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.

Month: August, 2014

Seaside Surrealism

Studland Bay_001

Studland Bay, Isle of Purbeck (2011)

Towards the end of a cycling holiday in Dorset and Somerset some years ago, our small group spent the last night at Castle Corfe, arriving in heavy rain. The morning after was perfect sunshine and the castle itself appeared like something from a fairy tale. Further visual derangement was to come. Piling the bikes in the guard’s van of the early morning steam train to the nearby seaside resort of Swanage, we discovered the carriages teeming with vintage train enthusiasts celebrating a local railway anniversary, as well as crowds of Morris Men, many blacked-up and covered in ribbons and bells, attending an international folk dance festival. The whole morning was like an extended scene from a 1950s film by Powell & Pressburger.

At the time none of us appreciated that Swanage and the Purbeck peninsula was the home ground of English surrealism. This was largely as a result of the influential photographs and paintings of Paul Nash, whose disturbing landscapes and found images made a great impression when they first appeared, and remain much admired to this day. There had been an even earlier pioneer in the re-fabrication of the Swanage townscape in the form of a Victorian builder and developer, George Burt, who had imported and integrated into the town’s parks, streets and seafront parade, an eccentric range of London clock-towers, streetlights, and architectural follies. Landscape historian, David Lambert, once devoted a fascinating essay, ‘Durlston Park and House: the Public and Private Realms of George Burt, King of Swanage’, in the New Arcadian Journal, 45-46 (1998), sympathetic to Burt but less so to Nash, whom he found guilty of lèse-majesté.

Nash and Burt (as well as Lambert’s essay) feature prominently in James Wilkes’ engaging study, A Fractured Landscape of Modernity: Culture and Conflict in the Isle of Purbeck, which, despite its geographical particularity, has much of interest to say about 20th century English visual and topographical culture. The 21st century branding of this stretch of southern England as the ‘Jurassic Coast’, has now brought into play a complicated admixture of the geological, the industrial (for stone quarrying has been the major form of employment in these parts), the militaristic, and a New Romantic aesthetic, all of which Wilkes explores deftly.

The author opens with a stunning example of morphological resonance, setting a photograph of a bathing tent used by Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on Studland Beach – in the shape of a cube surmounted by a pyramid – anticipating exactly the same form as the anti-tank blocks constructed in situ at the outbreak of the Second World War. (Imagine if you will, a tent designed for a medieval knight about to enter a jousting competition). Many other correspondences follow, folded within the envelope of ‘Seaside surrealism’, the title of an essay Nash wrote for the Architectural Review in 1936, around the same time John Piper published his influential essay, ‘Abstraction on the Beach’ – also in the Architectural Review.

Proper acknowledgement is made to Patrick Wright, who opened up this particular territory in his book, The Village That Died for England, especially in its military and bio-warfare encroachments on the landscape. Studland Bay remains a place of particular social conflict, rather less dangerous but still offensive to many, as a battleground for morality between nudists, holiday-makers, and sun-seekers keen on al fresco sex. So many contradictory impulses always seem to gather on the shoreline (or by the river). Published as an academic monograph, the price of which, alas, makes it really only available to library readers, Wilkes’ study is written with flair, and full of interesting ideas and cross-currents.



Going Dutch: 21st Century Parks


There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the parks world following the recent publication of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s State of UK Public Parks report detailing drastic local authority cuts to park budgets and staffing numbers. These result from the national government’s clampdown on council spending. Sadly this follows an undisputed park renaissance in Britain over the past two decades, thanks to nearly £700 million HLF money, and a concomitant rise in political support for parks and green spaces amongst municipal politicians – particularly elected mayors.

Not all news is bad news, however. A very good report has just been published jointly by UK and Dutch local authority members of a European Union programme, called Park for the Future: A Best Practice Guide for the 21st CenturyIt is full of ideas, enthusiasm and intellectual verve, and is just what is needed at this time.

The starting point for renewal, its authors argue, is that increasing numbers of cities around the world are keen to establish their credentials as ‘green cities’. This means that, at the very least, they are in the process of documenting and monitoring the parks and green spaces they already have, and are working out how these ancient commons, allotments, cemeteries, brownfield sites, rivers and canals, along with discrete bits and pieces of left-over land – as well as the major historic parks – can be mapped and developed as an integrated network. Such a mapping process is a pre-condition of the strategic development of walking and cycling routes, ambient temperature moderation, air quality improvement, water retention and urban drainage, and other environmental impacts by which green space enriches the urban fabric. Such ideas were first promulgated in important books such as Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Granite Garden (1984) and Michael Hough’s Cities and Natural Process (1995).

Seeing park systems as ‘urban green infrastructure’, let alone ‘multi-functional green infrastructure’, is hardly the stuff of poetry. The language goes against the grain – and the sensibilities – of English thinking about landscape and garden history, the vocabulary and aesthetic of which is dominated by the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) and the frictionless picturesque. By contrast, and for a very long time now, Scandinavian, Dutch and North America landscape architects – less weighed down by history perhaps – have found themselves concentrating on public works (rather than private gardens), using major landscape projects to shape and manage large areas of suburban, post-industrial and coastal terrain, combining aesthetic and environmental objectives. In Sweden, for example, linear parks connecting the suburbs to city centres, as walking and cycling routes, were already established by the end of the 1930s.

So should we be going Dutch? Probably yes. While Park for the Future provides imaginative case studies of European park innovation – from Promenade Plantée in Paris to Duisburg-Nord in the Ruhr Valley, and from new Dutch cemeteries to urban allotments in Ghent – the report fully acknowledges and pays tribute to the invaluable national and international research into park use, park economics and park typologies developed by the UK’s CABE Space in its all too brief life before the Coalition government closed it down. Interestingly the two local authorities instigating the Anglo-Dutch report, Rother District Council on England’s south coast, and Oostend on the Netherlands seaboard, are both coastal authorities where timely thinking about land erosion, water management, linearity and public recreation feature prominently. Both have developed impressive masterplans for integrating their respective coastlines into seamless parkland.

District parks indicative deficiency area map. Map reproduced with kind permission from the Regeneration Team at the Greater London Authority.

District parks indicative deficiency area map. Map reproduced with kind permission from the Regeneration Team at the Greater London Authority.

It can also be done on a much larger scale. The Mayor of London’s 2012 Supplementary Planning Guidance report, Green Infrastructure and Open Environments: The All London Green Grid, demonstrates this in great detail (and to which Jason and I separately contributed). The Guidance is the result of years of mapping all London’s extant green spaces, rivers, canals, flood plains, inter-tidal zones, areas of green space deficiency, development land, bringing into clear visual focus where new connections and networks might strategically best be located to enhance bio-diversity, non-motorised travel and recreation and flood relief, while addressing hot spots of air pollution, and even potential areas for urban agriculture. Of course ‘the map is not the territory’, and too often such strategic planning proposals gather dust on the shelf. But one hopes that there is now enough momentum in support of urban greening to prevent this happening.

River Lea, Queen Elizabeth Park, London (2012)

One final observation. Some years ago I heard American landscape architect George Hargreaves – subsequently involved in the London Olympic Park project – speak at a conference in Rotterdam on the future of new park systems. In his opinion any substantial landscape project which fails to foreground the management of the urban water cycle in all its forms is not worth embarking upon. The Olympic Park doubtlessly achieved this, even if it simultaneously obliterated many historical traces of the original landscape and its complex social history. But that’s another story for another time.

This posting is based on a talk given at a recent seminar organised by the Living Maps project.


%d bloggers like this: