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.

This is the place

Lines of Defence by Bettina Furnée

When it comes to writing about landscape, or making art about it, there’s little escape from Ruskin’s notion of the ‘pathetic fallacy’, whereby mind and place are inevitably trapped in an inescapable web of feeling. Perhaps only artistic representation allows us to step back and more dispassionately interrogate what it is we feel about certain landscape conditions and why we do so. Susan Owens’ Spirit of Place: Artists, Writers & the British Landscape is an excellent history of landscape representation, whether imagined in prose, poetry or through the visual arts. Having finished and enjoyed it, I nevertheless went back to Patrick Keiller’s short book, The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, for a corrective. My only difficulty with Owen’s book for me is the underlay of chronological determinism, as century by century, decade by decade, one innovation leads to the next. In a section on the matter of grand landscape design, we encounter Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, then William Kent, then Humphrey Repton, in what is by now a too familiar exercise in baton-passing.

In contrast, Keiller juxtaposed William Dyce’s epochal painting Pegwell Bay – which is in both Owens’ and Keiller’s expositions and rightly so – with the redundant cement works at Shipton-on-Cherwell awaiting redevelopment. In the same spirit Keiller alternates photographs of Greenham Common with the neighbouring 18th century West Green House, once the headquarters of the Hellfire Club (Fay Ce Que Vouldras – Do As You Will) later the residence of Lord McAlpine, treasurer of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Without contraries there is no progression, as William Blake advised, while Hilary Mantel recently admitted in an interview to having no interest in time’s arrow only in circularity. Yet when Owens focuses, as she does, incisively, on Pegwell Bay, her reflections on Ruskin’s religious terror of the geologist’s hammer – which is what the painting alludes to as the gloomy cliffs give way to the fossil record – is revelatory. On this and almost every other page Owens has something acute to say, and always elegantly so, though she is more engaging on the exterior world of landscape than on the few occasions she withdraws into the great houses.

Owens also leaves too little room for more recent times, in a study dominated by the picturesque, the sublime, and what Raymond Williams once called ‘the enamelled world’ of received good taste and opinion. There is a sudden hurrying towards the end to modernist and post-industrial debates on contemporary aesthetics – extremely welcome but sadly too little too late. The chronological problem is compounded by the way tastes change in relation to different regional topographies and boundaries, as landscapes fall in or out of favour according to the spirit of the age. In the 18th century a reference to ‘the eastern counties’ refers principally to Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk as far as tourists of the picturesque are concerned. Suffolk and Essex are only enlisted into the eastern territories in the late 19th century (except for John Constable), while the right of Essex to belong to East Anglia remains contested. Yet these two latter counties have provided some of the most important territory for investigating landscape in modern times, whether in the work of Paul Nash, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Prunella Clough, Maggi Hambling, Benjamin Britten, Sylvia Townsend Warner, John Cowper Powys (notably in his overlooked East Anglian novel Rodmoor), W.G.Sebald, Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Jules Pretty, Sarah Perry, Melissa Harrison and many others.

In the work of such artists and writers, spirit of place is not inherent or essentialist, but disputed or contested territory, disrupted by war, flooding or migration, its mutable marshlands, fens, vast skies and winter seas more fitting to the mood of a world no longer grounded in national history or geographical and spiritual interiority. Here again it is Keiller who emphasises that when it comes to spirit of place, cycles of both dwelling and displacement are necessarily involved in a struggle that can never be finally resolved.

Owens comes up trumps at the end, however, concluding her study by extolling the virtues of a work by Dutch artist Bettina Furnée, Lines of Defence. This eloquent and emotional record of coastal erosion on the Suffolk coast at Bawdsey, filmed over a year using time-lapse photography, and employing a text by Simon Frazer, is an astonishing work, and I remember seeing the film at one of the now legendary ‘Place’ weekend cultural forums at Snape Maltings about ten years ago: it left the audience silent in admiration and melancholy awe. As concepts of place continue to gather political and critical attention, Owens’ study provides a worthy contribution to the discussion, and it would be good to see her writing more about 20th and 21st century writers and artists on the strength of this intellectual outing.


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:

England made me?

‘Regionalism is a sleeping giant that is now, after a short pause, ready to wake again out of sheer, obvious righteousness,’ writes Alex Niven, setting out his stall in his lively short book, New Model Island. The plates are already shifting. Ireland inches towards unification at ground level, in Scotland the Scottish National Party enjoys a near-monopoly of parliamentary seats, and the two major parties in the rest of the UK, the Conservatives and Labour, are locked a bitter struggle to commandeer anew the midlands and the north. Where Niven differs from those who want to see a new kind of English radical project, is that he is determined to drive a stake into the heart of England before it is re-invented as a nationalist enclave. ‘England does not, in the end,’ he argues, ‘have a substantial or coherent enough cultural imaginary to last the distance in the globalised, precarious twenty-first century.’

If not England, then what? Niven’s pitch is for an archipelago of regions or provinces to stimulate and disperse political self-confidence, and so begin to address the dilemma most famously captured by William Gibson’s remark that although the future has arrived it has been unevenly distributed. Niven’s book is strong on the cultural arguments for decentralisation, but doesn’t explain fully why Labour’s earlier proposals for regional assemblies failed to gain traction, nor how breaking up the power of London can be achieved – especially when he seems to believe that politicians such as Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (all command and control career politicians representing north London constituencies it should be noted), might have been the ones who could have made it happen. Unfortunately for the author, the book went to press before the electoral rout of 12 December 2019, an election which Niven had hoped would produce a left-wing Labour government. This was not to be. Nevertheless, the arguments for decentralisation are not going to go away; indeed they are likely to become stronger.

As the book’s sub-title – How To Build A Radical Culture Beyond The Idea Of England – suggests, the political changes Niven wishes to see rest principally upon strengthening cultural identities at a regional level. He admits that his own identification with the Northumbrian region has been influenced by its early Christian formation under Oswald and Aidan in the seventh century, showing ‘what a radical ethical event Christianity must have been in the sparse, martial landscapes of this period of northern history.’ This larger story has been recently amplified in Tom Holland’s epic study of the administrative and ethical legacy of Christianity, Dominion. Anyone who thinks that radical politics and religion can’t sometimes reinforce each other’s greater purposes should visit the Miners’ Memorial in Durham Cathedral.

Where Niven sees cultural hope in the folk, punk and post-punk movements – especially strong in the northern cities, as well as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – my generation saw a similar hope in jazz. There was always a strong relation to civil rights movements in modern jazz, whether in the US, Britain and even in the lands of ‘actually existing socialism’, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia. My anxieties over Niven’s reliance on indigenous folk culture are because too often in the past this has fed into the cultural blind alley of anti-Americanism on the British left, something Dick Hebdige was alert too more than thirty years ago, and challenged in his 1980s essay ‘Towards a Cartography of Taste 1935 – 1962’, first published in Block magazine, and reprinted in his 1988 collection Hiding in the Light.

I would also argue that topography contributes as much to the cultural identity of a region as any other factor. In the version of economic geography we were taught at school, it is why you find ship-building on the Tyne, coal-mining in the north-east and south Wales, arable farming in East Anglia, sheep-farming in the Lake District, naval and maritime ports on the south coast, tin-mining in Cornwall, and all the national political and governmental institutions located in the capital city. Although most economists would now claim that the links between place and primary production have been sundered, and that most post-industrial jobs can be sited anywhere in the world, if there are serious moves towards a more sustainable economy, some of these connections might need to be re-discovered again.

And although the UK belatedly endorsed the European Landscape Convention which came into force in 2004, its central argument has largely been ignored (and post-Brexit can now be returned unused). Yet it was far-seeing, stating that: ‘Each party undertakes to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity.’ Niven’s aspirations for a new regionalism could well gain much by paying more attention to landscape and topography as he does to administrative issues, especially given the current revival of writing about place and all its historical, demographic and cultural complexities. Rightly questioning the consequences of the abandonment of the old county structure in 1974, Niven suggests that it marginalised ‘the region’s greatest asset: historical memory.’ He also observed that: ‘Regionalism draws as nationalisms do on certainly key historical legacies, but in a more diffuse, less racialised way: its deep appeal lies in its harnessing of volitional civic attachment to cities, towns and locales, rather than the over-simplifying medieval and romantic dreams of nationhood…’ This is very well put.

New Model Island is full of good things: a long, well-structured essay in short chapters, with occasional interludes combining personal reminiscence with brief cultural forays into Dylan Thomas’s poetry, Liverpudlian post-punk romanticism, and the architectural ‘new eerie’. It is also nicely published too: design, typography, layout and readability work to bring the text in clear engagement with the reader.

A sense of place and belonging is also the focus of Jon Lawrence’s timely Me,Me,Me? The search for community in post-war England. This is a close re-reading of some of the famous sociological studies of working class life and culture from the 1950’s onwards which sought to understand whether the alleged ideal of the working class community so often invoked by commentators still existed in Britain, or indeed whether it had ever existed at all. As someone who trained to be a teacher in the 1960s, the studies of family life in Bermondsey by Raymond Firth, the famous and much-cited Family and Kinship in East London by Peter Wilmott & Michael Young, and of Luton car workers and their aspirations by John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood were compulsory reading. At the time most of us thought that anything written by a sociologist or anthropologist must be true, not yet understanding the art of interpretation. Lawrence gives the material a thorough going over, as much for the interviewers’ assumptions as of the interviewees’ testimonies. It makes fascinating reading, and unsurprisingly Lawrence has his own thesis to suggest. This is that rather than the simplistic idea that affluence had brought a tide of consumerist individualism, and then subsequently de-industrialisation put a coffin nail into the organic, close-knit community, people have always been struggling to balance the social and the self, so that ‘personal betterment and social progress often went hand in hand’. So while economic and social impacts on work-based communities undermined men’s roles, they freed many women to explore their own sense of personal freedom and opportunity.

While Niven’s book takes the form of a lively essay, Lawrence’s study is more for the academic researcher, but both are equally fascinating. Lawrence concludes by suggesting that what has replaced the defensive structures of neighbourhood and class, is an ‘elective belonging’. By this he means that where you live, its topography, social mix, and where it lies on the rural/urban continuum – in short, its sheer ‘placeness’ – is still vitally important to people’s identity, as much as class, for many more so. As a sense of place becomes ever more important, it will require underpinning by a renewed respect and increase in powers for local government. I am not sure any longer that I would vote for anybody standing for Parliament who had not devoted some years to being a local councillor.

Paradoxically, the European Union with its earlier espousal of the concept of subsidiarity – that is to say, that all decisions should be taken at the smallest strategic level possible to be both acted upon and effective – did provide a model for a more devolved democracy, even if never fulfilled. But now we have ‘taken back control’ that prospect seems further off than ever.


Essex Book Festival 2020​​

Sunday, 15 March 2020, 11am – 12 noon

Firstsite Gallery, Lewis Gardens, High Street, Colchester, CO1 1JH

All at Sea?

Ken will be in conversation with Hana Loftus, co-director of award-winning architecture practice HAT Projects, currently working at Jaywick Sands on the Essex coast (where 35 people died in the 1953 tidal surge), in response to the new threats posed by climate change. Hana’s talk will be illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs, and material showing possible scenarios for developing more resilient coastal communities.

For more information & booking:

A New World in Essex

The week before last former Essex County Archivist, Victor Gray, gave a splendid talk at the Essex Record Office to launch A New World in Essex: the rise and fall of the Purleigh Brotherhood Colony, 1896 – 1903, which adds a new chapter to the fascinating story of utopian Essex. Thanks to the pioneering work of W.H.Armytage (Heavens Below), Dennis Hardy (Utopian England), Colin Ward (Arcadia for All) , Chris Coates (Utopia Britannica) and Gillian Darley (Villages of Vision), we are only now realising how much the British landscape is marked with the remains and memories of so many experimental communities.

Unsurprisingly, Essex provided a home for many of these, largely because of its proximity to London, a capital with a long radical tradition and concern with social improvement, often based on ‘back to the land’ principles. Nowhere was nearer than Essex where land was cheap and easily accessible. Such radical enterprises were often energised by an influx of refugees from other parts of the world, bringing new ideas of how best to live now and in the future.

The Brotherhood Church was the creation of two dedicated Christian Socialists: John Bruce Wallace and J.C.Kenworthy. The latter was very much under the influence of Tolstoy, whom he had visited in Russia, corresponded with, and for whom he acted unofficially as a literary agent in London. At the end of the 19th century Tolstoy was seen by many as a new Christ-figure, whose preaching of brotherly love, pacifism, and the simple life, gathered hundreds of thousands of converts around the world.

The story of the Brotherhood Church has been confined largely to marginal references or footnotes, but in Victor Gray’s lively and detailed monograph we have the full story of one of the Church’s most intriguing experiments at Purleigh, a small hamlet on the Dengie Peninsula in Essex, where finally members were able to put their principles into practice.

Starting out with premises in Croyden, before moving to a former Congregational Chapel in Hackney, Kenworthy and Wallace eventually managed to raise enough funds to buy land in Essex where, with fellow ‘colonists’, they intended to establish a model community. Which they did for a short while, though not without difficulties. None had any agricultural experience, few even of manual labour itself, but the pioneers worked hard and within two years had managed to build accommodation for themselves and establish a working farm that sold produce to like-minded radicals in the small shops they had in Croydon and Hackney, or to fellow Tolstoyans elsewhere.

Aylmer Maude, the distinguished translator of Tolstoy, as well as friend of Kenworthy, moved close by to Wickham’s Farm with his wife, acting as supporters and friends of the experiment. They took over a large house (now standing empty for decades, but still standing) where they entertained Tolstoyans from other parts of the world, as well as providing Sunday suppers for the colonists. Things went well for a while but then outside events began to distract the work of the small-holding.

Gray suggests that the effect so many ‘foreign’ visitors to the Purleigh colony aroused the suspicions of the locals, a scattering of poor farm workers whose lives had been seriously impoverished during the agricultural depression and who lived very much hand to mouth nearby. These suspicions would have been exacerbated when a small group of Russian peasants in traditional dress, members of a persecuted Christian sect, the Doukhobors, arrived at the colony, having been thrown out of their homeland. Though they did not stay long, it was long enough for the Purleigh colonists to feel a chill wind of disapproval from their neighbours – and probably the interest of the police, since the well-known Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, arrived (with snow on his boots?) soon after. Both the Special Branch and the Russian secret police always followed Kropotkin’s activities with close interest.

Another factor which may had contributed to the slow dissolution of the colony was that J.C.Kenworthy, one of the key proponents of the scheme, was a man who couldn’t stay still, spending increasing time away from Purleigh promoting the cause of ethical socialism. He may not have been in Purleigh when the founding group of colonists decided to expel two new members whom they found wanting in some regard, causing a split which failed to heal. Soon after some of the original group moved to Gloucestershire – two of them walked all the way with their belongings, relying on strangers to give them food, as they had earlier renounced the use of money – and set up a new colony at Whiteway which still survives a century later with some of the founders’ principles still intact.

Seven years may seem a very short time for a new world to last, but its influence was significant. In nearby hamlets other land colonies were established over the next two decades, and the culture of make do and mend self-sufficiency created the conditions for the emergence of the Essex plotlands culture which involved many thousands of people in the decades that followed. Kenworthy took up other New Life interests, including spiritualism, while Wallace helped Ebenezer Howard establish the Garden City movement. Out of the great ‘new life’ ferment of the 1890s, many things grew, still influencing the way we live a hundred years later. In this fascinating study, Victor Gray tells us why.

A New World in Essex: The Rise and Fall of the Purleigh Brotherhood Colony, 1896 – 1903, Victor Gray, Campanula Books, 2019


After the rain

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

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

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

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

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

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


For more details of the Flipside Festival:

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

A man, a bicycle, a printing press

Nick and the printing bike – illustration by Jon McNaught

In 1986 I cycled with a group from John O’Groats to Land’s End, camping each night at a sports’ ground, farm site or commercial camping ground, sometimes dripping wet, occasionally hot and sunburnt. As someone who at that time spent a lot of time writing about contemporary life in Britain I thought I should at least know something of the terrain. The route followed only back roads and narrow country lanes, avoiding towns, cities, built up areas and main roads.

The range of landscape and settlement types encountered over nearly a thousand miles was remarkably varied: uplands, lowlands, mountains, river valleys, forests, heaths, arable, grazing, coastal, threaded with picturesque hamlets or bleak moorland enclaves. All had been shaped by the ground beneath – granite, limestone, sandstone, chalk, clay, whatever – and each formation produced a different sense of place and ecology, a jigsaw puzzle of topographical experiences and emotions. On the larger scale of things, geology is destiny.

There was one unifying factor in this ever-changing terrain: the ubiquity of First World War Memorials. These punctuated almost every village crossroads, market square, and churchyard, invariably supported by an endless succession of memorial halls built after the ‘war to end all wars’: some simple pre-fabricated structures, others elaborate exercises in Arts and Crafts pavilion architecture. It was what I remembered mostly about that journey and still remember now.

Less serious, though prescient of things to come, was the equal ubiquity of Mother’s Pride delivery vans racing up and down every by-road from one end of the country to the other. They tore along the lanes from early morning until late at night, the speeding backdraft blowing us from side to side as they passed. Apart from fuel tankers and public utilities vehicles, the over-familiar bread vans were almost the only other commercial vehicles we came across on the ride. Standardisation was on the move, and travelling fast.

Typographer and printer Nick Hand recently cycled the same journey in the opposite direction (Land’s End to John O’Groats – lucky man he had a tail wind), in his case for the cause of non-standardisation. He had arranged beforehand to meet up and talk to small-scale crafts-people from St Ives to the Isle of Lewis who were conserving or reviving trades and skills once familiar across Britain: pottery, cider-making, letterpress printing, bespoke clothes and footwear, and even the well-known Brooks leather bike saddles. What added to the difficulty of his journey was that he mounted a small printing press on the back of the bike, on which he printed postcards at each designated stopping place on the route.

Brooks saddle postcard – illustration by Ben Goodman

A small book based on his journey, Conversations from Land’s End to John O’Groats, has just been published, and gives only a hint of the commitment involved in his trip and the pleasure of his many conversations and engagement with crafts-people, artists and photographers. The statistics of his journey are impressive: 1,273 miles cycled, 29 days on the road, 163 hours in the saddle, 73, 118 feet climbed. What really struck a chord was his observation that while life becomes simpler on such long journeys, one purpose over-riding everything else, ‘your emotions can be quite raw’. This is particularly true when cycling conditions become extreme. At one point on an official Sustrans route, Hands had to keep lifting his bike (with printer and luggage attached) over a succession of boulders. I certainly identified with his claim that ‘a craft is harder than an art’. The snobbish distinction between the two has dogged aesthetics (and public cultural policy) for much too long, and still does.

Conversations from Land’s End to John O’Groats is published by Hands’ own production company, The Department of Small Works, based in Bristol, and their website is worth investigating. There’s something about the West Country air that seems to generate an enthusiasm for small-scale production and the art of making and repairing. I value my copy of Visible Mending: Everyday repairs in the South West, published by the wonderful Uniformbooks a few years ago. This was a collection of illustrated case studies of repairers – clocks, shoes, tools, woodwind instruments, clothes, electrical goods, bicycles, upholstery – brought together in another of that publisher’s exquisitely designed books. Both books are rooted in the past but look to a different future, admirably so.


My Blue Heaven

My Blue Heaven, The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, May 2019

The artist John Christie recently completed a new project – a hut built from century-old corrugated iron- now fashioned into a major artwork and currently on show at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. After seeing some of the photographs and related pieces at the North House Gallery in Manningtree with Christie recently, he asked if I would be interested in writing a short introduction to the catalogue he has just produced. I was more than happy to do so; it is enchanting. The combined works share the title My Blue Heaven.

The main piece is the hut, the structure of which informs all the other pieces. After construction it was sawn in two, mounted on legs, and lit from within by blue LED lights. Instead of concentrating on the form’s powerful and dark interiority – the usual stuff of hut dreams and forebodings (think of Derek Mahon’s unsettling narrative poem, A Disused Shed in Co.Wexford) – Christie has opened his hut up to the starry skies above.

In this work, and the related acrylic paintings, he evokes the social history and emotional resonance of corrugated iron itself. Primarily a cheap building material, it was developed in the first half of the nineteenth century, soon becoming closely identified with the fervent religious revival which swept Victorian Britain and the rapidly expanding membership of proselytising sects such as the Primitive Methodists, the Independent Baptists and the Wesleyans. These were particularly strong in nonconformist East Anglia, where the chapels still hold their own in the landscape.

The easy prefabrication, assembly and portability of the ‘tin tabernacles’ also caused them to be known as ‘mission’ churches or even ‘gypsy’ churches (just one architectural step up from ‘tent religion’). In his definitive history and gazetteer, Tin Tabernacles, enthusiast Ian Smith asserted that ‘Iron churches were the perfect synthesis of industrial ability and social and spiritual need.’ Flat-packed sheets of corrugated iron, together with pre-cut lengths of timber framing could be delivered almost anywhere in the country at short notice and at little cost.

Puritanical, plain, and lacking all material splendour or decorative excess, the galvanized tin chapels were nevertheless high on spiritual and devotional meaning. They have also become an object of fascination, if not desire, for many artists, though Christie’s hut eschews sentimentality in its pictorial representation, if not in its lyrical associations.

New Constellation (detail) May 2018

My Blue Heaven evokes forms of transcendental longing. Once the shed had been severed in two, he realized that a song that had been going round in his head for some time – New Orleans pianist Fats Domino’s upbeat version of My Blue Heaven – unlocked a series of correspondences between this elemental tin shed and dreams of worlds lost and perhaps still to come. This imaginative projection is further developed in the gallery work, ‘New Constellation’, a combination of treated corrugated iron, acrylic paint and panels of LED lights, which ‘discovers’ the essential hut form as a familiar constellation in the night sky, an example of what philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space defined as ‘transcendental geometry’.

The essentialism of the hut rests on its archetypal architectural symmetry. Just as the Acropolis has columns, entablature and pedimented roof, so Christie’s deconstructed iron shed has its uprights, cross-pieces (lintels) and roof diagonals. It is an ideal form in the Platonic sense, and Christie’s brilliant axiometric conceit of finding the cheap tin shed forming its own constellation in the distant heavens, provides this common or garden structure of everyday use with an elemental presence in the world, beautifully so.

Ken Worpole

My Blue Heaven is currently on show at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, from 10 May to 1 September 2019 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. For further information:

An illustrated catalogue of the works included in My Blue Heaven, with an introductory essay by Ken, ‘Hut Symmetries’, can be purchased at £6 (including p&p) from John Christie directly. More details:

Cunning Murrell

There is an unexplained omission in the Wikipedia entry for the Edwardian writer, Arthur Morrison, most famous for the East End novels, Tales of Mean Streets (1894), A Child of the Jago (1896), and The Hole in the Wall (1902). No mention is made of his fascinating novel, Cunning Murrell (1900), a story of white witchcraft in Hadleigh, Essex, based on an actual person of the novel’s title who lived there in the middle of the 19th century, and whose fame extended across the county. I spent some childhood years in Hadleigh, which is why it has a special appeal, but not so much that it would make me think it a better novel than it is – and it really is very good. Reading it again, some of its descriptive passages of rural fairs, the countryside at night, as well as the dialect speech are as vivid as the best of Thomas Hardy, and its evocation of isolated, superstitious, and benighted rural life equally convincing.

As someone resistant to ghost stories – even those of Joseph Conrad or Henry James – and all the literary malarkey about marsh spirits, hauntings, devil worship and tumbledown cottages located at the crossroads, I’d make an exception for Morrison’s novel. Cunning Murrell is not malarkey. It is about the ways in which gossip, male power and collective mentalités, can gain hold of isolated, closed communities, especially those that have turned on each other. It might be through religious fervor, misogyny or class sentiment, but in this case it is largely about the ‘natural work’ of crime (smuggling and the distribution of contraband), which made up a significant element in the estuary economy of Hadleigh and its neighbor, Leigh-on-Sea. Fear of betrayal is ubiquitous.

Set in 1854, the novel’s setting, Hadleigh, is described as ‘thirty-seven miles from London by road, but a century away in thought and manners’. The names of the pubs in the novel are exactly the same as the pubs still there in Hadleigh today: The Castle and The Crown. And Hadleigh has always been marked by its close proximity to the windswept downs and marshes overlooking the Thames Estuary and the distinctive ruins of the 13th century castle, famously painted by Constable, but in this novel the cellars of which are used for storing contraband. Hadleigh thins out into a couple of unkempt narrow lanes leading down to the castle – and still does – and it is here in this lawless territory that the novel takes place, no more than four hundred yards from the High Street. It was always a strange piece of topography.

Morrison was well read in the folklore of Essex rural life and Cunning Murrell is a complicated character, part benign, part steeped in a long tradition of folk medicine and psychological intuition, equally adept as a horse doctor as a mediator between warring families. Like the real life Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, author of the Mersea Island novel, Mehalah, Murrell was the father of up to twenty children, most of whom had been ‘lost or forgotten’.

The historian Sarah Wise – whose work I admire enormously – nevertheless gave Morrison a hard time in her book, The Blackest Streets, slightly unfairly so I thought at the time. It is true that his stories about life in the East End often displayed a fear of ‘the underclass’, and over-emphasised the criminality of Bethnal Green to achieve a literary and dramatic effect, but A Child of the Jago, was and is a terrific novel, and one that inspired Alexander Baron to write his fine novel about exactly the same locale, King Dido. In much the same spirit that led J.M.Barrie to donate the royalties of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital, Morrison bequeathed all the royalties of Cunning Murrell to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.


Neither land nor sea

Benfleet, Essex, March 2013 by Jason Orton

First walk of the year this week, and perfect weather. Three of us ambled slowly from Benfleet-on-Sea to Leigh-on Sea, just five miles, but much to look at and enjoy. Bargain tickets on C2C trains, just £6 return to Leigh from London’s Fenchurch Street Station, with a Freedom Pass and a Senior Railcard. The train journey itself tells the story of London and its expansion to the east in accelerated time. Limehouse, West Ham, Barking, Upminster (all variations and attenuated extensions of the historical East End), until one reaches the marshlands and estuary shoreline of Rainham, the scrubland of Laindon with its motley scatterings of ponies and horses, before the train pulls directly alongside the Thames at Benfleet Creek. From then on it is open skies and vast expanses of bright water.

I’ve done this train journey on and off for nearly seventy years – since a steam train used to take my mother, brother and myself from Benfleet to Barking to visit relations in East Ham in the early 1950s. While the London end of the trip is now a place of constant change and upheaval, the approach to Benfleet Creek and the view across to Canvey Island and the North Kent coast has hardly altered. Even the railway station seems much the same. As the writer William Gibson once wrote, the future has arrived but has been unevenly distributed. The further you travel to the Essex coastal creeks and marshlands, the further you travel back in time. A lot of the broken carcasses of old houseboats, cutters and sailing barges beached on the mud at Benfleet date back to pre-war times, if not long before.

Benfleet is not only the start of the downland approaches to Leigh and Southend, but also provides a bridge to Canvey Island. From here on it is ‘neither land nor sea’. At high tide water flows in, around, behind, and sometimes all over the shoreline and its myriad tributaries and creeks. Islands, outcrops of saltmarsh, grazing land, all appear and disappear in the space of a couple of hours. Hence the swirling clouds of waders in the sky, as their feeding grounds disappear beneath the waves, and they are forced to move further inland. This particular walk was memorable for so many of these fast-drifting swarms of dunlin, curlew and Brent Geese, the former shoaling in the air, wave after wave. The mud shines iridescent before it succumbs to the incoming tide. There is a lot of bird piping, particularly from redshanks, oystercatchers and curlew.

Rather more eerily, looking out to the Thames beyond Canvey Island, backlit by the sun and therefore in hazy outline, a strange shape was seen moving slowly downriver, against the tide. It looked like the whole of Basildon or Thamesmead was being towed out to sea. In fact it was one of the vast container ships heading into the Channel from the container port, DP World: London Gateway, at Thurrock, now creating a monumental shadow theatre. Turning inland, in complete contrast, there are the dramatic ruins of the 13th century Hadleigh Castle, painted by Constable shortly after his wife died, a darkening psychological study in abandonment. On this walk however it was more a case of ‘the splendour falls on castle walls’, as a bright sun lit up the remaining and imposing corner tower.

We sat for a while overlooking the western tip of Two Tree Island where the salt-water lagoons have become a thriving breeding ground for avocets, though this year’s cohort have yet to arrive. Instead, large numbers of curlew were re-grouping there. Finally arriving at Leigh-on-Sea, on what had become a warm Spring half-term holiday, the fishing village was en fête: packed to the gills. All the pubs had spilled out onto the cobbled High Street, and the seafood stalls had long queues. It was difficult to remember that it was still February. It always surprises me how too few Londoners know of Leigh-on-Sea, given that it is a proper working fishing harbour, with a picturesque collection of pubs and cafes, less than an hour from London by train. On the journey back to Fenchurch Street I suddenly remembered that some years ago I wrote up this walk for the Royal Geographical Society’s project on ‘Discovering Britain’: one of a number of ‘modest’ walks they had commissioned, and it can still be found online here.


Benfleet, Essex, March 2013 © Jason Orton

Books and talks
Although both editions of The New English Landscape are now out of print, there are still a few copies of 350 Miles: An Essex Journey available, though not for much longer. You can buy them here. Meanwhile the Radical Essex book is currently re-printing and the Essex Book Festival starts next week.

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

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