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: Literature and Books, Architecture, Planning, Social History, Social Housing, Photography

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:

Live and let live


Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013 by Jason Orton

The battle over the ‘true heart’ of Essex – the words are those of novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner – continues. In his surprisingly approving review in The New Statesman of the recently published book Radical Essex, conservative historian and journalist Simon Heffer nevertheless still wants to claim the county as inherently individualistic and materialistic. If this were truly the case, consider two aspects of Essex history that question this assumption.

Firstly, the extraordinary story of public spiritedness and collective endeavor by which tens of thousands of people rallied to help others, often at great risk to their own lives, on the terrible night of the January 31st, 1953 flood. This spontaneous mobilisation has been minutely chronicled by Hilda Grieve in The Great Tide. As she reveals, the county’s population was at that time deeply embedded within an enormous range of voluntary organisations. These included the churches, the trade unions (the National Union of Railwaymen was especially active that night and during the following days), as well as the Women’s Voluntary Service, Civil Defence, Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance Brigade, Scouts and Guides groups. All of them – along with the emergency services, local government officers and workers of all ranks – responded to the crisis without a second thought to their personal risk or well-being. Grieve’s book is certainly one of the great works of 20th century English social history, and is a compelling story of human solidarity and mutual aid in the face of catastophe.

Secondly, if possessive individualism were so entrenched, why would Essex today be the home of one of the most long-established and successful County Wildlife Trusts, with an unparalleled record in nature conservation involving thousands of volunteers on a record number of sites? Essex has also provided a home for many other pioneering initiatives in land settlement, along with innovative industrial and housing communities, not to a mention, finally, a singular penchant for religious heterodoxy and enthusiasm. The reality is that the county’s history has always been strongly cross-grained.

However, Heffer – the man who coined the term ‘Essex Man’ for the Sunday Telegraph – is right in saying that the principle of ‘live and let live’ appears to come with the territory, but that principle allows for varying interpretations, and perhaps the matter is better left there. The discussion of national or regional temperaments and character types is dangerous at the best of times, and we are currently not living through the best of times right now.

The success of Radical Essex, which was ‘flying off the shelves’ at the LRB Bookshop I was told when I last visited, is now followed by another book concerned with such themes: Tom Bolton’s Low Country: Brexit on the Essex Coast, a handsome volume illustrated with atmospheric black and white photographs. Although it treads familiar ground, it deftly seeks to understand the relationship between marginal landscapes and embattled identities and loyalties in a world of political turmoil. Bolton and his partner Jo took weekends away from London in the troubled year of 2016 to walk the length of the Essex coast at a time when the nation was undergoing what Bolton describes as ‘a political nervous breakdown’. Union Jacks flew from bungalow gardens, and UKIP posters, both new and old, adorned boarded up pubs and abandoned High Street shops in coastal towns and villages.

While they found little personal antagonism in their encounters, an air of grievance was often palpable. Yet the terrain has always been difficult, historically suffering from the usual exigencies of farming country – agricultural depression, crop failure, animal culls, poor public transport and public services. Meanwhile the seaside towns saw their traditional visitors desert the hotels and beaches for somewhere warmer in Spain or Turkey. Bolton is alert to some of the ironies of the post-Maastricht world, finding that the winner and runner up to find the fastest fruit-picker in the annual Tiptree Strawberry Race were a Pole and a Romanian.

It was gratifying to find that some of the old footpath anomalies marked on the OS maps were still there too. As Jules Pretty, and other coastal walkers including myself have found, try traversing the non-existent ford at Alresford Creek, which if attempted could result in getting stuck in the mud and subsequently drowned. ‘The map says there is a ford across Alresford Creek,’ wrote Pretty some years ago in This Luminous Coast. ‘Not a chance.’

Interest in the Essex landscape continues to grow and Bolton’s book, with its engaging style and terrific bibliography will further enhance the county’s singular appeal, the astringent nature of which surely suits the times. It is also good to welcome a new website covering much of the same territory, in the form of The Thames Estuary Library which has just gone online. Bold design, clear text, beautiful images, it does the territory proud. Go see.


Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013 © Jason Orton

In a word, decent

In the winter of 1963/64 I was working as a trainee civil engineer for Braithwaite’s, the company that excavated the foundations for the now infamous Red Road housing scheme in Glasgow. The flats were soon to become the tallest in Europe at the time, 6 point blocks at 28 storeys and 2 slab blocks at 31 storeys each. The new estate was located on the north-eastern edge of the city, on what I remember as an isolated windswept hill, which after we arrived was soon knee-deep in construction equipment, generators, portable lighting equipment, welding and oxy-acetylene cables, discharged diesel oil, slurry and occasional drifts of snow. I can be precise about the dates because I kept a dairy charting my increasing disillusionment with work and life in general. There’s a German saying that translates as: ‘Sometimes in life you realise you are on the wrong ship’.

In March 1964 I gave in my notice and applied to go to teachers’ training college. Nevertheless, I did leave feeling a certain pride in contributing to one of the most ambitious public housing experiments ever to have been attempted. Today I simply feel guilty.

The Red Road development came to symbolise the failure of high-rise public housing, all eight tower blocks being finally demolished by 2015, though most were vacated long before then. Yet it remains an exception to what historian John Boughton rightly says was a century of successful public housing provision for what was, at its peak, the majority of people in the UK. For every Red Road scheme there were thousands of other housing programmes that provided millions of people for the first time ever with homes of a quality and affordability that exceeded their wildest imaginings.

As many will know, Boughton has for the past four years produced an illustrated blog called Municipal Dreams, a labour of love already regarded as providing the definitive history of public housing in the UK. He has now written a book to accompany and extend the underlying argument, which, while lacking the beautiful photographs and exquisite architectural drawings and plans detailed on the blog, makes up for it with a clear-sighted assessment how so often municipal housing got so much right. And could do again.

It has been fashionable to blame the planners and architects when council estates developed social problems. Yet public housing embodied higher standards of space, construction quality, and landscaping than that provided in the private sector. What the planners and architects couldn’t foresee of course were the enormous economic and demographic changes that swept Britain in the 1970s onwards, as industry collapsed, jobs disappeared, local authority maintenance budgets were reduced, caretakers and housing officers disappeared, and the buildings were left to look after themselves. The Right to Buy took a swathe out of the housing stock that was never replaced. Even so, Boughton is adamant that: ‘I’ve probably seen more council estates (many of them no longer ‘council’ of course) than most people in recent years and the vast majority of them look good: well-maintained, attractively landscaped, overwhelmingly – unless my experience is unrepresentative or Panglossian – quiet and respectable. In a word, decent.’

It was also de rigueur to blame Labour councils for espousing the cause of high-rise, system-building, when it was principally Conservative governments – a lot of whose party funds came directly or indirectly from the big construction companies – that got so excited about the quick-fix (and much cheaper) construction methods beginning to become available, as Patrick Dunleavy described in his classic book, The Politics of Mass Housing, 1945 – 1975: A Study of Corporate Power and Influence in the Welfare State, published in 1981.

Boughton treads a delicate path through the labyrinthine world of 20th century housing policy, with its high turnover of ministers, incoherent policies, cynical election promises, about-turns, quangos and acronyms, cronyism and corruption. The provision of public housing should be a relatively simple idea to understand, and indeed the principle was for a while shared by all parties in local government. But that was when local authorities possessed serious political and economic muscle along with a ‘one nation’ ethos of civic responsibility.

It still remains a mystery as to why council housing attracts so much opprobrium, as if it were the devil’s work. Its very existence, understandably excoriated by the right (other than for a short period following both world wars when ‘homes for heroes’ was a sentiment none dare dispute), has also been too often misrepresented in the popular imagination often by writers and film-makers who should know better (sorry, J.G.Ballard). Books such as Tony Parker’s elegiac oral history of the residents of a high-rise block in south London, The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of its Inhabitants, remain rare. Of Parker’s book, Ronald Blythe wrote at the time that it was ‘the book which must be read before another word is written or spoken about the problems of the high rise estate…’ Too few people took that advice. Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s fine 2015 film Estate: A Reverie also redressed the stigmatisation in unsentimental but heartfelt ways.

Tragically, it took the Grenfell Tower catastrophe to make the public and the politicians aware of just how precious and caring the milieu of a public housing estate could, at its best, be. This was particularly the case for people coming from exceptionally difficult life circumstances. The residents of Grenfell Tower made it into a community of a rare kind before it was reduced to a funeral pyre. It remains to be seen whether the lost ethos of a civic ‘duty of care’ can be recovered anew.


Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is published by Verso