life of a man who was born in Hampstead in 1906 and embarked on a career which had its ups and downs (including his well-publicised intellectual feud with art historian Nikolaus Pevsner) but, according to the author, turned him into a “consummate performer”.

Betjeman had strong Oxfordshire links. He lived at Uffington and Wantage for a time and was educated at the Dragon School and Magdalen College in Oxford.

Although he died nearly 40 years ago, his personal, and romantic way of looking at buildings still resonates today.

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Mr Meara's book, with more than 100 colour illustrations, encourages readers to look again at buildings with the poet's ‘seeing eye’.

•A Passion For Places by David Meara is published by Amberley Publishing, £15.99.