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.

Category: Event, Talk, Literature and Books, Landscape, Topography, Social History

After the rain

Last week Nick D. and I cycled from Woodbridge in Suffolk to Cromer in Norfolk over three leisurely days, staying overnight in Southwold, Great Yarmouth and Cromer, before heading back to London by train. It had been planned several months before, irrespective of weather conditions, though our past October jaunts have all been remarkably warm and sunny. The weekend before the trip, however, the east coast had been battered by high winds, driving rain and flash flooding. As it turned out our luck held once again and we cycled dry for the whole journey, with only one serious obstacle.

On the B1127 from Southwold to Wrentham we came to a short length of flooded road at Potter’s Bridge that was impassable by bike. The road crosses an area of marshland and shallow river courses near Rough Walks which terminate in the Eastern Broad, one of several freshwater lagoons along the coast close to the hamlet of Covehithe, parts of which have already been lost to the sea. On both sides of the road the long grass embankment and the marshes beyond were still under water, and the road itself was like a river in flood. Car traffic queued to take turns in aquaplaning along the centre of the river and we were briefly flummoxed at what to do. There was no alternative route. We tapped on the window of a large white courier van waiting in the queue and asked if he had room for us and the two bikes. No problem, he said, and he ferried us cheerfully to the other side.

It had not been the intention to turn the trip into a study of coastal erosion or excessive weather conditions, but it soon became obvious that we were in vulnerable territory. The sandy cliffs of Covehithe were slowly being eaten away, and elsewhere hand-made signs planted on cliff edges warned walkers of dangers ahead on unstable footpaths. At Happisburgh we had a sandwich lunch in the Hill House pub, located on a promontory overlooking the North Sea, behind which the once thriving caravan park had been abandoned to erosion, and was now being unceremoniously cleared of the remains. The owners of the guest-house we stayed in at Great Yarmouth told us that only three days before Yarmouth and neighbouring Gorleston-on-Sea had both been badly flooded by heavy and prolonged rainfall, with the streets under water and manhole covers lifted from their casings by the strength of the overflowing drains.

The erosion at Covehithe and Happisburgh reminded me of a film shown some years ago at one of the annual ‘Place’ weekends at Snape Maltings devoted to landscape matters, curated by the estimable Gareth Evans. Called Lines of Defence, it was made by artist Bettina Furnée, who had planted 38 flags in five lines at regular distances from the existing cliff edge at Bawdsey in Suffolk. She had then set up a camera that photographed the promontory every 15 minutes for a whole year. The still frames were then sequenced as a time-release film, graphically recording the relentless erosion of the cliff, as every few minutes another tranche of field fell into the sea.

Timely, then, that Gareth Evans is back on the scene and helping curate this year’s Flipside Festival at Henham in Suffolk with Festival Director Genevieve Christie, where, rather appropriately, writer Edward Platt will be talking about his new book, The Great Flood: Travels Through a Sodden Landscape. The programme also includes musicians Laura Cannell and Polly Wright, writers George Szirtes, Julia Blackburn, Jon Day and Robert Macfarlane, composers such as Mira Calix and Joanna Pocock, plus films and live music, and is a worthy successor to the earlier Snape gatherings. Think of them – and now Flipside – as East Anglia’s answer to Black Mountain College, and in my opinion just as influential over this past decade or more. Unmissable.

On our last afternoon cycling, and wearied by being buffeted about by strong winds, Nick and I stopped by the churchyard in Paston, Norfolk, for a rest, both soon falling asleep. On waking we investigated the church and found to our great delight that it had been the place of worship of the Paston family in the 15th century, credited with inventing the tradition of the domestic or familial letter. Their correspondence was kept safe for many centuries, and is now a great treasure-house for literary historians. Since Nick and I both trained to be English teachers in the 1960s, we suddenly felt in that dusty church to be directly in touch with a great literary source, as comments in the visitor’s book from around the world confirmed. Unlike Philip Larkin, however, we could not take off our cycle clips in reverence, as we were both wearing lycra tights, the advantages of which the poet sadly did not live long enough to enjoy.


For more details of the Flipside Festival:

For more details of Bettina Furnée’s film, Lines of Defence:

From Limehouse to Loughton – geographies of the social, and geographies of the self


Epping Forest

‘Landscape may have no plot,’ the Irish novelist Anne Enright said in a recent interview in The Guardian, ‘but it has much by way of revelation.’ To walk or cycle out from Mile End to Epping Forest and then on to Loughton is, for those who are interested in the social history of East London and its relationship to suburban Essex, a journey haunted by the ghosts and standing stones of a tumultuous political and evangelical past.

My mother was born and grew up in Bloomfield Road, Mile End, and the two diaries she kept for 1931 and 1932, working as a clerk for the Inland Revenue, are filled with the names of the mission halls, church clubs, music halls, speedway stadiums, dance-halls, and night-classes she attended. My father, growing up close by in Stratford, retained a lifelong respect for The Salvation Army who stood their ground and took their gospel to streets and pubs where few other religions were prepared to go.

The East End was a forcing house of social experimentation, as reformers of all hues sought to leaven the poverty and over-crowding of hundreds of pinched terraced streets, with visions of a better life to come, if not in this world then certainly the next. My maternal grandfather’s brother, James, of 16 Anchor Street, Limehouse, was given a Bible by the ‘Association for the Free Distribution of the Scriptures’, in 1891, which I still have, and later took night classes in accounting at The People’s Palace; his daughter won a scholarship to Raine’s School but had to leave prematurely in order to earn a living.

The roads and pavements which led from Mile End out into the woodlands of Epping, Woodford and the Essex Weald were much travelled physically as well as emotionally. The young Isaac Rosenberg often walked all night with his friends from Whitechapel into Epping Forest simply to be in the countryside, returning tired but emotionally fulfilled at dawn. Sunday school outings to ‘Lousy Loughton’, as it was sometimes called – though the town itself was rather posh – was a common experience for the Hackney residents I interviewed in the 1970s for an oral history project, ‘A People’s Autobiography of Hackney’.

With geographical distance came changing ‘structures of feeling’, to quote Raymond Williams’ incisive phrase to describe how mentalities are structured by social and cultural settings. The historian Seth Kovan echoes this in his engaging book, The Match Girl and The Heiress, a study of how a wealthy young woman, Muriel Lester, living prosperously in Loughton, chose for religious reasons to devote her life to the poor of Bow. There she developed a life-changing relationship with a young woman working in a match factory, Nellie Dowell, and in the process spent her life trying to reconcile ‘two competing geographies of self’, as she moved between high-minded Arts and Crafts splendour with tennis courts and gardeners, and a shared, damp terrace house in Bow.

Kovan’s book is finely researched and detailed as it traces the cross-fertilisation of nonconformist religious movements with those of the early socialist, pacifist and suffragette elements of East London’s political radicalism, which came together in notions of the ‘New Life’ to come – many were keen followers of Tolstoy’s advocacy of purity of heart and pocket – thus giving lie to the widely held belief amongst late Victorian and early Edwardian reformers that the East End was, in the words of one, a ‘moral sahara’. The complicated geography of paternalist reform was evident in the many philanthropic institutions, one of which called itself the Regions Beyond Inland Mission. You would need a very unusual map to locate that moral location.


Muriel Lister helped establish Kingsley Hall in Bow in 1929, which was named after her brother Kingsley Lister, who died young. The Hall, designed by Charles Cowles-Voysey, was a gathering place for many different kinds of organisations and idealists, and also became a conduit for ideas from a variety of Eastern philosophies, greatly influencing the cult of Theosophy, to which Annie Besant, leader of the matchgirls’ strike, Poplar Council leader, George Lansbury, and other east London political activists were attracted. The Hall gained international fame as the place where Mahatma Gandhi chose to stay for ten weeks in 1931 when he visited Britain, and where he walked along the nearby River Lee or Limehouse Cut every morning after prayers, talking to the workers. In the 1960s it became a home for R.D.Laing’s anti-psychiatry movement.


There is much work to be done on landscape, or place, as a holding station or way station in the transmission of social ideals and values, whether as a result of voluntary migration, re-settlement, or planning policy. For with these re-locations, also comes the ebb and flow of religious and social institutions. Though the distance from Bow to Loughton was less than ten miles, they were, and remain, separate planets, a sentiment once suggested by Jewish writer, Emanual Litvinoff, when he called his exquisite East End memoir, Journey Through a Small Planet (1972). Geography, as we know, is history.

KW/Epping Forest © Jason Orton

Gillian Darley, Patrick Wright and Ken will be discussing ‘The Suburbs and the New Life’, at Doughnut: The Outer London Conference at Greenwich University on Saturday, 5 September 2015. For more details:

Dig where you stand


Ponders End Allotments, London (1997)

Last week the Royal Horticultural Society published a depressing report on the loss of front gardens, now paved over for car parking. More than five million UK front gardens are now devoid of plants and more than twelve million have been hard-surfaced. A nation of gardeners has become a nation of garagistes. A few years ago I accompanied writer Bob Gilbert on one of his walks for a new edition of his London walking guide, and in suburban London we often found ourselves walking down streets which resembled a line of car showrooms or forecourts. Keeping up with the Joneses no longer means making sure the roses haven’t got blackfly, but proudly displaying this year’s car registration plates. As to what’s happening in the back garden, who knows?

Not only is this damaging the environment, especially in London where the majority of trees are still in private gardens, and where the craze for concrete is apparently at its worst, but it also represents a blow to urban civility. For a well-tended front garden was once a gift to the neighbourhood, an important piece of social altruism, which refuted the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ (whereby people only secure their own interests), and signalled a powerful contribution to collective well-being and amenity.

The passion for gardening has fluctuated in modern times, and we may yet see the return of the front garden, but possibly in a different form. This is the argument of historian Margaret Willes, who in her wonderful history, The Gardens of the British Working Class, charts the changing enthusiasm for different kinds of plants and styles of garden over the centuries, interspersed with periods of indifference, or the pursuit of other interests. Unsurprisingly, the passion for gardening is directly related to what is happening in the way people are housed. Today, with increased insecurity of tenure in private housing, and the increasing frequency with which owner-occupiers move as they climb the housing ladder, there may be fewer incentives in maintaining a well-tended garden – especially if there are several family cars to find room for away from the road.

Willes writes that whenever she told people she was writing a book about working class gardens their immediate response was – ‘Do you mean allotments?’ While never under-estimating the importance which allotments have played in millions of people’s lives over the past 150 years – and still do – the focus of Willes’ encyclopaedic study is more on the ornamental and floral traditions, through which people have expressed their interest and love in cultivating flowers and designing their own gardens. She cites the strong traditions which existed amongst the 18th century Spitalfields and Paisley weavers, the Durham and Northumberland miners, and the Sheffield cutlers, for perfecting their small gardens – though they also grew vegetables too when they could. Many succeeded, in learning enough Latin to be able to study technical treatises on plant propagation.

The rise of the public park, including the creation of specialist botanical gardens, met both recreational and pedagogic needs, with trees, shrubs and flowers often labelled with both Latin and vernacular names (my local park, Clissold Park, still has one tree bearing a pre-war metal identifying plaque). Park managers soon became aware that ‘the great unwashed’ were often as learned in the matters of horticultural good-practice as their own professional staff. Flower shows proliferated across the villages, towns and cities of Britain, becoming a high point of the annual calendar, and at the end of the Second World War some two-thirds of the population claimed to do some gardening. With the advent of the high-rise council estate, window boxes began to feature prominently in local floral competitions.

The passion for gardening had its critics. The Chartists suspected the provision of allotments was designed to distract the urban working classes from the political struggles still to be had, whereas the charismatic leader of the agricultural workers’ union, Joseph Arch, is reported as saying approvingly, ‘The garden is a starting point of the land question.’ Neville Chamberlain thought allotments turned potential revolutionaries into citizens, and regarded the enthusiasm of the Yorkshire miners for their gardens as ‘an antidote to Bolshevism’. By contrast, the wayward artist-gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay, once hoped that, ‘Garden centres must become the Jacobin clubs of the new revolution.’

Such tensions over garden ideals still simmer: the most bitter fight over the land-grab that became the 2012 Olympic Park in east London, concerned the levelling of the historic Manor Gardens, an allotment site in Hackney which had been a focal point for local gardening enthusiasts for more than a hundred years.

Willes’ history concentrates on the people who gardened for themselves and for others, for reasons of utility (and employment) as well as for recreation and sheer pleasure. Her focus is on the cottage garden, the suburban garden, the allotment, and those who worked in the gardens of the great country houses. The book concludes with the coming of the world of TV and celebrity gardening, where the instant make-over or the low-maintenance patio garden comes to the fore, artfully disguising the lack of serious horticultural or ecological implications (and therefore denaturing) of such quick-fixes.

It would be wonderful if she continued the long history she has started, and at some point in the future investigates that most mysterious of spaces, the suburban back garden, so often only fleetingly seen from the window of the train: its promiscuous and eccentric bricolage of sheds, trellises, washing lines, bikes, work-stations, trampolines, play-houses, sun-decks, paddling pools, ornamental water features, fruit trees and cabbage patches, still remains to be properly explored.

KW/Ponders End Allotment photograph ©Jason Orton






A People’s History of Gardening

Stoke Newington Literary Festival, St Mary’s Old Church, Stoke Newington, London N16. Sunday, 7 June 2015 at 1pm £4 (booking advised)

Margaret Willes’ The Gardens of the British Working Class, is already acclaimed as a masterpiece of social history. The book covers cottage gardens, communist settlements, allotments, herbals, window boxes, gardens in war and peace, flower shows, therapeutic gardening, and many other topics in a long historical sweep.  She will be in conversation with Ken Worpole on these and many other matters.