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, Landscape, Topography, Social History

The Unbounded Savannah: Henry George and the Land Question


In his time far more influential than Karl Marx or Charles Darwin, the American land economist Henry George (1839 – 1897) was regarded as the guiding hand behind many worldwide radical social movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. Yet today he is largely forgotten. Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s co-equal in advancing the principle of natural selection, and later founder of the Land Nationalisation Society and ardent radical, thought that Henry George’s inspirational book, Progress and Poverty (1879) more important than The Origin of Species, the former selling millions of copies worldwide.

Researching the story of land colonies and experimental communities in Essex over the past century, I discovered Henry George’s name and influence proclaimed in almost every letter, pamphlet or book written in support of the ‘back to the land’ movement and other radical social initiatives. William Morris was a great admirer of George, as was, along with Wallace, Ebenezer Howard, George Bernard Shaw, George Lansbury, Joseph Fels, the McMillan sisters, and many other pioneers’ of ‘New Life’ movements, including Tolstoy. In America his influence was even greater, and he is regarded as the father of the ‘Progressive Era’. There would be no garden city movement without George, nor any tradition of – or aspiration for – agricultural self-sufficiency. Even contemporary notions of the networked city or the advantages of clusters were first outlined by George in his praise of city density and its reciprocity in trade and cultural life, alas too often undermined by unregulated land values.

Full disclosure. At the beginning of the 1960’s I attended a series of lectures on the economic theories of Henry George at the old Southend Public Library, keen to widen my political education. Alas I didn’t understand a word of what was said. Older and wiser, it is possible to see why George’s ideas are still relevant. In a nutshell he argued that any income derived from the rising value of land resulting from population growth, settlement and development is unearned income and should be taxed to support public amenity. The income derived from land ownership was specifically distasteful, given that possession was almost certainly obtained in earlier times by force, hereditary privilege or some other dubious device. There’s an old joke about this. A rambler is walking across the fields of a landed estate and the owner stops him and orders him off his property. ‘Who gave you this property?’ asks the rambler. ‘My ancestors fought for it,’ came the reply. ‘Well I’ll fight you for it now.’

We know from the punitive price of land in towns and cities today, that many forms of social architecture or provision – let alone experimental forms of community building – are no longer feasible. Only the rich can now live in many parts of London, and everybody else is being squeezed to the margins (and in some disgraceful instances required to move to another city in order to continue to receive housing benefit). It doesn’t have to be this way. Ebenezer Howard’s garden city model – as at Letchworth – is based on buying and holding the land in trust, so that all increases in value are captured and used for the common good.

Community land trusts are a start. So would be a more judicious use of planning regulation to encourage more experiments in communal freehold, along with the cross-subsidy potential of mixed tenure, mixed income development. Meanwhile local authorities are being quietly asset-stripped of much of their property and land portfolio, whether in housing, education, libraries and leisure facilities, all now being edged into private ownership. Parks are the latest example, as can be seen in the current Select Committee enquiry into The Future of Public Parks, which raises the possibility of privatisation. The land question is back with a vengeance, and a renewal of interest in Henry George and his ideas would be a cause for celebration.


Please note: the second edition of The New English Landscape will shortly be out of print. There are a few copies left and still available, but not for much longer.

Cinematic skies and revolutionary winds


Dunlin Press is a new independent press based in Wivenhoe, and it has just published a first anthology of writing, Est: Collected reports from East Anglia. Forget the obligatory nod to psycho-geography, these are finely crafted love letters (and some very good poems) dedicated to the landscape and history of the eastern counties, with Essex coming into its own. When in later years people ask, what did you do in the nature writing wars, anthologies such as this will show that it was possible to express sentiments of attachment and loss – in the portrayal of place and the natural world – without being found guilty of emotional self-indulgence.

A number of the contributors have studied or taught at the University of Essex, so whatever they put in the water there, it clearly works. The phrase ‘cinematic skies and revolutionary winds’ comes from Chris Petit’s foreword, in which he also makes the claim that in filmic terms, he had always admired the region’s notorious flatness as ‘a way of eliminating class nuance, the bane of English cinema’, which hadn’t occurred to me before but makes sense if you think of how too often the English class system is signalled through the use of landed estates, rolling hills and dressed stone country houses. David Southwell finds in the coastal footpath along the Dengie peninsula – in a set of memory traces entitled ‘The Empty Quarter’ – the edge, and indeed, the end, of national narrative.

Melinda Appleby recalls her mother’s childhood memories of growing up in Dengie before the Second World War, in a flawless short essay on ‘this salt kingdom’. Her mother’s recollections were triggered by the mounting block in the Anglican church at Bradwell, though my attachment to this lonely quarter of the world has always been stirred by the simple four-square chapel of The Peculiar People in adjacent Tillingham, sadly reduced to a pile of rubble when I last cycled past it several years ago. Adrian May name-checks The Peculiar People, a non-conformist sect unique to Essex, in his brief overview of the connection between Essex folklore and the vibrant music scene of the southern limits of the county, in which he has played no small part. Fellow poet and musician, the ever chippy and chipper Martin Newell, admires the truculent spirit of Colchester and its suburbs, ‘perennially up-for-it’. Newell pays homage to the bitter north-easterly winds scything the eastern flatlands as character-forming, though in high summer it is the same wind which accounts for some of the most perfect clear-skied days.

Several contributors share Melinda Appleby’s anxieties about the continuing ‘thinning out of nature’, as species decline, bird numbers fall, and once familiar woodland flowers no longer appear. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden but there are furies too. Chris Maillard recounts the destruction of Eden, when new neighbours move in next door and uproot a long-established garden with fruit trees and a rich array of flowers and shrubs, all reduced to bare earth in under an hour by a hired digger. As with Chekhov, the grubbing up of orchards tends to signal the end of the old ways of life, though happily not beyond recuperation.

Anthologies are often hit and miss affairs, but Est is uniformly excellent, a genuine contribution to East Anglian life and landscape. Auden once wrote that a good poem should be like a well-wrapped parcel – if dropped it should still hold together and remain intact. This anthology does that: well-edited, well designed, and unbreakable.


Est: Collected reports from East Anglia, edited by M.W.Bewick and Ella Johnston, Dunlin Press, Wivenhoe, 2015, £9.99

Watch Ken’s talk on the 20th century Essex landscape at the recent Doughnut architectural conference on suburban London:

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.’


D.W.Gillingham: Chronicler of the Roding Valley


Just as J.A.Baker achieved posthumous fame for his exquisite writings about the natural landscape and avian life of the River Chelmer and the Blackwater Estuary – notably in The Peregrine – it is timely to remember another Essex naturalist and writer, D.W.Gillingham, rather less well known today but equally alert to the Essex landscape. Born in Walthamstow in 1906, after moving with his family to Canada in 1911, Gillingham returned to settle in Loughton in 1934, where he lived at 28 Roding Road until his death in 1965.

Throughout his Loughton years he kept a journal – eventually published in 1953 as Unto The Fields – a meticulous and exquisite record of the woodlands, streams and rivers of the Roding Valley, rich in bird-life, small mammals and wild flowers, even though the streets of London’s east end were less than ten miles away. From the hills of Loughton he claimed to be able to hear the roar of the London traffic, or from the height of Epping ridge see the smoke from steamers on the Thames at Galleons Reach. Others may want ‘scenery’, he wrote, ‘but the beauty of the English countryside is far less in its wide panoramas than in its intimate nooks and corners, in what lies so near at hand.’


Illustration by Harry A. Pettit

Read Unto the Fields with the OS map close to hand and it is astonishing how much Gillingham observed and recorded in such a tiny area on between Epping Forest and the Roding Meadows. His early morning, late night and weekend walks never took him more than four miles from home, mostly between Chigwell Lane and Warren Hill, but in these ‘intimate nooks and corners’ he saw otters, deer, stoats, foxes, redshanks, snipe, lapwings, owls, herons, nightingales, dozens of different finches and song-birds, many becoming familiars, their habitat and routines ecstatically noted and loved. ‘Find me a fairer spot in Essex!’ he wrote of a walk close to Chigwell Lane, before going on to admit that there were as many other such places in the county as there were people to cherish them.

Gillingham’s life appears to have been one of extremes. After his parents emigrated to Vancouver he attended the University of British Columbia, subsequently travelling to the Arctic Circle with fur traders, while writing short stories, at least one of which was published in the prestigious literary journal, The Dial. At some point in his early life he trained as a pilot. By the 1930s, back in Loughton – like J.A.Baker – he worked in an office (‘uncongenial work’), escaping from the ‘arid plain of failure’ to cycle everywhere on his early morning or night-time forays into the nearby fields and forests. Even so, when war broke out he spent two years with a Night Fighter Squad, before being posted to the Middle East. After the war he became a familiar figure locally, his obituary in the local newspaper recording that, ‘His many friends will remember him best for his shapeless beret, stout walking shoes and amiable booming, cultured voice.’ In his last years Gillingham worked as a private gardener.


Illustration by Harry A. Pettit

Unto the Fields is worth searching out, the early editions beautifully illustrated by Harry A.Pettit, a book illustrator whose work continues to be admired. In the published writings of both Gillingham and Baker, there is little mention of work, of domestic life or other interests – just an obsessive empathy with birds, and their migrations, nestings, feeding patterns and interaction with the rest of the natural world. From such patient observations, the modern reader is given access to a myriad of small worlds then to be found in suburban lanes and along the banks of the smallest Essex creeks and rivers. In Gillingham’s case, his notebooks recorded Loughton before the arrival of a wartime barrage balloon station and, subsequently, a new housing estate, close by. Gillingham’s description of his adopted territory, recalls those wonderful passages in the early novels of D.H.Lawrence when that writer rhapsodised about the walks he made from his terraced street of miners’ cottages in Eastwood to the nearby farms and woodlands.

This post is based on a talk to the Loughton Historical Society on 13 November 2014. Thanks are due to Jan Kinrade for additional biographical information about Gillingham.


The dandelions and the docks

Hadleigh.colony.planHadleigh Land Colony Plan

A well designed freesheet called Managed Retreat came our way at the recent Essex Book Festival. Principally about land and environmental issues in Essex, it contained a timely essay by Marina O’Connell on ‘Land Settlements in East Anglia’, made all the more interesting by the fact that the author manages a small-holding on a former LSA (Land Settlement Association) site near Manningtree.

Land settlement or colonisation has a long history in Essex, important strands of which are highlighted in a new history by academic John Field called Working Men’s Bodies: Work camps in Britain 1880 – 1940 (Manchester University Press). Field makes the obvious but often forgotten point that while ‘Work camps may seem strange to us, before 1939 they were a normal part of the landscape.’ Having spent part of my childhood in Hadleigh, Essex, it was common during school holidays to play in and around the large Salvation Army colony nearby – despite our parents’ warnings. At this time the colony was largely involved with the rehabilitation of what were then known as ‘juvenile delinquents’, with whom we were strictly forbidden to fraternise. Today the Hadleigh colony, which opened in 1891, remains the longest operating land colony in Britain, and is now managed as an organic farm with training facilities for young people with learning difficulties. It seems to be thriving.

working mens bodies book cover

As Field explains there were as many different motives in establishing these settlements as there were colonies themselves: some were corrective, others experiments in communal living and self-sufficiency. A number were designed as therapeutic regimes for those suffering from physical or mental illnesses, while other settlements functioned as vanguard political outposts, or were exercises in small-scale food production. Whatever the philosophy or rationale, working the land was a common principle, and the idea that physical work in the open air was inherently beneficial to both mind and body was common to nearly all of them.

Essex was a favoured county for such experiments for several reasons. It lay close to London’s East End, where social reformers were thick on the ground and keen to export slum-dwellers to a healthier way of life, as well as being a hotbed of radical politics which was also attracted to the idea of creating utopian experiments in living and working communally. Radicals such as George Lansbury espoused both socialism and muscular Christianity, as well as a yearning for reclaiming rural England as the ideal setting for the socialist idyll.

Today the organic food movement, localism, adaptation to climate change and biodiversity action plans are amongst the driving forces in new forms of land management and cultivation – yet the gap between urban politics and rural environmentalism remains wide. It was ever thus, according to Field’s engaging history. When George Bernard Shaw was asked what he thought of the split between ‘new lifers’ of Merrie England and the ‘new unionists’ of London’s industrial working class, he observed that one group wanted ‘to sit amongst the dandelions, the other to organise the docks.’ Does the future now lie in the suburbs, or newer versions of the popular 1970s television comedy, ‘The Good Life’?


Pandaemonium in the east


Academic and writer Phil Cohen has been taking the pulse of east London and its Essex hinterland for a long time now, so the 2012 Olympics provided him with the perfect observation deck for a new series of thoughts as to the likely shape and future of the territory in the years to come.  Complex though some of his formulations are, he is always worth attending to, and in his latest collection of essays, On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics (2013), he gathers together what is in many ways an East London version of Humphrey Jennings’ great work, Pandaemonium, which was the inspiration behind the Olympic opening ceremony created by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce.  A mixture of ethnography, documentary, oral history, cultural theory and sporting politics, Cohen ranges widely across the disciplines to try to understand what lies ahead for 21st century London east of the Lea.

Cohen is not unsympathetic to the ideals of sporting achievement, nor to the ‘imagined community’ of great occasions and spectacular events.  On the whole, though, he suspects east London will continue to sort out its own identity as it has always done – by accretion, conflict, accommodation, all anchored by a strong sense of territorial history and resilient built form.

The ubiquitous Thames Gateway is another story, and this Cohen nails on the head.  The ‘Thames Gateway for Sustainable Communities’, as it is officially termed, continues to resist serious analysis either as a place or an idea, let alone public interest or credibility.  It is a vision bereft, of any sense of history, landscape, or political economy, and currently seems to be dying slowly, with only the idea of an estuary airport still keeping it on life-support.

Red Cross, Joyce Green Site, Dartford, Kent

Fortunately the area is alive with local initiatives in the interstices. The Essex Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Thames Chase Community Forest, are amongst the largest networks in a plethora of land-focused projects, including community gardens and food-growing projects and  dozens of other arts and ecology groups responding to the unique landscape in sensitive, incremental ways.  They are slowly succeeding in stitching together the connective tissue of ‘redundant’ land between the by-passes, train-lines, housing estates, industrial areas in the Essex peninsula. In doing so they are in the process forging a new ecological aesthetic, about which we will shortly publish our account, The New English Landscape (due October 2013).

For many years, we have been influenced by the writer and ecologist Bob Gilbert who has an excellent essay in another book by Lawrence & Wishart London 2012: How was it for us? (2013), as well as his own book The Green London Way (2012). Consult the genius of the place, it is always said, to which we would add, and always ask Bob Gilbert too.

Where the sociologist Phil Cohen sees visible improvement in the environment of the Olympic site and the possibilities of a better quality of environment for those living in and around it, former park manager Gilbert sees misguided environmental desecration.  He is particularly sceptical about the proliferation of wildflower meadows – currently flavour of the month in landscape circles – which though prettier than the scrubland it usually replaces, is less ecologically true to the indigenous setting.

There is no one great truth on these matters, but it is good to see that a small left-field publisher like Lawrence & Wishart has been quick off the mark in putting together these collections of essays which open up a number of fields for discussion, in ways which the quangos, public-private partnerships and corporations daily suppress in an endless proliferation of mission statements, visions, and fantastical computer-generated graphics.   A proliferation of small initiatives are better than one big one seems to be the lesson of recent years.

The Call of the Wild


One of us read George Monbiot’s new book while staying in the house of friends who had gone canoe-camping in the Yukon. The precautions required against attacks by bears – both black and grizzly – were formidable, they told us. No cooking or eating within 100 yards of the tents, no food or clothing associated with food to be left near the tents, all pots, pans and cutlery to be scrupulously cleaned and stored at a distance, and so on. For added protection they had Mace cans and knives and axes to hand, non-Canadian citizens being prohibited from carrying guns.

In many parts of the world it is still dangerous ‘out there’, beyond the street lights, farms and houses. If it isn’t the dangers posed by dangerous animals and reptiles, there is hostile terrain of other kinds – mountain avalanches, land-slides, desert conditions – in addition to swollen rivers and treacherous seas. People take their lives in their hands when they go into the landscape, though rarely in Britain, where the topography has largely been tamed.

As Monbiot points out, we want wild animals in other people’s countries – we’ll even raise money to protect them there – but not in ours, thank you very much. Sheep – the bêtes noires of Monbiot’s chapters on the deforested bleakness of Britain’s uplands – are as wild and woolly as we can cope with. The UK now lags well behind most European countries in pursuing the new ecological strategy of ‘re-wilding’, a term which only entered the dictionary in 2011, but is now to be found everywhere. The arguments for bringing back wolves, bears, eagles, beavers, and other species once common in many parts of Europe, is not simply for their exotic, almost atavistic spectre, but for sound ecological reasons. The higher the range of the chain of predation, the greater the variety of species which are given a niche in which to flourish.  Or so we are told.

Apart from the ecological arguments, which are clearly and persuasively spelt out, Monbiot is happy to admit that he also wants to re-wild the British landscape because he is bored. We live today, he argues, a life of restraint and sublimation, untouched by the thrill of fields, rivers and skies populated with creatures which now belong to mythology or history, but which we have eradicated in the name of the common good. He is not alone in feeling that on those occasions when we see particular creatures still at large in the landscape or out at sea – a brown hare, a bittern, a sky darkened by clouds of Brent geese, a colony of seals or a school of porpoises – we regard those days as somehow blessed.

Farm subsidies, together with a high concentration of land ownership in the hands of a tiny proportion of the population, have rendered discussions about the ‘nature’ of the countryside in modern Britain beyond political debate. There is an assumption that what is good for farmers and land-owners must necessarily be good for everybody else. The same is true of the multi-national fishing industry and its industrialisation of the sea. But the absolute separation of economy from geography is no longer sustainable, and new forms of settlement and livelihood are surely needed to overcome the disastrous separation of town and country, work and play. Monbiot is honest enough to admit there are no easy answers, and that indeed on many aspects of re-wilding he may be wrong. There is much to discuss in this provocative book, but do we have enough time?

George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, Allen Lane, 2013.