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.

My House of Sky

Fifty years ago this month, in December 1967, a somewhat reclusive office-manager living with his wife in a council house in Chelmsford received a telegram informing him that he had been awarded the prestigious Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. This was for an outstanding work ‘in the field of history, biography, politics or poetry’, and followed shortly after the Yorkshire Post’s ‘Book of the Year’ award. The publication was called The Peregrine. Its author was J.A.Baker, or John Baker as he was known to family and friends, and carried the dedication ‘To My Wife’.

Sadly Baker’s fame was short-lived. He suffered from chronic ill-health, but such spare energies he possessed were spent on the great passion of his life, and that was bird-watching in a landscape that he marked out and inscribed as his own: east of Chelmsford along the River Chelmer and out to the Blackwater Estuary. For most of his adult life he walked and cycled this barely populated waterland, but in his last years of failing health his wife Doreen drove him to his favourite haunts by car.

In recent years the reputation of The Peregrine has grown to international proportions. Film-maker Werner Herzog makes it one of the three books all his students are required to read. This revival of interest owes much to Robert Macfarlane, Mark Cocker and John Fanshawe, as well as to the decision of the New York Review of Books to re-publish The Peregrine in 2005. I remember at the time asking Robert Macfarlane – who contributed the introduction to the NYRB edition – what he knew about Baker, and Macfarlane’s honest answer then was ‘not very much alas, very little seems to be known.’

All this has changed. With the publication this month of Hetty Saunders’ beautifully written and illustrated My House of Sky: The life and work of J.A.Baker, we can now appreciate the man – supported by the ever-present Doreen – who despite considerable personal difficulties produced one of the most ecstatic works of human defamiliarisation in the English language.

At a packed book launch at the LRB Bookshop recently, Saunders, Fanshawe and Macfarlane, chaired by Gareth Evans, each spoke in awe-struck tones of the continuing power and intensity of Baker’s writing, now supported by an extensive archive of Baker’s letters, diaries, maps, photographs and artefacts collected together at the University of Essex, examples of which are reproduced in the book together with a series of photographs by Christopher Matthews.

Two themes dominated the evening’s discussion. The first was Baker’s increasing animistic identification with the world of the peregrine; it was raised by one audience member asking: ‘Is The Peregrine about the bird or about J.A.Baker?’ The consensus was that it was both – that the two were somehow indivisible. The second was the degree to which Baker’s own ‘optics’ were those of someone who had taught himself to see from above. It was noted that he possessed a large collection of Ordnance Survey maps, the contour lines of which often heavily underlined, together with a collection of aerial photographs of the Blackwater estuary and peninsula.

Detail of one of Baker’s Ordnance Survey maps marked with contours and peregrine sightings. The map forms part of the J.A.Baker Archive at the University of Essex.

Normally in aesthetic terms this view from above is associated with Futurism, and I think there is a futuristic element to Baker’s writing, strange as it may seem. How else explain descriptions such as:

​‘…the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking places of land and water. We who are earthbound cannot envisage this freedom of the eye. The peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endless varying quadrilateral shapes of fields.’

I was prompted to these thoughts by Robert Macfarlane’s suggestion – citing the poetry of H.D. and T.E.Hulme – that while Baker loved the Romantic poets, his own work showed the influence of Imagism. Macfarlane also threw in Cubism as another ingredient, which itself had strong connections with Futurism. This aerial perspective – of vertiginous, multi-planar landscapes seen from the air at speed – is the characteristic subject of the ‘Aeropittura’ paintings of Italian futurists such as Alessandro Bruschetti, Gerardo Dottori and Bruno Tato. So perhaps Baker’s aesthetic was a sighting of that rare species: rural modernism?

My House of Sky is a poignant work, suffused with a dogged wish to understand the natural world and all that’s in it. Everybody associated with its publication should be congratulated. While there are still homes with bookshelves, and bookshops happy to fill them, then Baker’s iridescent masterpiece will always have a place in the canon of expressive nature writing. As he wrote in the opening pages of The Peregrine, ‘It is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still.’


For more details about My House of Sky and to order the book, go to Little Toller Books

The big sleep

Headstone commemorating William Blake and his wife Catherine Sophie buried close by in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, London. © Ken Worpole

Some years ago a journalist claimed that for the first time in history the living outnumbered the dead. It sounded plausible, and I seem to remember that in his exquisite essay, Urne Buriall, Thomas Browne also raised this possibility. But it is not true. Nevertheless the weight the dead bring to bear upon the living is heavy, and this is what the historian Thomas Laqueur sets out to demonstrate in his monumental history, The Work of the Dead.

‘This book begins with and is supported by a cosmic claim,’ Laqueur writes. ‘The dead make a civilization on a grand and intimate scale, everywhere and always: their historical, philosophical, and anthropological weight is enormous and almost without limit and compare.’ There follow nearly 700 pages of closely argued text detailing the many ways the dead have shaped if not determined the world of the living, focusing disturbingly at times on the sheer material ‘uncanny’ of the corpse itself, often possessing more agency when dead than when alive.

One of the more obvious ways the dead exert their continuing presence in the world is visually, in the form of dolmens, standing stones, burial mounds, churchyards, cemeteries, memorials or a variety of other commemorative structures, inscriptions, and dedications. My regular 141 bus ride from Stoke Newington to Liverpool Street Station is hallowed by many such memorials to the dead, whether the plaque for Mary Wollestonecraft at Newington Green, the closed Jewish Cemetery along Balls Pond Road, memorials to John Wesley and William Blake at Bunhill Fields (and close by, the unique Postman’s Park, which memorializes those who gave their lives to save others), or the sombre lists of railway staff who died in the First and Second World Wars at Liverpool Street Station. Also on the station concourse are two statues commemorating the arrival there of the Jewish kindertransports from Germany at the outbreak of WW2. This is not all. Any train out of Liverpool Street heading into Essex passes through several miles of burial ground (over 60% of public open space in the borough of Newham is cemetery land), before arriving into open country. This historicizing of the landscape makes it human, or as Patrick Wright once said, you can’t have a city without ghosts.

The Work of the Dead is divided into four sections: The Deep Time of the Dead, The Places of the Dead, The Names of the Dead, and Burning the Dead. Starting at an anthropological level, relating the long history of changing belief systems to the treatment of the dead body, the book comes closer to our own times when the Reformation challenged the intercessionary power of the Catholic church as the gate-keeper of the after-life. We began to die alone. The revolutionary epoch in France and the creation of the secular cemetery at Pere-Lachaise in 1804, helped bring mortality into the modern age: a name and a private burial plot for all. This is more or less where we stand – or lie – today.

Section II charts the rise and fall of the churchyard and its displacement by the civic cemetery. This is relatively familiar material, though Laqueur’s detailing of the process of physical decomposition recorded at the time in many overcrowded churchyards across Europe – which led to the sanitization of burial beyond the city limits – makes grisly reading. Much more intractable material is yet to come in Section III. The horrific accounts of the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, of imperial conquest and mass slaughter, the carnage of the First World War, and then the numbing detail of the mechanics of mass extermination and cataclysm of the Holocaust, all bring the scale of human ‘disposal’ to unimaginable limits. As the author frequently reminds the reader, while it is acceptable to think positively about an individual death – its aetiology, its social meaning, and its material conclusion – mass slaughter remains almost impossible to ‘process’. The ‘emotional economy’ of war and genocide is beyond meaning.

Laqueur concludes with some harsh things to say about the enthusiastic adoption of cremation in the 20th century – ‘a breathtaking exercise in disenchantment’ – a position I have also come to, having spent time thinking about the rites and rituals of death in the modern world. The abrupt destruction of the human form seems too traumatic, leaving nothing to build upon in the way of architectural response, let alone as an important element in the human landscape. Architecture began with tomb, and landscape has so often been given memorable form by the burial mound, the public memorial or the cemetery. Yet few crematorium gardens possess any emotional depth at all. If as Laqueur suggests, the churchyard is a Gemeinschaft (community) and the cemetery is a Gesellschaft (society), the crematorium garden or columbarium is a kind of bank vault.

Laqueur’s book is a major work, though at times it makes for difficult reading, with its unflinching gaze upon the brutality of war and genocide, invariably accompanied by a callous indifference to human suffering en masse. It also ends suddenly, without any discussion on the growing trend for ‘green burial’, on the re-use of the grave space (common in Southern Europe where bodies are immured in wall tombs for as little as ten years before being removed and the space used again), or any wider observations on attitudes to mortality and personal memorialization in present times. The dead lie heavily in the clay in Laqueur’s study, though on their contested and disrupted presence above ground in the modern city – roadside memorials, white bicycles, inscribed park benches, graffiti and protest marches – the author has little to say.

Because there are few stories to compensate for the dark matter of the subject, it was disappointing to find no mention of one of the kindlier accommodations for the dead, the Friedhof der Namenlosen (Cemetery for the Nameless) in Vienna, where bodies recovered from the River Danube were buried with appropriate ceremony as an act of human solidarity. Death is both a catastrophe but it also the defining mark of being human.


Postcards from the edge

Readers of Andrew Ray’s pioneering blog, Some Landscapes, about to reach its thousandth posting, will be pleased to learn that he has just published his first book. Frozen Air is a collection of sixty-five epiphanies, recalling walks in and around the Seven Sisters cliffs in Sussex, close to where the River Cuckmere meanders through the Downs to the sea at Birling Gap. Ray’s tutelary spirits are W.H.Hudson and Richard Jefferies, both of whom rhapsodized about the Sussex Downs and the dream-like, undulating chalk escarpment which comes to an abrupt end at a precipitous cliff edge. He is a worthy successor to Hudson and Jefferies, writing a clear, unostentatious prose, erudite, un-rhetorical, complemented by his own black and white photographs.

The prose style befits the landscape: eerily quiet, treeless, clothed in a springing, thyme-scented turf, and truncated by a dizzying prospect of the sea wrinkling far below. In recent years I’ve been able to admire the distinctive white outline of the Seven Sisters cliffs from the deck of the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry during an annual outing to Dieppe for a weekend of Anglo-French club cycling. Known as the ‘Dieppe Raid’, every June cyclists gather to ride and commemorate the failed landings in 1942, when thousands of Allied troops – mostly young Canadians – died within minutes of staggering onto the beach, in a tragic rehearsal for the D-Day landings two years later, which proved successful.

The Dieppe coastline closely mirrors the distinctive chalk cliffs of the Sussex coast – unsurprisingly, since they were once joined – and Frozen Air is astute on some of these topographical and cultural echoes: possible examples of morphic resonance? Proust holidayed in Cabourg (shortly to become the fictional seaside resort of Balbec in the greatest novel of the 20th century), located directly opposite the Seven Sisters, while Debussy worked on La Mer whilst staying at the Grand Hotel in nearby Eastbourne. There was more than a touch of Victorian bohemianism on both sides of the channel, what with Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Walter Sickert, Edwin Lutyens, and other Francophiles busy in and around Dieppe and Varengeville. The sea divided English and French sensibilities but it also, paradoxically, joined them closer together, as Frozen Air reminds us.

Underscoring the collection is an abiding interest in aesthetic form – something returned to frequently on the author’s blog – of which these miniatures, with titles such as Inverted Cascade, Formless Stones, Prospect and Refuge, Insensate Folly, are a delight. One of just many of his eclectic influences is the French minimalist writer, Francis Ponge, cited approvingly here as the pre-eminent poet of the pebble, the seashell and the inanimate scree. Other cultural references range from Derrida to Quadrophenia, Frank Bridge to Caspar David Friedrich, stitched into the writing seamlessly.

I missed though any reference to the distinctive smell of the seashore at low tide. In an otherwise melancholic description of the beach at Hope Gap with its ‘pockmarked and stained’ chalk boulders ‘covered in a pelt of vivid green seaweed’, I was expecting an evocation of the insidious smell of the scummy wrack and dank rock-pool sediment – rich with associations of the primeval, protozoic slime – which gives the seashore its unique sense of being another world. But this is a small quibble about an absorbing collection of beautifully observed topographical aperçus, which add another chapter to the complex and unfinished history of the psychic relationship between landscape and Englishness.


Frozen Air is published this week, and can be bought for £10.00 from the Caught by the River bookshop:


Abercrombie and after

John Grindrod’s lively and engaging performance at this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival suggested there might be more to his new book about the history of the Green Belt than the subject, and the book’s title Outskirts, first indicated. There is. Much more.

Interwoven with a fascinating history of the controversial 20th century land-use planning device designed to stop cities spreading out and merging with each other is a moving and gripping evocation of a childhood lived on the edge of society, geographically and psychologically. Inside the erstwhile architectural historian is a fine novelist struggling to get out, for the personal story is by far the strongest element of the book, and is beautifully accomplished.

Grindrod grew up in New Addington, a council estate on the outskirts of south London, literally ‘the last road in London’, overlooking farmland and woodlands. This was both exciting and slightly scary for a young family, whose parents had grown up in the narrow terraced streets of Bermondsey. While most family members soon adapted to the sense of freedom, the large open skies of the adjacent farmland resulted in long-term agoraphobia for one of John’s brothers.

To make matters worse, both parents suffered from chronic illnesses. For all of John’s life his mother was confined to a wheelchair, except when out in her Invacar, while his father endured the anxieties of periods of unemployment, along with taking responsibility for his wife’s care. It was a loving family but a deeply troubled one, afflicted by illness and anxiety. The question at the heart of the story is: did being so close to the green belt version of ‘nature’ make things better, or possibly worse?

While many other recent books in this widening genre of landscape and nature writing mix a personal story with an effusive description of the redemptive power of the natural world, Grindrod’s book is more complex – perhaps because the terrain itself is so intractable. After all the greenbelt means all things to all people, and while it does have a material reality, Grindrod perceptively describes it more as a ‘thought experiment’, an imaginative construct that possesses more emotional resonance as an idea than as a distinct type of landscape character.

In his travels in and around the green belt, Grindrod is surprised to find that ‘much of it isn’t green at all, of course. Gravel pits. Landfill sites. Factories. Refineries. Motorways. Service stations. Caravan sites. Victorian mental hospitals. Sewage treatment works. Prisons. Airfields. Glasshouses. Solar farms.’ On the other hand it often possesses more bio-diversity than the farmland it is supposed to protect.

If the hybrid nature of the green belt is problematic, so too is its status as sacrosanct territory, especially at a time of increased population growth and household diversity. Sooner or later people will have to choose between even higher-density urbanism (more tower blocks anyone?), a second generation of new towns, or increased suburbanisation. Interestingly, the informal settlements established between the wars by the self-builders and working class plotlanders – the opportunistic shack and bungalow encampments, chalet settlements, houseboat communities so loathed by the planners and advocates of the green belt – are the initiatives now most admired by radical housing activists and libertarians. Surely some experimentation in low-cost, self-build settlements could be a valid use of the green belt in the future?

Outskirts is a good read, mixing land use history with an absorbing family story of growing up in difficult circumstances. The one story Grindrod misses is whatever happened to the ‘white belt’? This was the term used by planners after the First World War in London to describe the demand for a ring of cemetery land around the capital to cope with a need for more burial space. The rapid rise of cremation saved the day, amongst whose most fervent advocates were town planners themselves. But that’s another story.


Insurgent Gardens: The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

Dalston Eastern Curve Garden © Larraine Worpole

Early in March this year an international conference was held in Austria on the theme of ‘The Child in the City’. It was organised as part of the Salzburg Global Seminar series of policy exchanges, and as one of the participants it was especially gratifying to hear two young women landscape architects – one working in Mexico City, the other in Beirut – say how much they had been inspired by their visits to the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. It was for them, they said, an international exemplar for the re-habilitation of derelict urban land awaiting development.

A crowded and enthusiastic party of supporters was held at ‘the Curve’ on Sunday, 9 April, organised to draw attention to the plight of the garden, now threatened by development. People came to show their affection for this unique public space, and to urge that it be protected against future development – whatever its temporary status might have been once – given its phenomenal success. In a short time the Dalston Eastern Curve has become one of Hackney’s best-loved meeting places, which may not have been predicted, but is now an established fact. And when the facts change, as John Maynard Keynes once wisely said, opinions (and decisions) should change too.

Speakers included landscape architect Jo Gibbons and architect Liza Fior, whose separate practices came together to instigate the project through the process of engagement with the community, alongside French architects, EXYZT (whose own involvement resulted from the Barbican’s ‘Radical Nature’ exhibition in 2009). It grew out of a Design for London initiative called ‘Making Space in Dalston’. Both said the popularity of the garden and its ecological impact had grown with the imaginative way it was managed for people as well as for plants, while dozens of admirers ranging in age from 8 to 80 queued up to testify how much pleasure the garden had given.

Two themes recurred in what people said was most important to them. Firstly that the garden had succeeded because of the dedication and love its workers and hundreds of volunteers had put in over the years – and you don’t often see the word love in many ‘regeneration’ mission statements. Secondly, that what made Hackney such a special place was that it was precisely a place where people did such things – especially around Dalston Junction (think Four Aces Club, think Centerprise, think Free Form, think Arcola theatre, think Café Oto, think Ray Walker’s great Peace Mural). Without these radical, eccentric, people-based projects, which attract interest from all over the world, the junction would be just another angry traffic jam churning out particulates into the lungs of all the passers-by. The borough has always been a social laboratory, and that’s what makes many people want to live in Hackney, rather than the enticement of expensive apartments and opportunities for fine dining.

Jardins insurgents: the Barcelona gathering in 2001 on new urban parks

So if Hackney finds an internationally-admired exemplar of urban renewal on its doorstep, of the kind hoped for by the 2001 Barcelona conference on Jardins Insurgents, giving people in places like Mexico City and Beirut something to aim for, it would be a betrayal to allow speculative development once again to triumph over proven community need. There are so few success stories in sustainable urban renewal, to have one that grows in reputation by the day is why so many people are now resisting it being bulldozed to the ground – especially to make way for yet another retail corridor of uncertain provenance or future. Whatever happens in future, do visit the garden to see what an amazing place it is, and support the campaign to save it (and as a result save Hackney from becoming just another high-end residential quarter at the same time). The future is a garden, not a discount store.


For more details about the campaign to save the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden:

John Berger 1926 – 2017


I first read John Berger in the late 1960s in his occasional pieces for the weekly journal, New Society. They were quite unlike anything else in that sociologically-inflected but much admired magazine, often including drawings and small fragments of poetry. One short essay concluded by citing a Russian proverb – ‘Life is not a walk across an open field’ – which I’ve remembered to this day. At some point New Society began to run extracts from a forthcoming book by Berger in collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The story of a country doctor, which, on publication in 1967, I actually bought new. This was a rare event for a book collector on limited means as I was then. It soon became the work that, more than any other, re-shaped my imaginative life, fostering an abiding fascination with the relationship between writing and photography, as well as investigating what might be meant by the idea of a life’s vocation.

With echoes of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, or Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest, it documented the daily round of a real-life doctor, Dr Sassall, serving a small community in rural Gloucestershire, in circumstances where for many of his patients life was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. In short, it was about the ethics of vocation, which as someone then training to be a teacher was becoming an important question to be asking oneself. For although I knew Berger to be a self-declared Marxist, this deeply sympathetic book celebrated the idea of vocation over and above the reductionist view of teaching and other public professions espoused by mainstream Marxist ideology.

Berger saw Dr Sassall as ‘a clerk of the records’, a dutiful man who listened to the stories people told him about themselves and their lives, thus validating their experiences. Jean Mohr’s photographs widened the scope and ambition of the book with a series of portraits of Sassall at work, but also of the landscape he traversed daily, a rural landscape that provided the background for his patients, for some the only landscape they would ever know from birth to death. For Berger, the natural world was not simply a stage set, for in A Fortunate Man he wrote that: ‘Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.’

He and Mohr later recalled that they had to negotiate their respective roles in the making of this book, so that what at first had been in danger of becoming a traditional text illustrated by photographs needed instead to become ‘a conversation, building on, rather than mirroring, one another.’ The effect was a complete re-invention of documentary form, with the words and the photographs independently complementing, independently challenging, but amplifying and enriching each other, a mode of working from which Jason Orton and I learned much. Berger frequently collaborated with others, perhaps most famously with Jean Mohr, but also with film-maker Mike Dibb on the TV series, ‘Ways of Seeing’, and painter John Christie. His life was constantly lived in conversation with others, both the living and the dead, close by and across the world.


Another two books by John Berger have a particular significance for me. His 2005 collection of stories about meetings with the dead, Here is Where We Meet, is one. I had thought I was somewhat eccentric in regarding the companionate dead – those people I knew who had since died – as dear to me as many of my living family and friends – but so did Berger. But there was an additional pre-occupation which Berger addressed directly – and again unusually – when he gives the dead the role of returning to the earth to repair what has been broken. (There is a long established Talmudic belief that the work of the good on earth is to repair the world). Thus he has his mother, who after dying returns to Lisbon to live her second life, where Berger meets up with her again. In one of their walks they come across a dog barking furiously. ‘One thing repaired changes a thousand others,’ insists the mother, and although the incident is traditionally expressed, the politics belong to the future. Noticing that the chain on the dog is too short to allow it reach the shade, hence its distress, she suggests that by lengthening the chain just a little the dog will find shade and stop barking. Thus the family and neighbours will become happier and start talking to each other again, and many other good things might flow from this one small act of thoughtfulness.


The Red Tenda of Bologna, with drawings by Paul Davis, published in 2007, is another favourite. It is a family story, yet again, this time of a fond uncle, long dead, whom Berger ‘meets’ again unexpectedly in Bologna, a city both men loved – as I do too. The red ‘Tenda’ are the shop blinds that distinguish many of the arcaded cafes and stores, but whose exceptional colour – and Berger was obsessed with pigmentation and its provenance – dramatised his memory of the city. The small book ranges across food, paintings, memories of the resistance, and martyrdom. On several visits some years ago Larraine Worpole and I spent days – she taking the photographs, myself taking notes – recording the many memorable tombs and public memorials, in La Certosa Cemetery, and in the city itself, for a book we did together, Last Landscapes: the architecture of the cemetery in the West. The memorial to the partisan resistance during the Second World War in the town square, which Berger describes in relation to a poem by Pasolini, is painfully unforgettable.


Detail of the tomb of Ennio Gnudi, leader of the railway workers’ union, by sculptor Farpi Vignoli at La Certosa Cemetery, Bologna. Photograph © Larraine Worpole.

Berger’s work has been incomparable in so many fields of political and cultural creativity. Sometimes the debt owed by his admirers has been obvious. The two volumes of Working Lives a group of us published in Hackney in the 1970s as part of an oral history project, mixing transcribed text with photographs, were a direct homage to Berger & Mohr’s A Seventh Man. But his influence has been subtle and pervasive in many other ways. We shall be walking and talking with John Berger for a long time to come.


Land: they don’t make it any more


Land is a finite resource, the Guardian journalist Peter Hetherington reminded us, in his opening address to a one day seminar organised by Shared Assets in London recently, on the theme of ‘Common Good Land Use’. He added that Mark Twain had expressed the same view more pithily: ‘They don’t make it any more’. Not quite true of course, when you consider the history of The Netherlands (or parts of East Anglia), but then again, that is always reversible. Hetherington’s punchy little book, Whose Land is Our Land?, on which his talk was based, points out that today in the UK, ‘57% of our best agricultural land is at or below sea level’. Climate change now threatens this; something more to worry about in a post-Brexit era, with its plucked from the air promises of increased agricultural self-sufficiency.

It was social rather than environmental concerns that were the focus of the day, however, as contributors referred time and again to the devastating effects uncontrolled land prices were having on re-configuring the social make-up of villages, towns and cities across the UK. House prices have been soaring, social housing continues to be sold off, and ‘buy to let’ schemes have brought high rents and increasing tenant turnover. All of this leads to more fragmented and less stable communities. In some parts of Britain today, according to Hetherington, the cost of the land constitutes two-thirds the price of a new home.

Land ownership in the UK is amongst the most concentrated in the world, with almost 70% of the landowner by 0.6% of the population. One issue not mentioned during the day was the disturbing new trend by which the volume house-builders now sell an increasing proportion of new homes on a leasehold arrangement, rather than the traditional practice of selling single houses freehold. This means that the developer retains ownership of the land and can continue to charge ground rent indefinitely. Nice work if you can get it.

High land prices mean that new social facilities such as parks, schools, libraries, health centres, churches, and especially public housing (rare as these are becoming), only get built if they form part of a development package that includes large swathes of private flats or offices. Public life and culture is being squeezed out of the street scene, as every available plot of land is handed over to the private sector for development.


If This Were To Be Lost by Jessie Brennan (2016)

This is the story behind artist Jessie Brennan’s exemplary project at The Green Backyard – a former derelict site in Peterborough’s city centre, transformed by volunteers into a vibrant community garden which I visited earlier in the year. Brennan’s book on the process, Re: development, shares the voices of those defending their right to the city. Published in October 2016, it includes not just documentation of the site and its transformation, but a number of essays – architectural, philosophical, political – by an impressive roster of writers including Anna Minton, Ben Rogaly and Jane Rendell, on the threats now posed by the unregulated market in land ownership to civil society and the public common good. Brennan’s work is a good example of the role artists now play in imaginatively alerting us to the most pressing issues in urban and environmental politics.

At the Shared Assets event there was much talk of Community Land Trusts (CLTs) being the way forward. There are now over 170 CLTs in England alone, and two of the larger London projects are based on places whose future development has been a matter of concern for some time: the former St Clement’s Hospital in Mile End, and at St Ann’s Hospital in Tottenham. They are big sites with ambitious plans for social housing, workspaces and other amenities. The rising land values that accrue from development will be captured by the Community Land Trusts that own and manage them to pay for communal benefits, in the spirit of Ebenezer Howard’s path-breaking model at the first garden city at Letchworth.

Despite the excessive use of the possessive case by politicians, with endless evocations of ‘our country’ or ‘this land of ours’, such sentimental rhetoric has no basis in the hard facts of actual ownership (much of it unregistered and therefore secret). Peter Hetherington boldly claimed that despite this, ‘Britain is ours morally, if not legally.’ The land question is back on the political agenda again.


Sanctuary, asylum and retreat


Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014)

Liverpool Street Station is the location of two memorials to the ‘Kindertransports’, the name given to the evacuation of ten thousand Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia at the start of the Second World War organised by the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM), in which Quakers played a major part. Both are by the sculptor Frank Meisler, himself one of the child refugees. Britain seems to have been rather kinder to children fleeing war and persecution then, as only three years earlier in 1936 several thousand Basque children were given shelter and a new start in life during the Spanish Civil War. Several ‘retreat’ communities in Essex – the Salvation Army Colony at Hadleigh, and The Adelphi Centre in Langham – gave the Basque children a ‘place of greater safety’.

A deeply moving book on this subject, Sanctuary & Asylum: A Social and Political History by Linda Rabben, has just been published, raising questions of how we live alongside others in an age of large-scale migration resulting from a new era of poverty, war and persecution. Rather than recount the many shocking stories which led to the development of more codified agreements about rights to asylum or sanctuary, which Rabben’s book provides in detail, some general principles emerge which govern the conditions in which asylum is culturally accepted.

The first is that the concept of sanctuary itself is religious in origin, and remains largely so today. In pre-Christian times, those seeking personal safety from the violence of others, would hurry to a sacred site where the gods were held to be present, and thus secure divine protection. Christianity continued this tradition, with the church taking on the function of inviolable space, where the rule of the law, or vengeance of others, no longer obtained. Thus sanctuary has always acted as a counter-authority to the power of the state, ‘outside or against the law’ in the words of Rabben, and from time to time refugees still find sanctuary in religious buildings, where they are supported by church congregations.

In contrast, refugee status is ascribed from above, by legal processes usually involving recognition of statutory rights granted by individual nation states or international agreements. These rights are often bitterly contested and hard fought, and sadly have become deeply politicised as a result of globalisation, of which everybody wants the benefits – the cheap food, clothes, electronic goods, exotic holidays – but not the trade-offs and social obligations.

There is certainly a geography and landscape of sanctuary. In the era of the Greek city-states, we are told that, ‘Sanctuaries on the frontiers of city-states were well known. Promontories, considered sacred to the god Poseidon, often served as places of asylum, because they were accessible by both land and sea.’ During the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War, several villages in the remote mountainous Haute Loire region, most famously Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, sheltered hundreds of Jews for the whole duration of the war successfully, at great risk to the lives of the villagers and their families too, as well as those they sheltered.

The reference to the coastal location of the Greek sanctuaries reminded me of the Othona Community at Bradwell-on-Sea, bringing a third type of inviolable space – the retreat – into the vocabulary. Established originally by British and German Christians in 1945 at the end of the Second World War in a spirit of reconciliation, it still thrives and is open to people of all religions and none as a quiet place of short-term retreat. It too stands on the edge between land and sea.

In the course of researching the social history of land settlements and experimental communities in Essex over the past hundred years – which often employed the vocabulary of sanctuary and retreat – it has become clear that religious traditions and impulses lay behind the majority of them. It has been the conjunction of religious and political ideals that have resulted in the most successful experiments in promoting social – and more recently, environmental – change. This is still true today. In this respect I am looking forward to reading Duncan Bowie’s forthcoming book, The Radical and Socialist Tradition in British Planning: From Puritan Colonies to Garden Cities, due early next year, which examines the ethical and philosophical debates and initiatives which fore-shadowed 20th century town planning, and in which the overlap between religious and political beliefs was always extensive.


Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014) © Jason Orton


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.

Expect a fight


Rainham Marshes (2010)

When someone talks about the creation of a ‘new nature’ expect a fight. Yet it is happening all the time, since human activity has been re-shaping the natural world for millennia. Nevertheless, the pace of change has been accelerating, and for many observers now appears out of – if not beyond – control. Oliver Rackham wrote in his excellent ‘History of the Countryside’ that ‘Much of England in 1945 would have been instantly recognizable to Sir Thomas More, and some areas would have been recognized by Emperor Claudius.’ Coming closer to home he also noted that the pattern of development in south-east Essex today ‘has all been inserted into a grid laid out nearly two thousand years ago.’ When landscape architect Peter Beard marked out the footpath systems for the new RSPB site at Rainham Marshes, on the Thames, close to London, he told me he was following the lines of ancient brushwood tracks, traces of which date back to the Bronze Age.

The claim that we are in the process of creating a new nature is made by environmental historian, Paul Warde, in a collection of essays, Local Places, Global Processes, just published by Oxbow Books. Warde is one of a number of artists, academics and environmentalists gathered together for a series of workshops held at three large nature conservation projects in England, the papers, reports and findings of which are now in print. The projects evaluated were: Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, the Quantock Hills (England’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and Kielder Water and Forest in Northumberland, an almost entirely twentieth-century man-made environment of reservoirs and commercial forestry.

This is probably a book for a specialist readership, particularly those involved in nature conservation and landscape character assessment (though there is by now a tourist industry audience keen to develop new niche markets in ‘green leisure’). Issues of what is beautiful, what is sustainable, what is authentic and what is truly ‘wild’ are repeatedly discussed, often in subtle and rewarding ways. T.C.Smout’s short essay, ‘Birds and Squirrels as History’, is especially enjoyable and original, in tracing the rise and fall of different avian species in relation to social and economic changes in the environment. Equally clear-eyed and to the point is Paul Warde’s chapter, ‘Names and Places’, alerting us to the impoverishment of environmental awareness resulting from the loss of attention to the proper names of things and their provenance – an issue on which Robert Macfarlane has been much exercised in recent times, and rightly so.

The contributors make up a broad church, working along a continuum of interest in landscape matters, ranging from the art-historical, the aesthetic, the conservationist, the managerial, to those working in landscape design, as well as people interested in deep ecology and re-wilding. This is welcome. Although I much enjoyed Richard Mabey’s recent dismantling of the reputation of Capability Brown in the New Statesman, echoing and developing Mabey’s long-standing scepticism about nature conservation in general, and landscape architecture in particular, there is also much to be admired in the work of those who are trying to bridge the gaps, and work across the borders.

Neither is it too late to change your mind. Marianna Dudley tells the story of how the ageing Wordsworth – of whom it is commonly believed that he became an irredeemable and intransigent Tory – was told that his dinner party host one evening was the man responsible for building a wall across a local footpath. On learning this the poet shouted, ‘I broke your wall down, Sir John, it was obstructing an ancient right of way, and I will do it again. I am a Tory, but scratch me on the back deep enough and you will find the Whig in me yet.’ That is fighting talk.

Ken Worpole

Rainham Marshes (2010) © Jason Orton

Radical Essex Architectural Weekend: The Modernist County

10-11 September 2016

Ken will be joining a panel at the Radical Essex weekend on Saturday 10 September at Silver End to discuss Landscape, Identity & The London Spill. Other speakers include Matthew Butcher, Tim Burrows, Gillian Darley, Charles Holland and Rachel Lichtenstein. For the full programme of the weekend’s talks and visits go to: