The New English Landscape

For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.

Dancing in circles and dancing in lines

Circle dancing in the Bruderhof community, Liechtenstein, 1930s

I enjoyed meeting Anna Neima last week, author of The Utopians, a new book about 20th century experimental communities, currently attracting wonderful reviews. Published in the same month as my history of the Frating community, it was a relief to find that we were both working towards the same understanding: of how idealistic ‘experiments in living’ rise and fall – while invariably exerting a powerful after-life. They often seed yet further attempts to find that elusive ‘art of living together in harmony’, which Aldous Huxley thought the most difficult of all the arts of the social world.

As with the origins of Frating, Neima’s own stories of ‘six attempts to build the perfect society’ – in India, England, Japan, France, Germany and America – were all responses to the catastrophe of the First World War. It was an era when people the world over began searching for what William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, described as ‘the moral equivalent of war’. There had to be other ways in which people could demonstrate citizenship, self-sacrifice, and community without resorting to nationalism or bloodshed.

Underpinning most of these experiments was a commitment to pacifism, and a return to self-sufficiency through experimental forms of agrarian settlement. There was often a connection to Theosophy, a once-influential hybrid of world religions allied to psychological theories of individual self-actualisation, which attracted adherents from all walks of life and countries in the early 20th century. Finally, the lives and writings of three major figures from the previous century, William Morris, Leo Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore also played an important part (as did the work of D.H.Lawrence for the Frating community, but that’s a separate story).

It is Tagore’s school and study centre, Santiniketan-Sriniketan, in Bengal, which opens Neima’s book, and is perhaps still the most successful and influential of all model communities, its former participants including film-maker Satyajit Ray, economist Amartya Sen and, the woman who would later become Prime Minister of India, Indira Ghandi. It also inspired the English philanthropist Leonard Elmhirst – having visited Tagore’s project – to establish with wife Dorothy, the Dartington Hall settlement in Devon. This was a progressive school, agricultural settlement and crafts centre and forms the subject of the book’s second case study. The others were Atarashiki Mura’s rural commune in Japan, Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France, the Bruderhof in Germany (still well established in the UK), and finally Trabuco College in California, for a while the home of Aldous Huxley.

Anna and I agreed that ideology alone was rarely enough: the more successful often had a religious aspect to them, seeing the personal development of members as being of equal importance as the cultivation of a collective spirit. These usually came together in recreational time, when singing and dancing, along with rituals such as harvest suppers, birthdays, and other calendar events were celebrated.  As the extraordinary photograph of a circle dance by the Bruderhof in Liechtenstein in the 1930s shows, time for play was vital, similarly evident in the photograph portraying a festive line dance in the big barn at Frating Hall Farm in the late 1940s.

Folk dancing in the barn at Frating Hall Farm, circa 1950

We also discussed the dangers of investing too much in building a grand architectural template for a new way of life, by formalising in bricks and mortar aspirations which remained to be tested in everyday working out. Tagore’s Santiniketan-Sriniketan was a mish mash of old and new buildings, usually constructed by volunteers on site often without plans or drawings, of which Neima writes: ‘Tagore’s community looked like it had been built of fragments gathered from across the world.’ Likewise, Frating made up their settlement out of existing buildings, barns, and workshops, supplemented by a small collection of modest cottages built by their own building team, all of which are still to be found there, and in use, today.

At Trabuco in California, Neima suggests, ‘it was the visitors rather than Trabuco’s participants who carried (Gerald) Heard’s ideas out into the world, giving the community a resonance far beyond its boundaries.’ The same was true at Frating, where its many visitors wrote some of the most enthusiastic accounts of life there. It might have been a different story had they been present only during the depths of an East Anglian winter, rather than in the spring and summer months of sowing and harvesting. Nevertheless, the after-life of the Frating story remains as inspiring as ever.

It was very gratifying that our two books were published at the same time – and were appreciatively reviewed as such by Olivia Laing in the Times Literary Supplement recently – as in many ways they were in conversation with each other, though neither of us was to know that at the time. As life begins to re-adjust to the new conditions of a post-Covid (and soon to be post-Cop26) world, new ways of thinking about how we might live more equitably and mor sustainably, may at last gain a sense of urgency.



The Utopians by Anna Neima

No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen by Ken Worpole

Ken in conversation with historian, Patrick Wright on YouTube

The 1946 Conference on the Post-War Loaf

Potato sorting, Frating Hall Farm, circa 1950

One of the responses to my recent history of the Frating Hall Farm community, No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen, came from writer and broadcaster Philip Conford. His chronicle of the organic farming movement in Britain, The Origins of the Organic Movement, was one from which I have now learned much. Conford’s is a particulalrly fair-minded approach, given that the history of organicism in British farming life and culture is generally riven with ideological enmities and questionable political associations, and his book proves a trustworthy guide through the thickets.

As he suggests, in the heady days of the post-war Labour government the farming community ‘saw the war as an opportunity for Britain to re-establish farming at the heart of its society and economy’, and indeed the 1947 Agriculture Act was a step towards achieving this ambition. The seriousness of the cause was evident in the establishment of a government ‘Interdepartmental Conference on the Post-War Loaf’, which reported in 1946. The quality of bread became a key metric for public health policy, after decades of adulteration and nutritional debasement between the wars. For millions of families, bread was a cornerstone of the daily diet – too often ‘bread salted with tears’ – as one Frating community member remembered, cited in my book.

The Frating community was in origin a Christian socialist and pacifist community, though over time not all new members had strong religious attachments, and some arrived with none at all. In its Christian leanings, however, it was at one with many other farming communities, where, in Conford’s words again, ‘a belief in the natural order and natural law was rooted in the Christian faith.’ In particular, the organic movement drew very strongly on Biblical understandings and proscriptions.

In most other ways though the Frating farm was an outsider. Too often in the first half of the 20th century farming politics and theology took a distinctly right-ward turn. One prominent and long-standing commentator on rural affairs in the 1940s and 1950s – and Secretary to the Council for the Church and Countryside – was Jorian Jenks, a self-declared member of the British Union of Fascists (and for a while imprisoned as such). Quite a few other ruralists, especially those espousing a hard-line organicist point of view, were overtly sympathetic to the ‘blood and soil’ ideology of fascist sentiment.  Melissa Harrison’s novel, All Amongst the Barley, is especially good on this, and the recent publication of the uncensored diaries of the Tory grandee, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, reveals how so many of the old money establishment and landed gentry were admirers of Hitler, sometimes undyingly so. Richard Smyth’s recent essay in Inkcap of new forms of eco-fascism is also timely. 

It is good to see Patrick Wright’s early book on rural history, The Village That Died for England, back in print again. This was an early foray into the disturbing territory of nativist ecology, and another book that helped shape my own understanding of agrarian politics in Britain – especially for an unreconstructed townie like myself. In recent years the dynamic interplay between urban and rural economies and their political trajectories has become a source of increasing fascination. This is one of the many topics Patrick and I discussed in our recent filmed conversation at the Swedenborg Society, now available online under the title ‘Unfamiliar Territories’.

Another response to No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen came from Andrew Whitehead, an old friend who runs the excellent website London Fictions, and who kindly sent me a wonderful book published in 1938, Community in Britain. Issued by the Christian Community Service Committee, and printed at the Cotswold Bruderhof Press, it is an eloquent gazetteer of some of the most active land colonies and settlements, ashrams and kibbutzim, camps and voluntary organisations, then gaining attention. These case studies are interwoven with essays on the future of communitarian initiatives, in both town and country, and elsewhere in the world. It sits nicely next to Anna Neima’s new book, The Utopians, already garnering great reviews, of which more soon.


To watch ‘Unfamiliar Territories’, go to:


Walking Back To Happiness – The Essex Book Festival launch of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen, 1 August 2021, Wivenhoe & Frating, Essex

Storm Evert was expected to peak in East Anglia on Sunday, bringing heavy winds and driving rain: just the day for a book launch outdoors. The plan was a morning walk from Wivenhoe to Frating Hall Farm, followed by an open air gathering of walkers and former members of the original Frating pacifist community (1943 – 1954), the latter recounting the story of the settlement as they remembered it from growing up on the farm.

The morning walk from Wivenhoe to Frating Hall Farm

On the day itself, however, walkers unexpectedly enjoyed a sunny, rain-free ramble across farmland, enlivened by downriver views of the Colne estuary, as well as pathways through two ancient broadleaf woods, before arriving at Frating Hall Farm, whose striking Hall chimneys were visible through the trees from several fields away. There we were met by those who had grown up on the farm in the 1940s and 1950s, happy to share memories. They recalled what life had been like then: the elementary living conditions, the rigours of winter time, the ostracization at school because of their parents’ pacifist beliefs. But they also remembered a sense of immense freedom to play and roam, oblivious for the most part to the adults’ struggles to make a living while staying true to their religious and political beliefs. Several had not been back to the farm or seen each other for more than sixty years, so it was an emotional occasion, for which enormous thanks are due to Barbara and Martyn Thomas, still at Frating Hall Farm, who helped organise and cater for this moving reunion, as well as for us, their guests.

The walkers listen to memories of childhood from members of the Frating Hall community

The book launch proper had been arranged for the afternoon by Wivenhoe Bookshop at the Nottage Institute in Wivenhoe. The ‘Nottage’ is the riverside home of wooden boat-building history in East Anglia, filled with elegant glass-cased models of sea-going, coastal and river boats, and a downstairs workshop where boats are still made using traditional tools and construction methods. The Institute is one of the most perfect evocations of a ‘world we have lost’ to be found anywhere along the East Anglian coast, certainly equal to the Sailor’s Reading Room in Southwold.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, the upstairs assembly room at the Nottage was Covid-compliant and ready for the talk and questions, all impeccably organised and catered for by Sue Finn of Wivenhoe Bookshop.  The setting and atmosphere felt just right, with stunning views of the tidal River Colne and quay from the room’s balcony: a near-perfect way to end the day.

Book launch at the Nottage Institute, Wivenhoe, organised by Wivenhoe bookshop

Many thanks to Ros & Jo at Essex Book Festival, Barbara and Martyn Thomas at Frating Hall Farm, Sue Finn at Wivenhoe Bookshop, Jon, Adrian, Gracie and Graham at Little Toller Books, The Nottage Institute, and, finally, Gillian Darley, Jason Orton and Alex Rook for transport, catering and online logistics.

‘Worpole is a literary original, a social and architectural historian whose books combine the Orwellian ideal of common decency with understated erudition.’ 

Jason Cowley in The New Statesman, 30 July 2021, on No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen

Ken’s history of Frating Hall Farm, No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain, is now published by Little Toller Books, 2021. £14


Beach of Dreams. Mile 304, Sunday, 18 July 2021

Beach of Dreams 2021. Walkers arriving at Othona, Bradwell-on-Sea © Mike Johnston

The Beach of Dreams project is a 500 mile ‘collaborative walk’ from Lowestoft to Tilbury this summer, organised by Kinetika, a much-admired arts and design organisation that specialises in hand-painted silks and flags (based on the long-standing carnival work of Director, Ali Pretty). Kinetika works with communities to explore a sense of place and identity: on this occasion to draw attention to the rich history and topography of the East Anglian coast and its many shoreline settlements. I joined the walkers for Mile 304, having been invited to write and tell the story of St Peter’s Chapel and the adjacent Othona community at Bradwell-on-Sea. This piece is printed below, inspired by a small detailed photograph of the south wall of St Peter’s, with its Roman and Anglo-Saxon building materials.

* * * * *

And withal, a great silence

We live in a material world, in which geology has for the larger part of human history been the single-most important influence on human settlement. On the southern aspect of the bend of the Blackwater estuary where it flows into the North Sea, lies St Peter’s Chapel, on the site of the former Roman fort of Othona, and adjacent to the modern Christian settlement of the same name. Looking across the mouth of the estuary to Mersea Island, one can see the sand-cliffs and beaches at Cudmore Grove that have provided a treasure trove for fossil hunters, finding traces of a time when monkeys, bears, elephants and hippopotamuses walked this shoreline, though it wasn’t a shoreline then. Until 12,000 years ago people could walk from Bradwell-on-Sea to the continent across Doggerland. Today the North Sea swirls around the East Anglian coast and its estuaries, endlessly shifting the contours and coastline in its wake. In such strongly tidal landscapes, everything is in constant flux, which is why it exercises such a compulsive need to go there, especially when life in town becomes too fraught.

I have been returning to Bradwell-on-Sea since the early 1960s, when I attended a political summer school held at Bradwell Lodge, then home of the colourful and often controversial Labour MP, Tom Driberg. Ever since, walking this particular stretch of shoreline has been a place of wonder and escape. In recent times I have tried to make a point of visiting the modern Othona community tucked just behind the seawall here, as part of a long-term interest in the social history of Essex, and its tradition of alternative communities, sanctuaries and retreats. When the founder of the community, former RAF padre Norman Motley, came to this small, isolated promontory in 1946, he knew immediately he had found the setting for the retreat he had dreamed of during the war: a place where British and German Christians could come together in a spirit of reconciliation.

‘On that vivid afternoon we came under the spell of that ancient building and of the whole area of the Blackwater Estuary. St Peter’s is situated a few hundred yards from the south shores of the river at the point where it enters the North Sea. There, one can breathe. The land on which we stood is almost a peninsula, with the mile-wide estuary to the north and Bradwell Bay behind – and all round, and curving to the south, the North Sea. The cry of the curlew was heard, and a variety of maritime flora and many sea birds were evident on the saltings; and withal, a great silence.’

History is an accretion of events, changing ways of life, and relationships with landscape and forms of settlement. The photograph below, a detail of the south wall of St Peter’s, captures for me something of this accretion in its most essential forms. Historian David Andrews describes the materials used include ‘tufa, septaria, ironstone and a variety of limestones.’ Some were imported from other parts of Britain, and possibly France, others were excavated locally. In addition, as you can see in the photograph, there are also flints and fragments of red tile, which along with the other materials, were once part of the Roman fort, later re-used. Even some of the mortar is Roman in origin and has been re-used, and still holds everything in place and true.

Detail of the south wall of St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell-on-Sea © Ken Worpole

At Othona next door the idea of using everything to hand for building anew is now part of the community’s environmental ethos. The settlement is off-grid and supplies all its own energy as well as recycling all waste back into the natural cycle.  The new dormitory block is made of rammed earth excavated from the ground beneath, and is raised above ground level in anticipation of future flooding. Looking both to the past and the future, this small stretch of coastline is a place of memory but also offers an endowment for the future.

* * * * *

Watching the walkers leave for the next stretch along the seawall to Burnham-on-Crouch, I didn’t envy them. The long, narrow and sometimes overgrown embankment, curves a wide fifteen-mile arc round the Dengie marshes, with no escape routes, shade or resting place, and pitiless in hot weather. All went well I was pleased to hear.

Walkers leave St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell-on-Sea en route to Burnham-on-Crouch © Mike Johnston

For more details about the Beach of Dreams and to follow the progress of the journey:

To read Kevin Rushby’s blog-post:

To follow the illustrated journey day by day:


No matter how many skies have fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain

‘Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or rather scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.’ from Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H.Lawrence

In 2019 I gave a talk called ‘Brightening from the East’ at the Firstsite Gallery in Colchester as part of the Essex Book Festival. It was based on an essay written the previous year on alternative communities for the book Radical Essex. The festival prospectus listed some of the settlements under discussion, one of which was Frating Hall Farm. In the audience were two women, Barbara Thomas and her daughter-in-law Tessa Thomas both from the farm itself, Barbara having lived there for more than fifty years with her husband, Martyn. After the talk my wife Larraine and I were invited to visit the farm the next time we were in the area.

A few weeks later we found our way to Frating, and were shown the family’s personal collection of documents and photographs recording the history of the farm when it had been managed as a Christian pacifist and socialist settlement between 1943 and 1954. The couple put me in touch with others who had grown up in this community, and with whom they were still in touch, and one by one I contacted them and recorded their stories.

At the heart of the Frating story was a small group of pioneers, radicalised by their religious beliefs and their pacifism, who on ‘Lady Day’, March 1943, took possession of a vacant farm in a hamlet on the Essex Tendring Peninsula. Several had been part of an earlier attempt in the late 1930s to create a socialist residential community at Langham near Colchester, where a series of famous international summer schools were held. Though successful as a meeting place, the Langham Centre failed as a farm. As a result, a breakaway group led by former Durham steel-worker, Joe Watson (a good friend of Jack Common, George Orwell and Sid Chaplin), left Langham and went to Frating to start afresh. Both ‘back to the land’ communities had been inspired by The Adelphi journal, an influential periodical of the 1920s and 1930s in whose pages D.H.Lawrence, John Middleton Murry, Vera Brittain, Iris Murdoch, George Orwell and others shared ideas for the future with European religious radicals such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Martin Buber and Simone Weil.

In time there were more than fifty people living at Frating, including refugees and several former prisoners-of-war. Though the settlement was based on the idea of pastoral self-sufficiency, members continued to subscribe to the larger ideal of ‘the New Life’, a term then used to describe a mix of ‘back to the land’ sentiments, simpler lifestyles, and human fellowship promulgated across Europe after the catastrophe of the First World War.

The title of my new book is taken from the opening paragraph of Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, first published in 1928, a work full of references to the new life. In No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen I have tried to recreate the unique world of the Frating community, repaying an intellectual debt long owed to the inspiration of the late social historian, Raphael Samuel, and the legacy of the Ruskin History Workshop movement.

The story of Frating Hall Farm, hitherto ‘hidden from history’, is thus based on the reminiscences of those who grew up on the farm, supplemented by their own personal artefacts and memorabilia. In short, the book offers a kaleidoscopic history of the community during its eleven-year occupation, as well as recording the passionate religious and political ideals of the back-to-the-land movement in wartime and post-war Britain.

All those I interviewed had been children when they lived on the farm. All recalled growing up with an extraordinary sense of freedom and happiness, coming and going into each other’s houses to eat or sleep, wandering the fields and woods when not at school, playing in the barn, feeding the animals, going on trips to the seaside on the back of a lorry, and much else. The young Shirley Williams, who sadly died earlier this year, had, on leaving school, taken up the job of second cowman at Frating: her mother, Vera Brittain, was a keen supporter. It was only in adult life that those I spoke to realised how difficult it had been for their parents at times, yet all remembered the community with pride in what had been attempted and for a while achieved.

The story of Frating Hall Farm is an important chapter in the history of rural communitarianism, and my thanks are due to Little Toller Books who responded so enthusiastically to the initial proposal to document its history, by commissioning and publishing such a beautifully designed book.


No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain, by Ken Worpole, is now published and available from Little Toller Books, May, 2021. £14

No ideas but in things

Memorial wars seem to be breaking out all over the place. Just down the road from where we live, Maggie Hambling’s statue of Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green has upset more people than it has pleased, while in Bristol the statue of Edward Colston who made his fortune in large part from slavery, was energetically toppled and dumped in the Avon last June; as a result four people are now up in court. Back in London protracted opposition to David Adjaye’s proposed design for a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens in Westminster, has caused endless arguments and judicial reviews, and the decision to go ahead remains bitterly contested. Historical memory is disputed territory, particularly as the once well-constructed narrative of ‘our island history’ starts to come apart at the seams.

Meanwhile, industrial ruins have become a focal point for those seeking authentic monuments to the everyday domestic past, but here again aesthetic arguments are flying in all directions. In the introduction to his new book, Landscape as Weapon, John Beck observes that today a large outmoded rusting agricultural raking apparatus when exhibited in a gallery can today be quickly accepted as a major piece of found sculpture. This was the case when British artist Mike Nelson mounted such an object in an exhibition called The Asset Strippers in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in 2019. ‘It is hard not to see art in an art gallery,’ Beck wryly notes. Yet when lying disused in a farmyard, the giant appendage was nothing more than redundant scrap metal (even if it did possess a certain rustic charm). Mary Douglas’s famous anthropological observation that rubbish is matter in the wrong place has become central to modern aesthetics. Today art can also be (any) matter in the right place, especially if that place is a gallery. I have no argument with that actually, and nor does Beck it seems. The aesthetics of industrial machinery – form follows function, often magnificently so – are often of the highest order.

Beck’s probing disquisition on the multiple ways in which representations of the past in history, literature, film and photography are coming under renewed questioning, is timely and thought-provoking. The issue of interpretation is understandably a key theme, avoiding the crude binary choices of those who either wish to uncritically conserve all artefacts from the past, or those who wish simply to eradicate them. Context and interpretation are essential. Though we can’t change the past it is surely possible to understand it afresh, and that is better than wiping the historical record clean. Future generations may well have quite different ideas of the good, the bad and the inadmissible from those prevailing currently.

Beck’s account opening chapter gripped me, examining as it does the public reception and subsequent controversy over Ronald Blythe’s book, Akenfield, a thinly disguised oral history of life in a Suffolk village in the first half of the 20the century. This was first published in 1969 and adapted for film by Peter Hall in 1974, both to widespread acclaim. As someone involved in the oral history movement at the time, I was caught up in the arguments about the book. On first reading of Akenfield I was enchanted, and that enchantment hasn’t worn off despite the years. However, within months of its success, historians, linguists and anthropologists, and others in the academy, were questioning the book’s authenticity. They queried the degree to which the multiple voices Blythe ventriloquised in his book, were in any way close to what people had actually said. In their view, if that was the case, the book was no longer valid. To faithfully reproduce direct speech with all its hesitancies, repetitions, caesuras and convolutions, was, it was claimed, the only way to stay true to the authentic recorded voice (even if that made such books potentially unreadable?).  What was beyond consideration was the possibility that the speakers might prefer to be ‘cleaned up’ and made to sound more coherent, direct and to the point at all times. This debate went on for years, and remains unresolved in some quarters.

In retrospect we can see that Akenfield was one of the earlier hybrid works of documentary rapportage in which the imaginative empathy of the writer crossed the border into fiction. This blurring of categories went on to give the world Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and W.G.Sebald’s Austerlitz, amongst a growing number of other ‘unreliable’ texts. Chatwin’s book I read initially as straight reporting, and was later surprised to read that Chatwin himself describe it as a novel, thus opening up new territory in the field of literature that has gained ground ever since. In a nice phrase Beck argues that ‘the struggle to retain some measure of scholarly credibility within fields unused to dealing with the unverifiable and unstable materials produced by oral history’ led to all kinds of academic anxiety.

Much of this new kind of literature, especially that of the ‘new nature writing’, no longer makes a claim on realism, but is in the business of re-enchantment – a noble but melancholy cause. This is the view of Adam Nicholson, who in a persuasive 2018 Guardian review of Mark Cocker’s admirable book, Our Place, wrote that ‘the current wave of nature writing is like the light from a dead star, illumination from something that is essentially over.’

Landscape as Weapon ranges well beyond rural nostalgia, fake industrial heritage, and historical mis-representation, to go into the bleaker territory of ruin porn and dark tourism. Here are the blasted heaths of military firing ranges and nuclear testing grounds, the defensive territories cultivated by proponents and activists of bunker ideology, the continuing memorialisation of tyrants, where the old and the new, satellite skies and pastoral latifundia, slums and cultural quarters, all sit alongside each other. These are places where, in the words of novelist William Gibson, ‘The future is already here but has just not been evenly distributed.’ Beck shines a light on all these conundrums, helpfully so.


This is the place

Lines of Defence by Bettina Furnée

When it comes to writing about landscape, or making art about it, there’s little escape from Ruskin’s notion of the ‘pathetic fallacy’, whereby mind and place are inevitably trapped in an inescapable web of feeling. Perhaps only artistic representation allows us to step back and more dispassionately interrogate what it is we feel about certain landscape conditions and why we do so. Susan Owens’ Spirit of Place: Artists, Writers & the British Landscape is an excellent history of landscape representation, whether imagined in prose, poetry or through the visual arts. Having finished and enjoyed it, I nevertheless went back to Patrick Keiller’s short book, The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, for a corrective. My only difficulty with Owen’s book for me is the underlay of chronological determinism, as century by century, decade by decade, one innovation leads to the next. In a section on the matter of grand landscape design, we encounter Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, then William Kent, then Humphrey Repton, in what is by now a too familiar exercise in baton-passing.

In contrast, Keiller juxtaposed William Dyce’s epochal painting Pegwell Bay – which is in both Owens’ and Keiller’s expositions and rightly so – with the redundant cement works at Shipton-on-Cherwell awaiting redevelopment. In the same spirit Keiller alternates photographs of Greenham Common with the neighbouring 18th century West Green House, once the headquarters of the Hellfire Club (Fay Ce Que Vouldras – Do As You Will) later the residence of Lord McAlpine, treasurer of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Without contraries there is no progression, as William Blake advised, while Hilary Mantel recently admitted in an interview to having no interest in time’s arrow only in circularity. Yet when Owens focuses, as she does, incisively, on Pegwell Bay, her reflections on Ruskin’s religious terror of the geologist’s hammer – which is what the painting alludes to as the gloomy cliffs give way to the fossil record – is revelatory. On this and almost every other page Owens has something acute to say, and always elegantly so, though she is more engaging on the exterior world of landscape than on the few occasions she withdraws into the great houses.

Owens also leaves too little room for more recent times, in a study dominated by the picturesque, the sublime, and what Raymond Williams once called ‘the enamelled world’ of received good taste and opinion. There is a sudden hurrying towards the end to modernist and post-industrial debates on contemporary aesthetics – extremely welcome but sadly too little too late. The chronological problem is compounded by the way tastes change in relation to different regional topographies and boundaries, as landscapes fall in or out of favour according to the spirit of the age. In the 18th century a reference to ‘the eastern counties’ refers principally to Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk as far as tourists of the picturesque are concerned. Suffolk and Essex are only enlisted into the eastern territories in the late 19th century (except for John Constable), while the right of Essex to belong to East Anglia remains contested. Yet these two latter counties have provided some of the most important territory for investigating landscape in modern times, whether in the work of Paul Nash, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Prunella Clough, Maggi Hambling, Benjamin Britten, Sylvia Townsend Warner, John Cowper Powys (notably in his overlooked East Anglian novel Rodmoor), W.G.Sebald, Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Jules Pretty, Sarah Perry, Melissa Harrison and many others.

In the work of such artists and writers, spirit of place is not inherent or essentialist, but disputed or contested territory, disrupted by war, flooding or migration, its mutable marshlands, fens, vast skies and winter seas more fitting to the mood of a world no longer grounded in national history or geographical and spiritual interiority. Here again it is Keiller who emphasises that when it comes to spirit of place, cycles of both dwelling and displacement are necessarily involved in a struggle that can never be finally resolved.

Owens comes up trumps at the end, however, concluding her study by extolling the virtues of a work by Dutch artist Bettina Furnée, Lines of Defence. This eloquent and emotional record of coastal erosion on the Suffolk coast at Bawdsey, filmed over a year using time-lapse photography, and employing a text by Simon Frazer, is an astonishing work, and I remember seeing the film at one of the now legendary ‘Place’ weekend cultural forums at Snape Maltings about ten years ago: it left the audience silent in admiration and melancholy awe. As concepts of place continue to gather political and critical attention, Owens’ study provides a worthy contribution to the discussion, and it would be good to see her writing more about 20th and 21st century writers and artists on the strength of this intellectual outing.


Down by the river

Set amongst the houseboat community on the Thames near Fulham, A.P.Herbert’s popular 1930 novel, The Water Gypsies, portrayed a collection of people at odds with society. The main characters still worked the river as bargees, having spent all their lives with their families on the water, but others had adopted life on water as an escape. Living on or close by rivers was long associated with poverty and bohemian marginality and this theme is taken up and demonstrated in Stefan Szczelkun’s delightful photographic pocket-book, Plotlands of Shepperton, just published.

Stefan grew up in Shepperton and in 1966 and studied architecture in Portsmouth. I suspect his interest in vernacular architecture over-rode a concern with standard architectural forms and theories. Given that he was also a musician who once toured with the wildly experimental Scratch Orchestra in the early 70s, it was not surprising to read that he describes the self-built riverside chalets as being ‘the architectural equivalent of improvised music.’ On that I’m not so sure. If the common factor was just improvisation then a comparison would be fair, but I think the improvisational skills used to build homes and create working settlements or communities, are different from the skills needed to go beyond high culture into the sphere of the artistic avant-garde.

On such matters I am always reminded of Raymond Williams’ distinction between customary and educated experience, and I think these are in play here. Nevertheless, there are genuine affinities. After all, one of the most erudite historians of vernacular architecture around the world, the late Paul Oliver, was also a notable advocate and chronicler of blues and gospel music. As to the Scratch Orchestra, I did hear erstwhile members of the orchestra play once in the early 1970s, accompanying a production of Bertolt Brecht’s rigidly doctrinaire play, The Measures Taken, at The Duke of Wellington pub on Balls Pond Road, with Cornelius Cardew noisily pummelling an electric keyboard for much of the time.

Plotlands of Shepperton adds a vivid and indispensable chapter to the history of housing in Britain, paying homage to people who exercised their right to live decently in the face of bureaucratic opposition. As Szczelkun explains, it became possible to acquire these riverside sites cheaply after the First World War for two reasons. Firstly, because many landed estates were broken up when their owners became unable to pay increased death duties and many of the male heirs to the estates had been killed in the trenches. Secondly, there was a glut of cheap farmland available during the recession during the inter-war depression. As a result, there was a small boom in self-building along the upper Thames, with chalets either constructed wholly on site, or bought as pre-fabricated flat packs delivered by barge from W.Gardam & Sons at Staines.

There was nothing standardised once the basic structure – consisting commonly of two adjacent rooms plus a verandah – was in place. Owners soon started adding decorative flourishes inside and out as an expression of their individuality. They also made a point of not only giving them poetic names – Idle Waters, Wild Thyme, The Haven – but invariably inscribed them on idiosyncratic name-boards. Thus folk art continued. This did not please the planners. Szczelkun cites a Planning Report of 1930 which contends that: ‘The bungalows, by the exercise of every possible eccentricity and mark of individuality, break up the line of the river. Each house has its gable, its weathervane, each plot its fence and railing, its flagstaff, its name-board and its crazy paving.’ In such decorative traditions the Shepperton plotlanders were adopting those of earlier barge and narrow-boat communities, famous for floral and picturesque motifs and fairground lettering. This was something A.P.Herbert picked up in his novel, noting that, ‘Not one inch of these Lilliputian homes was wasted for services, every inch was a decoration.’

Szczelkun has packed an awful lot into his small book, artfully designed as a continuous photographic panorama. Page follows page of colourful riverside dwellings, with fascinating footnotes running along the bottom. Here you can read of the history of the Shepperton plotlands enlivened with a dash of anarchist theory. It now sits on the bookshelf next to another delightful monograph, The Life and Times of the Houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea, written by Carol Edwards and published in 2009, a present from Rachel Lichtenstein. I can’t better the affecting words of Matthew Fuller printed on the back cover of Plotlands of Shepperton: ‘This is a subtly joyous and thoughtful appreciative book; in many ways a celebration of a thousand quiet victories.’ I completely agree.


‘Plotlands of Shepperton’ is available £10 in the UK direct from Stefan Szczelkun:

England made me?

‘Regionalism is a sleeping giant that is now, after a short pause, ready to wake again out of sheer, obvious righteousness,’ writes Alex Niven, setting out his stall in his lively short book, New Model Island. The plates are already shifting. Ireland inches towards unification at ground level, in Scotland the Scottish National Party enjoys a near-monopoly of parliamentary seats, and the two major parties in the rest of the UK, the Conservatives and Labour, are locked a bitter struggle to commandeer anew the midlands and the north. Where Niven differs from those who want to see a new kind of English radical project, is that he is determined to drive a stake into the heart of England before it is re-invented as a nationalist enclave. ‘England does not, in the end,’ he argues, ‘have a substantial or coherent enough cultural imaginary to last the distance in the globalised, precarious twenty-first century.’

If not England, then what? Niven’s pitch is for an archipelago of regions or provinces to stimulate and disperse political self-confidence, and so begin to address the dilemma most famously captured by William Gibson’s remark that although the future has arrived it has been unevenly distributed. Niven’s book is strong on the cultural arguments for decentralisation, but doesn’t explain fully why Labour’s earlier proposals for regional assemblies failed to gain traction, nor how breaking up the power of London can be achieved – especially when he seems to believe that politicians such as Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (all command and control career politicians representing north London constituencies it should be noted), might have been the ones who could have made it happen. Unfortunately for the author, the book went to press before the electoral rout of 12 December 2019, an election which Niven had hoped would produce a left-wing Labour government. This was not to be. Nevertheless, the arguments for decentralisation are not going to go away; indeed they are likely to become stronger.

As the book’s sub-title – How To Build A Radical Culture Beyond The Idea Of England – suggests, the political changes Niven wishes to see rest principally upon strengthening cultural identities at a regional level. He admits that his own identification with the Northumbrian region has been influenced by its early Christian formation under Oswald and Aidan in the seventh century, showing ‘what a radical ethical event Christianity must have been in the sparse, martial landscapes of this period of northern history.’ This larger story has been recently amplified in Tom Holland’s epic study of the administrative and ethical legacy of Christianity, Dominion. Anyone who thinks that radical politics and religion can’t sometimes reinforce each other’s greater purposes should visit the Miners’ Memorial in Durham Cathedral.

Where Niven sees cultural hope in the folk, punk and post-punk movements – especially strong in the northern cities, as well as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – my generation saw a similar hope in jazz. There was always a strong relation to civil rights movements in modern jazz, whether in the US, Britain and even in the lands of ‘actually existing socialism’, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia. My anxieties over Niven’s reliance on indigenous folk culture are because too often in the past this has fed into the cultural blind alley of anti-Americanism on the British left, something Dick Hebdige was alert too more than thirty years ago, and challenged in his 1980s essay ‘Towards a Cartography of Taste 1935 – 1962’, first published in Block magazine, and reprinted in his 1988 collection Hiding in the Light.

I would also argue that topography contributes as much to the cultural identity of a region as any other factor. In the version of economic geography we were taught at school, it is why you find ship-building on the Tyne, coal-mining in the north-east and south Wales, arable farming in East Anglia, sheep-farming in the Lake District, naval and maritime ports on the south coast, tin-mining in Cornwall, and all the national political and governmental institutions located in the capital city. Although most economists would now claim that the links between place and primary production have been sundered, and that most post-industrial jobs can be sited anywhere in the world, if there are serious moves towards a more sustainable economy, some of these connections might need to be re-discovered again.

And although the UK belatedly endorsed the European Landscape Convention which came into force in 2004, its central argument has largely been ignored (and post-Brexit can now be returned unused). Yet it was far-seeing, stating that: ‘Each party undertakes to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity.’ Niven’s aspirations for a new regionalism could well gain much by paying more attention to landscape and topography as he does to administrative issues, especially given the current revival of writing about place and all its historical, demographic and cultural complexities. Rightly questioning the consequences of the abandonment of the old county structure in 1974, Niven suggests that it marginalised ‘the region’s greatest asset: historical memory.’ He also observed that: ‘Regionalism draws as nationalisms do on certainly key historical legacies, but in a more diffuse, less racialised way: its deep appeal lies in its harnessing of volitional civic attachment to cities, towns and locales, rather than the over-simplifying medieval and romantic dreams of nationhood…’ This is very well put.

New Model Island is full of good things: a long, well-structured essay in short chapters, with occasional interludes combining personal reminiscence with brief cultural forays into Dylan Thomas’s poetry, Liverpudlian post-punk romanticism, and the architectural ‘new eerie’. It is also nicely published too: design, typography, layout and readability work to bring the text in clear engagement with the reader.

A sense of place and belonging is also the focus of Jon Lawrence’s timely Me,Me,Me? The search for community in post-war England. This is a close re-reading of some of the famous sociological studies of working class life and culture from the 1950’s onwards which sought to understand whether the alleged ideal of the working class community so often invoked by commentators still existed in Britain, or indeed whether it had ever existed at all. As someone who trained to be a teacher in the 1960s, the studies of family life in Bermondsey by Raymond Firth, the famous and much-cited Family and Kinship in East London by Peter Wilmott & Michael Young, and of Luton car workers and their aspirations by John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood were compulsory reading. At the time most of us thought that anything written by a sociologist or anthropologist must be true, not yet understanding the art of interpretation. Lawrence gives the material a thorough going over, as much for the interviewers’ assumptions as of the interviewees’ testimonies. It makes fascinating reading, and unsurprisingly Lawrence has his own thesis to suggest. This is that rather than the simplistic idea that affluence had brought a tide of consumerist individualism, and then subsequently de-industrialisation put a coffin nail into the organic, close-knit community, people have always been struggling to balance the social and the self, so that ‘personal betterment and social progress often went hand in hand’. So while economic and social impacts on work-based communities undermined men’s roles, they freed many women to explore their own sense of personal freedom and opportunity.

While Niven’s book takes the form of a lively essay, Lawrence’s study is more for the academic researcher, but both are equally fascinating. Lawrence concludes by suggesting that what has replaced the defensive structures of neighbourhood and class, is an ‘elective belonging’. By this he means that where you live, its topography, social mix, and where it lies on the rural/urban continuum – in short, its sheer ‘placeness’ – is still vitally important to people’s identity, as much as class, for many more so. As a sense of place becomes ever more important, it will require underpinning by a renewed respect and increase in powers for local government. I am not sure any longer that I would vote for anybody standing for Parliament who had not devoted some years to being a local councillor.

Paradoxically, the European Union with its earlier espousal of the concept of subsidiarity – that is to say, that all decisions should be taken at the smallest strategic level possible to be both acted upon and effective – did provide a model for a more devolved democracy, even if never fulfilled. But now we have ‘taken back control’ that prospect seems further off than ever.


Essex Book Festival 2020​​

Sunday, 15 March 2020, 11am – 12 noon

Firstsite Gallery, Lewis Gardens, High Street, Colchester, CO1 1JH

All at Sea?

Ken will be in conversation with Hana Loftus, co-director of award-winning architecture practice HAT Projects, currently working at Jaywick Sands on the Essex coast (where 35 people died in the 1953 tidal surge), in response to the new threats posed by climate change. Hana’s talk will be illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs, and material showing possible scenarios for developing more resilient coastal communities.

For more information & booking:

A New World in Essex

The week before last former Essex County Archivist, Victor Gray, gave a splendid talk at the Essex Record Office to launch A New World in Essex: the rise and fall of the Purleigh Brotherhood Colony, 1896 – 1903, which adds a new chapter to the fascinating story of utopian Essex. Thanks to the pioneering work of W.H.Armytage (Heavens Below), Dennis Hardy (Utopian England), Colin Ward (Arcadia for All) , Chris Coates (Utopia Britannica) and Gillian Darley (Villages of Vision), we are only now realising how much the British landscape is marked with the remains and memories of so many experimental communities.

Unsurprisingly, Essex provided a home for many of these, largely because of its proximity to London, a capital with a long radical tradition and concern with social improvement, often based on ‘back to the land’ principles. Nowhere was nearer than Essex where land was cheap and easily accessible. Such radical enterprises were often energised by an influx of refugees from other parts of the world, bringing new ideas of how best to live now and in the future.

The Brotherhood Church was the creation of two dedicated Christian Socialists: John Bruce Wallace and J.C.Kenworthy. The latter was very much under the influence of Tolstoy, whom he had visited in Russia, corresponded with, and for whom he acted unofficially as a literary agent in London. At the end of the 19th century Tolstoy was seen by many as a new Christ-figure, whose preaching of brotherly love, pacifism, and the simple life, gathered hundreds of thousands of converts around the world.

The story of the Brotherhood Church has been confined largely to marginal references or footnotes, but in Victor Gray’s lively and detailed monograph we have the full story of one of the Church’s most intriguing experiments at Purleigh, a small hamlet on the Dengie Peninsula in Essex, where finally members were able to put their principles into practice.

Starting out with premises in Croyden, before moving to a former Congregational Chapel in Hackney, Kenworthy and Wallace eventually managed to raise enough funds to buy land in Essex where, with fellow ‘colonists’, they intended to establish a model community. Which they did for a short while, though not without difficulties. None had any agricultural experience, few even of manual labour itself, but the pioneers worked hard and within two years had managed to build accommodation for themselves and establish a working farm that sold produce to like-minded radicals in the small shops they had in Croydon and Hackney, or to fellow Tolstoyans elsewhere.

Aylmer Maude, the distinguished translator of Tolstoy, as well as friend of Kenworthy, moved close by to Wickham’s Farm with his wife, acting as supporters and friends of the experiment. They took over a large house (now standing empty for decades, but still standing) where they entertained Tolstoyans from other parts of the world, as well as providing Sunday suppers for the colonists. Things went well for a while but then outside events began to distract the work of the small-holding.

Gray suggests that the effect so many ‘foreign’ visitors to the Purleigh colony aroused the suspicions of the locals, a scattering of poor farm workers whose lives had been seriously impoverished during the agricultural depression and who lived very much hand to mouth nearby. These suspicions would have been exacerbated when a small group of Russian peasants in traditional dress, members of a persecuted Christian sect, the Doukhobors, arrived at the colony, having been thrown out of their homeland. Though they did not stay long, it was long enough for the Purleigh colonists to feel a chill wind of disapproval from their neighbours – and probably the interest of the police, since the well-known Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, arrived (with snow on his boots?) soon after. Both the Special Branch and the Russian secret police always followed Kropotkin’s activities with close interest.

Another factor which may had contributed to the slow dissolution of the colony was that J.C.Kenworthy, one of the key proponents of the scheme, was a man who couldn’t stay still, spending increasing time away from Purleigh promoting the cause of ethical socialism. He may not have been in Purleigh when the founding group of colonists decided to expel two new members whom they found wanting in some regard, causing a split which failed to heal. Soon after some of the original group moved to Gloucestershire – two of them walked all the way with their belongings, relying on strangers to give them food, as they had earlier renounced the use of money – and set up a new colony at Whiteway which still survives a century later with some of the founders’ principles still intact.

Seven years may seem a very short time for a new world to last, but its influence was significant. In nearby hamlets other land colonies were established over the next two decades, and the culture of make do and mend self-sufficiency created the conditions for the emergence of the Essex plotlands culture which involved many thousands of people in the decades that followed. Kenworthy took up other New Life interests, including spiritualism, while Wallace helped Ebenezer Howard establish the Garden City movement. Out of the great ‘new life’ ferment of the 1890s, many things grew, still influencing the way we live a hundred years later. In this fascinating study, Victor Gray tells us why.

A New World in Essex: The Rise and Fall of the Purleigh Brotherhood Colony, 1896 – 1903, Victor Gray, Campanula Books, 2019


%d bloggers like this: