I called into Oxfam yesterday, and stumbled on a book of poems by John Betjeman. And bear in mind this is Oxfam in Southend, so a find like that is quite rare!
I've enjoyed stuff by him that I've read, and I've seen before that he's written about some of the places I've lived - Bristol and Clifton and Essex to name but two. But I was delighted to find this poem about Matlock Bath, which is just round the corner from my hometown of Matlock.
I found it really interesting that JB uses so much Biblical imagery when he describes Matlock Bath - if you've ever been there, it's hard not to. I don't mean the pseudo-sea-side bit, but the Heights of Abraham are pretty immense.
But he doesn't marvel and feel inspired by the natural beauty of the rocks and the trees. Instead he feels a sense of doom as he imagines the towering cliffs crashing down and sweeping everything away like a tidal wave. And I think this says something about John Betjeman's outlook on faith, and particularly on non-conformity. He hears the gospel they preach as one of doom and woe. The reference to "Pilgrims of the night" is probably a reference to a hymn, a hymn about death. This life is full of anquish and guilt, which is only lifted by death. And I think that sort of idea colours how he sees Matlock Bath, which as soon as he steps off the train is linked with non-conformity. And so instead of being comforted by the Rock of Ages, cleft for me, instead of feeling loved and cared for by God, he feels only dread.
From Matlock Bath's half-timbered station
I see the black dissenting spire
Thin witness of a congregation,
Stone emblem of a Handel choir;
In blest Bethesda's limpid pool
Comes treacling out of Sunday School.
By cool Siloam's shady rill
The sounds are sweet as strawberry jam
I raise mine eyes unto the hill,
The beetling Heights of Abraham;
The branchy trees are white with rime
In Matlock Bath this winter-time,
And from the whiteness, grey uprearing,
Huge cliffs hang sunless ere they fall,
A tossed and stony ocean nearing
The moment to o'erwhelm us all
Eternal Father, strong to save,
How long wilt thou suspend the wave?
How long before the pleasant acres
Of intersecting Lovers' Walks
Are rolled across by limestone breakers,
Whole woodlands snapp'd like cabbage stalks?
O God, our help in ages past,
How long will Speedwell Cavern last?
In this dark dale I hear the thunder
Of houses folding with the shocks,
The Grand Pavilion buckling under
The weight of the Romantic Rocks,
The hardest Blue John ash-trays seem
To melt away in thermal steam.
Deep in their Nonconformist setting
The shivering children wait their doom
The father's whip, the mother's petting
In many a coffee-coloured room;
And attic bedrooms shriek with fright,
For dread of Pilgrims of the Night.
Perhaps it's this that makes me shiver
As I ascend the slippery path
High, high above the sliding river
And terraces of Matlock Bath
A sense of doom, a dread to see
The Rock of Ages cleft for me.