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: October, 2015

Just published, New Jerusalem: the good city and the good society, by Ken Worpole

Worpole New Jerusalem cover

On 3 December 1898, at Rectory Road Congregational Church in Stoke Newington, London, Ebenezer Howard (1850 – 1928) gave his first public lecture following the publication of To-Morrow! A Peaceful Path to Real Reform six weeks earlier. Republished in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-Morrow, this was soon to become one of the most influential town planning documents of the twentieth-century. The book was a clarion call for a new world order, replacing the urban slums with garden cities.

Howard was an enthusiastic member of an idealistic late-Victorian network of intellectuals and campaigners calling for social reform during a politically and intellectually tumultuous period. A mild-mannered man, he nevertheless mixed with individuals and organisations wide-ranging in their ‘progressive’ beliefs and affiliations, ranging from muscular Christianity to revolutionary socialism, from spiritualism to dress and dietary reform, from women’s property rights to the cause of anti-vivisection, and from Darwinism to ‘back to the land’ agrarianism.

One of Howard’s friends was the pioneering evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 – 1913) who, like Howard, was a member of The Brotherhood Church, attending services and lectures at its chapel at the junction of Southgate Road and Balmes Road in Hackney. According to Maxim Gorky, this ‘ridiculously shabby wooden church’ was large enough in 1907 to hold 338 members of the exiled Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which held its Fifth Congress there, its delegates including Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Rosa Luxemburg. The Brotherhood Church was a Christian sect established in the 1880s, with strong socialist and Tolstoyan leanings, and much given to issues of social reform.

In his early days Russel Wallace had been a land surveyor, a fervent advocate of land reform; in 1881 he had been active in establishing the Land Nationalisation Society. Land ownership was a key issue for this and earlier generations of radical reformers, many influenced by the ideas of 18th century radical, Thomas Spence, who held that all agricultural land be held and cultivated in common. Howard was firmly persuaded by Spence’s ideas, regarding the principle of settlements being built on land owned and managed by autonomous self-governing communities as ‘the secular counterparts of the dissenting congregations Howard knew so well,’ according to biographer Stanley Buder.

Public or communal ownership of land, along with development rights and the capturing and redeployment of increases in land values to pay for collective amenities, were to become key principles of the garden city movement, ideas now being revived again today as the price of land accelerates inequalities and unravels established neighbourhoods and public housing policies in a property development free-for-all…

These are the opening paragraphs of Ken’s new book, New Jerusalem: The Good City and The Good Society, published by The Swedenborg Society. It deals with a range of models of town and estate planning in the 20th and 21st centuries, especially those which seek to overcome the increasingly redundant division between ‘town’ and ‘country’, in a networked world in which more women than men go to work in some UK cities, more people work at home, more people live on their own, and more forms of settlement are needed which allow greater flexibility of lifestyles, shared amenities, mutual support and co-operative management.

Copies of the book, which costs £6.95, can be ordered from:

Ken will launch and talk about his new book at Clissold House, Stoke Newington, London on Sunday, 8 November 2015 (2pm doors open for a 2.30pm talk). Tickets for the talk are £4 (including glass of wine). Ticket information at



Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide


Graham Swift’s 1983 novel, Waterland, changed perceptions of the Norfolk Broads from that of a carefree interlaken of summer boating lagoons, to a grimmer network of bleak dykes and lonely hamlets, isolated between the fens and the sea. Very flat, Norfolk, was Noel Coward’s dismissive ventriloquism, but in his engaging collection of literary postcards from home, The Regional Book, the cultural geographer David Matless gathers support from Georges Perec’s injunction to ‘Force yourself to see more flatly’.

Matless is rightly admired for his near-definitive, Landscape and Englishness, first published in 1998 (rumoured to be back in print again next year in a new edition), and ever since a rich resource for anybody interested in the social history of landscape. The Regional Book is rather different, and much more allusive, a gazetteer of 44 Norfolk places, each described in telegraphese, halfway in style between Pevsner and the poet Roy Fuller. It is very persuasive.

The frequent re-iteration of similar viewpoints and settings evokes a landscape where the historic infrastructure of canals, dykes, navigations, cuts, sluices and locks, slipways and quays, reedbeds and saltwater creeks, still dominates the experience of place, perhaps more than anywhere else in England. Furthermore, since water transport is largely for leisure purposes today – as well as being seasonal – for most times of the year the Fens and the Broads remain under-populated, with in Matless’s words, ‘a past in league, a present in trust.’ That past is this watery world of former medieval peat excavations, shallow but flooded ever since, and interwoven with the rivers Ant, Bure, Thurne, Waveney and Yare. Although ‘the Broads’ became an important element in the post-war landscape of Englishness, it needed Matless to venture beyond the benign sun-dappled shallows to discover a more mysterious, complicated terrain where nothing can remain hidden for very long.

The spare, enigmatic prose style – something of a house style for its publisher, the small but perfectly formed Uniformbooks – reminded me of one of John Cowper Powys’s lesser known novels, and the only one set in East Anglia, Rodmoor. First published in America in 1916 but for some strange reason not issued in England until 1973, it too is permeated by rivers and tidal waters, and the constant flooding, draining and re-flooding of place and memory. Despite a bizarre accumulation of characters and plotlines, part King Lear, part Cold Comfort Farm, Rodmoor succeeds best as a disturbing evocation of East Anglia, taking the yellow-horned poppy as its totem, and with admiring references to the Norwich school of painters and the hallucinatory, destabilising inter-relationship between marsh, sky and sea. At one point one of the characters, Nance, asks why ‘there is always something horrible about tidal rivers? Is it because of the way they have of carrying things backward and forward, backward and forward, without ever allowing them either to get far inland or clear out to sea. Is a tidal river the one thing in all the world in which nothing can be lost or hidden or forgotten?’

It is this recursive, refractory nature of the East Anglian fens and marshlands that make them the ideal landscape for the return of the repressed, most recently given another outing in the film, 45 Years. The film is set close to Norwich, in a wintry landscape, employing that Sebaldian device – first used in The Emigrants – whereby a letter arrives informing the principal characters that a body lost to the mountain ice decades earlier has been returned to the surface still perfectly formed, thus bringing about the painful unraveling of once solid assumptions and understandings.

Matless first raised the flag for the Norfolk Broads in the opening section of Landscape and Englishness, defending the chalets and shacks of inter-war holiday-making against the claims of the heritage police as to what was considered appropriate or inappropriate development in such a singular landscape. It required the rise of cultural geography to make the case for the vernacular landscape as a field of localised habitation, places where men and women have created a home for themselves in the world, and especially where it still remains possible to live differently because of what Powys described as ‘the illimitable space around…as boundless as infinity.’


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