Site unseen: St Saviour's, Aberdeen Park, London

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Many well-known public figures who are much loved in their lifetime often turn out, after death, to have feet of clay. A succession of wives, lovers, so-called friends and hostile biographers usually queue up to dish the dirt and pocket the cash. Scandal sells.

Sir John Betjeman died in May 1984 and he has triumphantly survived the publication of two volumes of letters (admittedly edited by his justly admiring daughter Candida) which suggest that here indeed was a kindly, charming and immensely knowledgeable man who cared about people and buildings in equal proportions. Someone for whom enthusiasm was, quite rightly, the guiding star of existence.

Okay, so Betjeman had a rather unusual domestic arrangement in later years, cared for by two women of whom only one was his wife - but who cares? It seems to have been the best thing for all concerned.

The letters also confirm just how important the sense of place was and is in Betjeman's poetry. He wrote about what he knew. One of his finest poems, among many, is devoted to the church of St Saviour's in Aberdeen Park: "Great red church of my parents, cruciform crossing they knew..." It was here that Betjeman's parents were married in 1902.

Aberdeen Park remains one of the capital's best-kept secrets. Built in the mid-Victorian period and named after an undistinguished Prime Minister of the 1850s, the fact that it deliberately had only two entrances meant that this development was select and exclusive. Even today, anyone walking around Aberdeen Park invariably talks in whispers and minds their ps and qs.

At the centre of the estate is the Church of the Most Holy Saviour, consecrated in 1866 and intended as a High Church refuge for Anglo-Catholics horrified by the evangelical tendencies of Victorian Islington.

Designed by William White (great-nephew of Gilbert Selborne), the church's patron - a canon at Salisbury Cathedral - spared no expense. Outside, the solid redbrick structure is distinguished by the central lantern tower. Inside, the eye is assaulted by a riot of tiles, patterned brick, stained glass, ornate ironwork and mosaics.

The church flourished, and then it didn't. The Betjemans moved to Highgate. The congregation drifted away. St Saviour's closed down. All was doom, gloom and vandalism.

Not quite. In 1990 the Florence Trust, which provides studio space for artists, moved in, and now the church hums to the activity of individuals expressing themselves in their own way while still respecting the integrity of the building.

It's a far cry from a world "...where carriages used to throng/ And my mother stepped out in flounces and my father stepped out in spats..." - but I know that Sir John Betjeman would have heartily welcomed what now goes on inside that "great red church".

St Saviour's Aberdeen Park, Highbury, London N5 (0171-354 0460). Donations welcome to the Florence Trust at the above address

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