How poet Sir John Betjeman fell in love with Diss

PUBLISHED: 09:44 31 July 2018 | UPDATED: 09:44 31 July 2018

Sir John Betjeman. Picture: Archant Library

Sir John Betjeman. Picture: Archant Library


John Betjeman, poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death in 1984, was known as a poet whose writing evoked a sense of nostalgia as well as a popular light touch about public issues, architecture and contemporary society.

Poet Laureate John Betjeman during a visit to Castle Rising & Sandringham in 1974.Picture: John HocknellPoet Laureate John Betjeman during a visit to Castle Rising & Sandringham in 1974.Picture: John Hocknell

He also helped to put Diss on the literary map having become smitten with the town.

The poet first came to Diss in 1963 when he was filming a series about English market towns for the BBC. He knew little about the town originally but it soon became one of his favourites.

The short film he made, Something About Diss, begins with him alighting from the train at Diss Station and discovering the Jolly Porters railway inn.

The programme, which was first broadcast in 1964, began as follows: ‘Ah, Norfolk, Diss. Here’s the station. Where’s Diss? All I know about Diss, up to date, is that it’s near the headquarters of the British Goat Society. That’s all I know at the moment. I must go and find Diss.’

On a taxi journey into town, Sir John proceeds along Victoria Road, commenting on the buildings, especially the new developments and the Victorian Villas, until he reaches the Mere and Mere Street.

Also featured are Diss Corn Exchange and St Mary’s Church. Scenes of the interior of the church are shown over which is heard Sir John reading a poem of a former Poet Laureate, John Skelton, who was Rector of Diss.

The poet then goes in search of medieval Diss, discovering an unsung 15th century house on Drapers Row as well as the Greyhound pub, Mount Street and the Saracen’s Head.

The film uses stills of Diss from 1880 to show how it has changed or how it has remained very similar over the century.

Diss obviously struck a chord as the town also inspired his well-known poem A Mind’s Journey to Diss which is addressed to Harold Wilson’s wife Mary who grew up in the town.

The poem records an imaginary journey from Liverpool Street out through the suburbs through the countryside of East Anglia before finally drawing to a close at Diss station.

It begins…

Dear Mary,

Yes, it will be bliss

To go with you by train to Diss,

Ending with…

The train slows down into a crawl

And stops in silence.....Where is this?

Dear Mary Wilson, this is Diss.

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