Category Archives: John Betjeman

Another Shropshire Lad

[Update: I’ve just come across an article from Elizabeth Dale’s excellent blog The Cornish Bird about someone who survived Niagara falls and rapids, only to die somewhat less dramatically while on tour in New Zealand in 1926. The story of Bobby Leach, possibly from my adopted county of Cornwall, is well worth reading, and even includes a link to a song about him and Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to navigate the falls in a barrel. 🙂 ]

Being in the mood to avoid work – there’s nothing like an imminent deadline to generate distraction activities – I just found among my cassettes ‘Banana Blush’, an album of readings by John Betjeman recorded with Jim Parker’s music in the 70s, and rather enjoyed hearing it again.

 I have a vague recollection that there’s a footnote to ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (JB’s, not Housman’s) that says it should be read in a Midlands accent, but his own reading is more reminiscent of The Last of the Summer Wine.

An excellent musical setting, though: I’m not surprised that it sometimes turns up among folkies actually sung to that tune (I believe John Kirkpatrick may have kicked that one off). If I ever have access to a brass band, I might sing it myself. 

The Shropshire Lad in this instance is Captain Matthew Webb, born in Dawley, mostly remembered as the first person to swim the English Channel, and according to family legend a distant relation of mine. (Unlikely!) He drowned in 1883 while attempting to swim Whirlpool Rapids, on the Niagara river. He apparently leapt in from a boat near the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge. That bridge isn’t there any more, but the Whirling Rapids Bridge in the photo below was built to replace it and built around it so as to minimize disruption. (The bridge behind is the disused Michigan Central Railway Bridge.)

whirlpool rapids bridge lite

Believe it or not, the photo (taken from the Canadian side) doesn’t do justice to how wild that stretch of river actually is (maybe the next two give a slightly better impression), yet apparently Webb made it as far as the entrance to the whirlpool, but was dragged under and hit his head on jagged rocks. Believe it or not, there used to be a trolley line (the Great Gorge Route) that ran along the gorge on the American side. Actually, there were trolley lines both sides of the gorge, but the one on the US came right down to water’s edge for part of the journey, with (reportedly) amazing views of the whirlpool.

niagara2 niagara3

Here are a couple of shots around the whirlpool itself, though again they don’t really do justice to how impressive – and frightening – it is. The first one shows the Aero Car, which would probably have given us a better shot of the whirlpool itself, but we didn’t have time if we were to catch the train back to Toronto!

whirlpool rapids whirlpool rapids 2

Betjeman’s poem suggests that Webb’s ghost visited Dawley ‘while swimming along to heaven’. I don’t know if it was intentional, but there’s an echo there of the story of how after he swam the channel Webb was ceremoniously escorted from Wellington station to Dawley. There is a story of how a pig put its front trotters on the sty wall to watch the procession go by accompanied by the Shifnal Brass Band. It’s hard to imagine that Jim Parker wasn’t aware of the ‘Pig on the Wall’ story when he put together that very brass band-like arrangement for the Banana Blush album.

David Harley