IT WAS a stonker of a spat.

Two titans of the literary world, huffing at each other with the elevated erudition more humble wordsmiths can only gawp at.

The dispute between writers Bevis Hillier and AN Wilson centred on Sir John Betjeman or, more precisely, their biographies of him.

Tensions over their versions of the life of the poet laureate crackled for years.

But they entered a whole new stratosphere in 2006 when Wilson’s version was discovered to contain a hoax letter said to be written by his rival.

Not only was the missive, claiming to be written by Eve de Harben (an anagram of ‘ever been had’) a fake, the first letter of each sentence spelled out the message “AN Wilson is a ****”.

The Sunday Times caught a wiff of the story, and soon details of the rift were being hoovered up by the paper’s readership over pre-church kedgeree.

It is even said a second spoof was considered, before Bevis decided that this might be ‘a letter too far’.

I didn’t expect the 74-year-old to allude to the feud when I met him at his home in St Cross Almshouses, on the edge of Winchester.

However, the author and historian in fact resonated relief as he revealed how they are now good friends, their differences resolved over Wilson’s 2012 biography of Josiah Wedgwood.

Bevis chose this ‘rather good’ offering as his 2012 book of the year in The Spectator magazine — but filed his story with a few barbs in it for old time’s sake.

Then literary editor Mark Amory persuaded him to remove these and what was published was a rave review.

A postcard from AN Wilson swiftly arrived, thanking Bevis for the generosity of his comments, and offering lunch at The Bell pub in St Cross.

Bangers and mash were no suitable backdrop for such a landmark luncheon, especially if Wilson was paying, so Bevis suggested Wiltons, in Jermyn Street, which offers diners six different types of oyster, as well as French wines costing thousands.

“There were no recriminations and we both beamed,” he said.

“It was a great enmity. I could have danced on his grave, and now we are friends.”

Bevis rightly knows he is one of the finest authors this country possesses.

His books are so sublimely written they send frissons of glee through my soul every time I pick one up.

In person, his brain was as acute as piranha teeth — and the fact he barely engaged it during our meeting made me smile.

On arrival Bevis deftly propelled me onto a sofa next to the chocolate biscuits.

Then, as I sat at his feet, surrounded by paintings, photographs, antiques and memorabilia from a life lived fully, he expertly wove the tale of his life.

Every space in the 15th century sitting room was chokker — a comforting literary womb that begged you to linger and pry.

Dominating it was a Regency gothic bookcase, which once stood in the weighty ancestral pile of Bonnettstown House, Ireland before being bought with the inheritance Bevis received from his mother.

Both parents were writers and Bevis recalled coming home from kindergarten at the age of four and folding paper pages into a book.

It was while recovering from a near fatal double-hit of pneumonia and whooping cough a year later that his talent first surfaced.

“I just remember the moment of realising I could write, I suddenly realised the sounds produced by letters,”

he explained, talking at full pelt.

A decidedly skinny youth, he was often the last to be picked for sports teams during his years at Reigate Grammar School.

Better lay ahead though, and the intellectual dazzling began during his time at Oxford. By his mid-20s his looks had also received a fillip of extra flesh, courtesy of a hack’s lifestyle working for The Times, where he started in 1963.

These were the days when journalists uncorked their day’s drinking with a double gin and tonic before lunch, swiftly followed by wine, and brandy after the meal.

But for Bevis, journalism was merely a way of earning a wage while he pursued the dream of becoming an established writer.

Of his prolific literary output he is most proud of his Betjeman books, which is understandable given they took him 28 years to write.

He even flew to Canada to read a tranche of poet’s correspondence and it’s these letters which give the biography its subtlety and depth.

Yet his work as an art historian has also had considerable impact.

Were it not for Bevis’ 1968 book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s, we would all almost undoubtedly still be referring to the genre as Art Moderne.

Though he’s unimpressed with recent offerings, sniffing: “I hate more or less everything in contemporary art, with the exception of David Hockney at his best.”

Bevis arrived in Winchester shortly after the new millennium, having selected the Hospital of St Cross as his preferred retirement location on a visit 40 years before.

But the subsequent onset of asthma now prevents him attending the daily 20-minute service for brothers in the church, and he coughed on cue to stress the point.

The traditional daily lunch for residents doesn’t draw him either, as he still works for much of the day.

He’s busy promoting two books at the moment; Going for a Song, an anthology of poems about antiques, and The Virgin’s Baby, a sumptuous account of an aristocratic sexual shenanigans — or rather the lack of it — in inter-war Britain.

Both are delicious — buy them.

The real Bevis may have rather eluded me, but it was apparent that the cloistered world of intellectual brilliance and artistic beauty are his everything.

Forced to live somewhere less aesthetically-perfect than a medieval building on the edge of Winchester’s exquisite Water Meadows, I fear he would wither.

The good news is that his books will keep on coming “until I drop”, as he explains “I’m absolutely not rich”.

As I left he eyed me, observing: “I can tell it’s not going to be a knocking story, you haven’t asked the right questions.”

I smiled again.

Oh he’s curmudgeonly — but he’s marvellous.