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.

An Innocent Abroad: The anarchism of Colin Ward

A favourite novel of the late, and much-loved writer and anarchist, Colin Ward, was Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s common-sense decency and independent spirit led him to become one of the great moral heroes of world literature. Another of Mark Twain’s books nevertheless provides the best title to describe the public persona of Ward himself: An Innocent Abroad. For Colin was a self-effacing man who claimed little originality, yet whose influence still resonates in public policy across the world. Talk to anybody concerned with children’s play and his name is mentioned within minutes; the same is true of those involved in squatting and self-build movements, in town planning as a form of civic democracy, in environmental education, and, of course, in the history and practice of anarchism.

Sophie Scott-Brown’s admiring but even-handed and thoughtful study of Ward, Colin Ward and the Art of Everyday Anarchy, starts wonderfully with an emphasis on the ‘ordinariness’ of its subject’s resilient ‘weak power’:

‘For Colin Ward, anarchy was ordinary, everywhere, and always in action. It happened on city streets, allotments, and around kitchen tables, in village halls, town squares and pub snugs. It went about its business quietly, beneath and beyond official notice.

Beneath this calm orderly façade lay startling claims. Schooling is organised mass ignorance. Centralised welfare is coercion by stealth. Ramshackle shanty towns contain more human dignity than the palatial creation of feted architects.’

Claiming to have been bored at school, outdoors Ward was curious about everything. Later on, he became a keen advocate of the idea of ‘schools without walls’, in which students found out how everyday life worked by direct study – trips to the local fire station, sewage farm, rubbish tip, railway station and signal box, farm and factory. In such school trips the inter-dependence of us all in the well-being of each other and society was made concrete. He wasn’t even apologetic about the idea that on occasions letting children or young people work for money, was no big deal, as long as it put none in harm’s way. The title of the book he wrote with Anthony Fyson on this approach to education, Streetwork: The Exploding School, mischievously alludes to stereotypes of anarchists as men in black capes carrying bombs. He was early in espousing the idea that ‘small is beautiful’, for as Scott-Brown writes, ‘Human scale was, for Ward, anarchism’s basic conceptual and methodological principle.’

Luckily he lived during a period when curiosity about human relations was a widening field of discussion and influence, notably in the turn to social psychology and social history in academic and journalistic worlds, so that the writings of people like Langston Hughes, C.Wright Mills, Margaret Mead, Jane Jacobs, Erving Goffman, Studs Terkel, Sven Lindqvist, Richard Hoggart, Richard Titmuss, Josephine Klein and the work of many documentary photographers, were popularised and debated. The 1960s ‘Penguin Revolution’ in paperback publishing strongly aided this informal education process. When the weekly magazine New Society was started in 1962, Ward was, Scott-Brown tells us, ‘an instant fan’. In fact, many of the young writers Ward had published at Anarchy, the magazine he edited for many years, went on to write for New Society.

I first met Colin in Spring 1973, when he came to an in-service training course I attended, then an English teacher in Hackney. At that time, I and other teachers were trying to get pupils out into the streets and parks as much as possible, as well as collecting the reminiscences of their parents and grand-parents of their early lives (our keen interest not always welcomed I soon discovered). We started corresponding and became friends. Those who got to know Colin soon got to know Harriet Ward, about whom Scott-Brown writes warmly. We also shared a common enthusiasm for adventure playgrounds, as Larraine Worpole and I had been involved in setting one up in Brighton in the late 1960s.

Yet they were other times with other priorities and attachments. For example, Scott-Brown finds Ward’s sense of Englishness understandable, if today more problematic. She also draws attention to his assumption of a ‘universal human subject’, now diversified in its multiple identities as to become sociologically beyond reach. On this I am with Ward – in what Scott-Brown calls his ‘hapless everyman’ guise – not yet relinquishing the belief that there is something universal in the human condition, despite so many differences.

Memorial meeting for Colin Ward, Conway Hall, London, 10 July 2010. Photograph: Larraine Worpole

This is a terrific book, in which a writer whom I suspect never met Ward, has nevertheless portrayed him with insight and empathy. There is one Wardian understanding that I have come to value most of all, which alas is not mentioned.  That is his warning against the common assumption, particularly on the left, that ‘the social’ and ‘the political’ are one and the same thing and inter-changeable. They are not. The social is much larger, more inclusive, more porous, more informally constructed and sustained than the political – and less easily captured by vested interests. We make and unmake the social world each day, and that is why it is so flexible and resilient. Which is why for Colin the education process was a lifelong endeavour, preferably learned ‘on the job’, alongside and in co-operation with others. Scott-Brown’s study is wide-ranging, thoughtful and much to be admired.

Colin Ward and the Art of Everyday Anarchy is published by Routledge, July 2022. Buy it from your independent bookshop or order it from your local library.

New podcast: Experiments in Living

Frating Hall Farm, 1950: a pacifist community. Photographer unknown.

Colin Ward’s ideas feature in this new podcast, in which Helsinki-based writer Owen Kelly and I discuss the rise and fall, and rise again, of intentional communities or co-operative housing and work settlements. Free to listen.

Why do we keep returning to experiments in living?

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When we build again

The annual Davidson Prize for the best new ideas in housing has just been won by a small consortium including architect Charles Holland, artist Verity Jane-Keefe, the Quality of Life Foundation and Joseph Zeal-Henry. The theme of this year’s prize was co-living – more collective and flexible forms of communal housing design – and the winning team focused on rural renewal on brownfield sites. Here’s their pitch:

Rural areas in the UK suffer from a shortage of affordable housing and are overly reliant on a narrow but ubiquitous development model – often leading to atomised communities of single-family units in car-dependent cul-de-sacs.

Co-Living in the Countryside proposes instead a new type of shared, communal housing to re-invigorate rural communities and attract new and more diverse residents. Addressing community, character, governance, affordability, sustainability, employment, health and wellbeing, the design focuses on solutions for a typical site for new housing within the South Downs National Park. In a new model of co-operatively managed and owned co-housing, individual units are connected by shared facilities such as kitchens, dining rooms, offices, studios and gardens.

The idea is that residents share space, resources and household tasks including gardening and childcare, with shared space and facilities for visiting friends, extended family members and social and community use. The design aims to reduce the need for car ownership and the stress and loneliness of commuting by providing shared working spaces and transport.

A new approach to architectural language encourages owner-adaptation, customisation and personal choice as part of the design process. Takings its cue from experimental rural housing such as the plotlands and other self-build communities, the aim is to establish a new, dynamic model of co-living in the countryside.

Davidson Prize Winner 2022: Detail by kind permission of CLIC (Co-Living In the Countryside)

Both Charles Holland and Verity Jane-Keefe have been involved in a variety of Essex projects over the past decade – Charles famously with his design for Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex, and Verity for her many projects in east London, including her outstandingMobile Museum in Barking and Dagenham, one of the most exquisite celebrations of popular history in a long time.  But neither of them are resting on their laurels: each has had separate exhibitions of their own at RIBA in the past year. If Essex is the social laboratory of modern Britain, then Charles and Verity are currently in the engine-room.

This turn to the rural indicates that while theories of urban regeneration have dominated planning and social policy in recent decades, the climate crisis has refocused attention on what is happening in rural Britain, especially with regard to food production, the industrialisation of the landscape, factory farming, second home growth, the flight of young people to the cities, the pollution of rivers and seashores, and much else. This is evident in the current proliferation of books about rural regeneration: Bella Bathurst’s Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land, Marina O’Connell’s Designing Regenerative Food Systems, Dieter Helm’s Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside, John Lewis-Stempel’s The Running Hare, George Monbiot’s Regenesis, James Rebanks’ An English Pastoral, Neil Ward’s Net Zero, Food & Farming, Isabella Tree’s Wilding, amongst others. But the question left unanswered is: what about the people in rural Britain – where and how will they live?  A recent RIBA report on age-friendly housing worried that, ‘Our small towns and villages are set to become retirement communities.’ Yet much existing village infrastructure – social housing, schools, churches, care homes, libraries, shops, voluntary organisations – is going to struggle to survive with a population consisting mostly of older people or second home owners. The social mix and resilience of rural life is as much an element in the sustainability programme as land use and biodiversity.

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So much has happened in the past year since No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen. The first edition has now sold completely out and a new edition will be back in print soon. The public interest in the story has been gratifying, most recently being BBC Radio 4’s broadcast of its ‘Open Country’ programme devoted to the history of Frating Hall Farm and a nearby companion settlement, the Othona Community at Bradwell. The programme is now available here.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0019rcl

One of a variety of self-build initiatives at the Othona Community, Bradwell

Also available online now is a short film of a walk from Wivenhoe to Frating I did with artist Michael Landy, part of a series commissioned by Firstsite Gallery, with other contributors being Maria Anastassiou, Gillian Darley, and Elsa James. It was great fun to do and on the day the weather held – just. This particular walk has become rather special, and when visiting Frating, I always walk there from Wivenhoe station: trains, bikes or walking boots being all you really need to travel these days on the mainland. Michael Landy was a terrific walking companion, and the film crew enjoyed it as much as we did.

With Michael Landy at Frating Hall Farm ‘Video still courtesy of Firstsite and Aura Films.’

The lessons of Frating Hall Farm and The Othona Community suggest that if serious social and environmental changes are needed, then party politics alone cannot create, let alone sustain, the forms of collective endeavour needed to tackle the enormous problems associated with climate issues, social inequality, and a more meaningful rapprochement between town and country. The pioneers who established the Frating and Othona communities were sustained by a rich ply of political, social and religious beliefs, each one reinforcing the other. Tackling climate change is a moral issue as much as an environmental one. The title of the posting is taken from a book by Colin Ward, who would have been delighted I am sure to have been alive to catch up with all these initiatives.

KW

Under East Anglian Skies

Covid precautions and then Covid itself prevented me from getting to the ‘Life with Art: Benton End and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing’ exhibition at Firstsite Gallery in Colchester until its final week. But it was worth it. I am sure there will be much more about Benton End in the future, as the original farmhouse (including its three-acre walled garden) in Hadleigh on the Essex/Suffolk border has been bought by the Pinchbeck Foundation, and the foundation are now working with London’s Garden Museum to renew it as a meeting place for artists and gardeners and others drawn to the synergy between the two. It was after all Cedric Morris, the man who created the art school, who insisted on describinghimself as an ‘artist and plantsman’.

Benton End was not the first iteration of the bohemian, artistic enclave. In 1937 Morris and his life partner Lett Haines had opened the school in Dedham in Essex, but that burnt down in a fire in 1939. The entourage – no longer including Lucien Freud – moved across the River Stour to Hadleigh. In the Firstsite exhibition there are two vivid paintings of the burnt-out wreckage of the Dedham buildings, one by David Carr, the other by Cedric Morris. Yet as a marvellous ‘Spider Map’ drawn specially for the exhibition by Melvyn King clearly shows, the Dedham and Benton End settlements were only a small part of an extensive network of artistic, religious and political gatherings and communities across East Anglia in the first half of the twentieth century. Looking back, it was a time of enormous imaginative ferment, much of which was a profound reaction to the catastrophe of the First World War and a longing for a more pastoral way of life – and art and music.

‘Frating Barn’ by Roderic Barrett, 1943

This is the theme of a talk I’ll be giving at the Garden Museum on Tuesday, 10 May, 2022, details below. I’ll be making the case for the inclusion of the Frating Hall Farm communityinto this rich constellation. In addition to its agricultural and pacifist ambitions, it was also an important gathering place for artists, as well as writers and musicians. What many people forget that is that members of the Frating Hall Farm community –  which had emerged from The Adelphi Centre in Langham – had already established connections with Cedric Morris when he was at Dedham.  People forget too that the next door to the Adelphi Centre was the farm of the Jewish chronicler of East Anglian folklore, S.L.Bensusan, whose sister Esther hadmarried Lucien Pissarro, who also lived and painted there. Artists such as Roderic Barrett and John Vostatek both worked and painted as part of the Frating community.

At some point, and most probably on a number of occasions, the paths of Cedric Morris, Lett Haines, John Nash, John Middleton Murry, Vera Brittain, Lucien Pissarro, Imogen Holst, Roderic Barrett, Jack Common, George Orwell, Ronald Blythe, Beth Chatto and Shirley Williams, Maggi Hambling, and many others, crossed, supporting and taking strength from the energy and work of each other.  London was still, for a lot of the time, even then, another country.

Under East Anglian Skies: the back-to-the land movement amongst artists and intellectuals between the wars

A talk by writer and social historian, Ken Worpole

Tuesday, 10 May 2022 (7pm- 8pm)

The Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road, London, SE1 7LB

Tel: 020 7401 8865

For booking and further information: https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/events/ken-worpole-under-east-anglian-skies/

If on a winter’s night: Raymond Williams in Hackney

Raymond Williams, White Cottage, Hardwick, Cambridgeshire, 1969

Almost exactly forty years ago, on the 8th of January 1982, the writer and critic Raymond Williams gave a talk for the Hackney Workers’ Educational Association on the subject,‘Popular Forms of Writing’. It was a great scoop to have got him as a guest lecturer, but Williams was generous in this regard, as many came to know. Less lucky that evening were the conditions. Early that afternoon a scattering of snow turned into a full-blown blizzard, of the sort that led to train cancellations, cars stuck in snowdrifts, and an eerie silence in the gloomy, sodium-lit streets of Dalston. The talk was held in the unheated basement of the Centerprise community bookshop, which in the daytime was used as an Under-5s nursery, but when the play equipment was packed up could be used in the evening for events.

Raymond and his wife, Joy, were wholly unperturbed by this or the scratch meal we gave them beforehand. Starting on time, Williams spoke for exactly an hour without notes to a wet, bedraggled but intent audience, creating one of those evenings you remember for the rest of your life. After questions, now standing in the driving snow on Kingsland High Street, we finally managed to flag down a taxi, and Raymond and Joy disappeared into a snowstorm, heading towards Liverpool Street Station and the train back to Cambridge. Everybody else went to the pub.

Just over a year ago I got an email from Phil O’Brien, Secretary of The Raymond Williams Society, telling me he was editing a collection of unpublished talks and essays by Williams, one of which – to my surprise – was based on that talk. Unknown at the time it had been recorded, presumably by Joy, and discovered only recently. The book has now been published by Verso, Culture and Politics, with the Hackney lecture included.

The talk given that night in Hackney is now one of ten newly published essays. To my mind it has an unusual, engaging directness, opening with a warm and dry-witted reference to the conditions of the talk and its unusual venue. I am sure it is the only essay of Williams that starts with an observation on the weather – remarking on the railway station notice referring to ‘due to adverse conditions’ – and going from there to develop a close exploration between formulaic official language, forms of writing, and the complicated relationship between writing and speech.

In this warm tribute to the circumstances of its radical bookselling and publishing setting, Williams went on to address many of the questions raised by the community publishing movement in the 1970s, in which Centerprise was involved, focusing on the relationship between speech and the printed word, which the Ruskin oral history movement had highlighted at this time but which was becoming fraught and contested.

Everybody learns to speak and to listen to other people speaking within familiar communities, without needing any formal instruction, Williams began. The problems start when you try to give that speech the ‘authority of print’, and then all kinds of cultural and political taboos come into play. He referred to the work of the poet John Clare, the gifted poet and close observer of the natural world, whose spelling and punctuation were condemned at the time as evidence of stupidity. There were also major barriers in the field of fiction, where the novel was highly formalised around certain plot devices – false inheritances, arranged marriages, fake wills, virtuous women compromised by scheming parvenus – which made a novel set in a close-knit, working class community unthinkable, formally regarded as having no narrative drama. Hence, Williams said, while we have extremely well-written working-class autobiographies in the 19th century, we have no novels.

Yet, as in some of those novels of hope delayed, the cassette tape recording of Williams speaking re-appeared after forty years, and like the mislaid letter in Middlemarch, it all moves on again.

KW

Special price offer on Culture and Politics, edited by Phil O’Brien: https://www.versobooks.com/books/3824-culture-and-politics

More news from Frating Hall Farm

Following the publication of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain in May 2021, I was contacted by a number of people who had read the book and were keen to tell me more, as well as share letters and other documents in the possession of their families. What follows is an extract from a short essay now published in Rural History Today, the journal of the British Agricultural History Society, a link to which is given at the end for those who want to read the whole piece. Many thanks to Rebecca Ford for commissioning this essay.

In the Autumn of 1950, a young Cambridge graduate, Helen Johnson, went to work as a volunteer at Frating Hall Farm in Essex, a long-established farm close to Wivenhoe on the River Colne, acquired by a group of Christian pacifists in 1943 in order to establish a communal settlement. While there she wrote a series of long letters to her fiancée, Arthur Fox, describing daily life on the farm, including the people she met there, the potato picking and roof-thatching, the political and religious discussions, the harvest festivals, choir concerts and barn dances.

These letters came to light in the summer of 2021, when her son, Andrew Fox, recognised his mother on the cover of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen and got in touch. The book was an oral and documentary history of the farm and its idealistic members during its eleven-year occupation, as well as a discussion of the passionate religious and political ideals of the back-to-the-land movement in wartime and post-war rural England. I was not aware of Helen Johnson’s letters until after publication. Fortunately, the story they told endorsed my own understanding of the community’s fascinating history: a life of hard work, hard winters, redeemed by deep and lasting friendships, wonderful communal meals and harvest suppers, closeness to the natural world, and a feeling of internationalism even on such a small stage.

Frating Hall Farm 1950. Helen Johnson is the young woman on the right on the potato-planter; the woman on the left is the young Shirley Williams.

Although I had written about some of the volunteers from abroad who came to support the farm, especially during harvest time, I was unaware of how important a part they played or where they had come from. Helen’s letter to Arthur on Wednesday, 23 August, 1950, reveals all:

‘The visitors this time are all perfectly normal. There’s Jeanne’s mother and sister, and the mother I think is as sweet as Jeanne herself, and Anna, a Dutch schoolmistress who comes here quite often, so Dutch is practically the official language.  Then there’s Margaret, a German girl, a student at Heidelberg, called Gisela, and myself.  Looking around the table the other day I noticed that there were only 6 English to 7 non-English people present, 4 Dutch, 1 German, 1 Austrian and 1 Czech.’

For most of the time, Helen worked out in the fields, often in the company of women from the village paid to help with the vegetable picking.  But there were more delightful tasks too. Here she writes of the Hall’s generous kitchen garden:

‘In the afternoon most people went into Colchester, but I sat out in the garden in the sun, helping Irene to bottle plums. She had 56lbs to do, and we got through ¾ of them, which wasn’t bad going.  She also took me round the kitchen garden by way of a break.  They have a lovely old walled vegetable garden, of which David attends to the vegetable half and Irene to the fruit half. David’s half is beautifully tidy, because Mrs Heckmann did quite a lot of weeding in it but Irene’s, though, not nearly so tidy, has all sorts of exciting things in. There are already peaches, pears, plums and nectarines growing against the wall, and she’s put in a whole lot of new ones, and some figs, vines and apricots as well. She’s also got an apple cordon planted and a new strawberry bed set out, so there should be all sorts of good things in the years to come.’

The cultural life of the Frating community seemed to have compensated for all the hard work, as well as overcoming some of the personal differences among those who lived there. The Harvest suppers in the great barn were remembered fondly by everybody, as were the choral concerts and plays. The members’ amateur efforts were sometimes augmented by those of the talented summer visitors who flocked to Frating to help with the harvest, including a number of notable writers and musicians.

Johnson writes wryly about some of the visitors who came to Frating, believing that paradise had already been achieved. They were soon brought down to earth after a few days of cabbage-lifting in the rain. In another of her letters to Arthur, Helen pens one of the most lucid and insightful passages I’ve read about that most difficult of arts: the art of living together in harmony.

‘It’s a sad thing in a way that the people with great ideas about communities are usually much worse fitters-in than the ordinary people without any theories who just like living at Frating Hall, or even spending their holidays there. I wonder if it’s just because the people who’re good at living in communities all do live in lots of them, in families and streets and colleges and factories and churches and clubs, and all the other places where people have common interests and a sense of loyalty to one another, and consequently rarely bother to evolve theories on the subject. Certainly, I have a feeling that the more Frating does feel like a community, and the more its individual members fit in, the less they’re interested or bothered with theories of what the place is for or about’.

I am grateful to Helen’s sons, Andrew Fox and Robin Fox, for sharing these letters with me and the surviving members of the Frating community. Still a young woman of twenty-five when she began writing them, her letters are full of life and curiosity – keen to learn about other people, keen to understand how the world works, and to play her full part in it. They are also wholly attentive to the pleasures of the natural world and to the seasonal pageant of rural life – and an unexpected gift to rural history.

For the full version of the essay in Rural Life Today go to: https://www.bahs.org.uk/RHT/RHT%20issue%2042.pdf

KW

No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain, is published by Little Toller Books. £14.

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.

KW

Links:

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.

K.W.

To watch ‘Unfamiliar Territories’, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppBm44KLwos

 

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: https://beachofdreams.co.uk

To read Kevin Rushby’s blog-post: https://kinetika.co.uk/bradwell-to-burnham-on-crouch

To follow the illustrated journey day by day: https://arcg.is/1OXPiP0

K.W.

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.

KW

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

littletoller.co.uk/shop/books/little-toller/no-matter-how-many-skies-have-fallen-by-ken-worpole/

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