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.

An accidental beauty


Mounds, Norfolk (2013)

Along with Grant Gee’s haunting new film, Innocence of Memories, based on Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence, there is an exhibition displaying a small section of Pamuk’s legendary Istanbul museum currently on show at Somerset House in London; admission is free.

Pamuk remains pre-occupied with the power of objects to trigger associations, believing that ‘things’ in themselves possess qualities which allow us to remember, dream and even hope outside of the passage of time. In the vitrines exhibited here – in an appropriately gloomy basement – are primarily domestic objects: matchboxes, food packaging, photographs, patent medicine bottles, toys, cigarette butts and perfume bottles. These objects and icons, rescued from everyday life, evoke and represent the lives of the novel’s characters during the period in which The Museum of Innocence is set, though they are clearly dear to Pamuk and his memories of life in Istanbul during the same period.

A short text accompanies the display, in which the novelist (who had once studied to be a painter) proposed a link between the world of such domestic objects and the wider Turkish landscape. Pamuk writes that he came to this understanding,

‘…after many years of collecting objects, of visualizing and sketching cabinet layouts as if I were writing theatrical stage directions. Looking at the photographs we took during this process, I realized that I was doing what the Istanbul landscape painters I so admired did: looking for an accidental beauty in the convergence of trees, electrical cables and pylons, ships clouds, objects and people. The greatest happiness is when the eye discovers beauty where neither the mind conceived nor the hand intended any.’

There is a clear echo here of Rilke’s lines from the Ninth Duino Elegy:

‘Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window – at most: column, tower…’

In Britain the debate about modern landscape aesthetics rolls on with, most recently, garden writer Anna Pavord, describing in her new book, Landskipping, how she went out of her way to try to love the Norfolk coastal fens – and failed. For Pavord the wooded hills and valleys of Herefordshire, where she grew up, and of Dorset, where she has lived for more than 40 years, have set the standard for what one might value and cherish. She is not, however, a Romantic, coming from a farming background, and feeling more at home with the writings of William Cobbett – who always had an eye for the working countryside which produced so much of the necessities of life – than with the poets and tourists. One chapter details the changing demand in field crops – rape, flax, linseed – and very recently, to poppies, now apparently grown in the UK under stringent conditions for the pharmaceutical industry’s need to produce more morphine. Who knew?

Is it just a matter of personal taste, or familiarity, which decides that one person thinks the sunny uplands are the only place to be, whereas another person cleaves to the forests, or the fens? Pamuk’s delight in the accidental beauty of juxtaposition, between the rural and the industrial, or people and things, now seems more appropriate to the age in which we live. The arbitrary juxtapositions which provide Pamuk with his small epiphanies, are what in photographic terms Roland Barthes once described as ‘the trouvaille or lucky find’: a particular moment when incongruous objects and settings imaginatively cohere.

Too often now the generic term landscape is vague and unhelpful, producing confusion – and category errors – rather than clarity. There is the landscape once termed ‘natural’ (though very few places in the world have escaped the imprint of human activity), but mostly associated with agricultural work. There are the landscapes which are clearly man-made, and associated with the rise of industrialism, the urban world and great transport networks. But there are also the designed landscapes produced by garden designers and landscape architects, specifically to produce particular emotional effects, or to evoke historical antecedents. And there is also the landscape as a constructed ideal, most evident in the work of painters such as Claude. All have their different discourses and uses, but there are more questions than answers when discussion elides too easily between them.

And then of course there is nature writing – we could be here for days.

KW/Mounds, Norfolk (2013) © Jason Orton

The Peculiar People of Essex


Peculiar Chapel, Tillingham, Essex

In the early 1960s my family lived for a short time in Daws Heath, Essex, across the road from a Chapel belonging to The Peculiar People, a Nonconformist sect almost unique to Essex. On Sundays and sometimes during the week we would hear stirring hymns emanating from the small, four-square chapel, but otherwise chapel life didn’t intrude into our own, neither did the activities or beliefs of the congregations of the Elim Pentecostal Church in nearby Hadleigh, which also counted a Baptist Chapel and a Methodist Church (as well as a fine Norman Anglican building). The ‘low’ churches – as they were often termed – were still quite active at the time across the county. Dissent and Nonconformism were particularly strong in East Anglia where, in the words of the Anglican preacher and writer, Ronald Blythe, even the wind was doctrinal.

Philip Hoare mentions the Peculiars in his inspired study of early Victorian religious enthusiasm, England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia (2005), though he refers only to the ‘Plumstead Peculiars’, one of only two branches outside Essex. At its height the Peculiars had more than 50 chapels within the county boundaries. The Peculiar church had its origins in Rochford in the 1830s, forming as a result of the religious epiphany experienced by local farm labourer, James Banyard, whose life until then had been decidedly drunken and quarrelsome. Banyard attached himself initially to Wesleyanism and then subsequently established his own sect.


The story is told in Mark Sorrell’s fine history, The Peculiar People (1979), since supplemented by newer archive material and recollections, including those of novelist Bernard Cornwell on Desert Island Discs in 2004, where he recalled his early life as the adopted son of a Peculiar family. Cornwell’s new family was well known locally when I was growing up, the father being a successful builder. A friend of my family who worked as a carpenter for the firm used to tell us that biblical texts were always inserted into the weekly pay-packets of the workers.

In his own words, Cornwell’s childhood memories were ‘very ugly’. No television, cinema, comics, unsuitable books or music; and the threat of eternal damnation hung over all those who failed to convert. On one occasion he was with his father in Rayleigh High Street when they passed by the memorial to four Protestant martyrs burned in 1555. Cornwell’s adoptive father said that he himself expected to be martyred one day. In the chapel the family attended there was a ‘mercy seat’, where the as yet unconverted could sit and await the divine call. At the age of sixteen the would-be novelist walked out of the house one day and never returned.

Cornwell disliked the Peculiars from direct experience, though in general members were tolerated by outsiders – except when it came to the issue of divine healing. Like the Plymouth Brethren, the Peculiars eschewed the use of doctors or any form of medical intervention, preferring the healing power of prayer. When this involved cases of children (especially of those very seriously ill), public opinion, and at times the law, took against them. This matter also led to the first of several doctrinal schisms, when Banyard’s own son became seriously ill and after agonising at length a doctor was called in, causing a church split. In the twentieth-century, distrust arose for another reason, as the pacifist beliefs of the sect led to many being imprisoned as conscientious objectors, a position regarded as virtually unforgiveable during the First World War, less so during World War Two.


In the recently published third and final volume of Michael R.Watts’ definitive history of English Nonconformism, The Dissenters (2015), we are given the occupations of male dissenters in Essex from 1840 – 1959. The ‘low’churches were peopled mostly by unskilled workers and their families in the early Victorian period, though by the late 1950s, congregations had a much higher proportion of skilled workers. Nonconformism was essentially a working class body of faith, its non-hierarchical and plain-speaking tradition fitting more comfortably with everyday sentiments and lifestyles. Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism, though one should be careful of saying that the Nonconformist spirit in Essex was imbued with the same sense of social solidarity enjoyed by its Northern industrial counterparts. Rather it was perhaps more firmly attached to the principle of individual self-determination, preferring not to be told by others what to think or do. This might help explain the volatility of political attachment in Essex, sometimes regarded as a bellwether for the nation as a whole.

The last time I was in Tillingham, near Bradwell-on-Sea, I noticed that the Peculiar Chapel had been demolished; many others have disappeared. The loss of these smaller, often modest workaday religious buildings, which anchored so many Essex towns and villages in a long tradition of Nonconformist life and culture, is cause for concern. One does not have to be a religious revivalist or antiquarian to regret the way in which the many traces of public memory embodied in these buildings are being erased from the landscape and townscape.


Cinematic skies and revolutionary winds


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Just published, New Jerusalem: the good city and the good society, by Ken Worpole

Worpole New Jerusalem cover

On 3 December 1898, at Rectory Road Congregational Church in Stoke Newington, London, Ebenezer Howard (1850 – 1928) gave his first public lecture following the publication of To-Morrow! A Peaceful Path to Real Reform six weeks earlier. Republished in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-Morrow, this was soon to become one of the most influential town planning documents of the twentieth-century. The book was a clarion call for a new world order, replacing the urban slums with garden cities.

Howard was an enthusiastic member of an idealistic late-Victorian network of intellectuals and campaigners calling for social reform during a politically and intellectually tumultuous period. A mild-mannered man, he nevertheless mixed with individuals and organisations wide-ranging in their ‘progressive’ beliefs and affiliations, ranging from muscular Christianity to revolutionary socialism, from spiritualism to dress and dietary reform, from women’s property rights to the cause of anti-vivisection, and from Darwinism to ‘back to the land’ agrarianism.

One of Howard’s friends was the pioneering evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 – 1913) who, like Howard, was a member of The Brotherhood Church, attending services and lectures at its chapel at the junction of Southgate Road and Balmes Road in Hackney. According to Maxim Gorky, this ‘ridiculously shabby wooden church’ was large enough in 1907 to hold 338 members of the exiled Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which held its Fifth Congress there, its delegates including Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Rosa Luxemburg. The Brotherhood Church was a Christian sect established in the 1880s, with strong socialist and Tolstoyan leanings, and much given to issues of social reform.

In his early days Russel Wallace had been a land surveyor, a fervent advocate of land reform; in 1881 he had been active in establishing the Land Nationalisation Society. Land ownership was a key issue for this and earlier generations of radical reformers, many influenced by the ideas of 18th century radical, Thomas Spence, who held that all agricultural land be held and cultivated in common. Howard was firmly persuaded by Spence’s ideas, regarding the principle of settlements being built on land owned and managed by autonomous self-governing communities as ‘the secular counterparts of the dissenting congregations Howard knew so well,’ according to biographer Stanley Buder.

Public or communal ownership of land, along with development rights and the capturing and redeployment of increases in land values to pay for collective amenities, were to become key principles of the garden city movement, ideas now being revived again today as the price of land accelerates inequalities and unravels established neighbourhoods and public housing policies in a property development free-for-all…

These are the opening paragraphs of Ken’s new book, New Jerusalem: The Good City and The Good Society, published by The Swedenborg Society. It deals with a range of models of town and estate planning in the 20th and 21st centuries, especially those which seek to overcome the increasingly redundant division between ‘town’ and ‘country’, in a networked world in which more women than men go to work in some UK cities, more people work at home, more people live on their own, and more forms of settlement are needed which allow greater flexibility of lifestyles, shared amenities, mutual support and co-operative management.

Copies of the book, which costs £6.95, can be ordered from:

Ken will launch and talk about his new book at Clissold House, Stoke Newington, London on Sunday, 8 November 2015 (2pm doors open for a 2.30pm talk). Tickets for the talk are £4 (including glass of wine). Ticket information at


Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide


Graham Swift’s 1983 novel, Waterland, changed perceptions of the Norfolk Broads from that of a carefree interlaken of summer boating lagoons, to a grimmer network of bleak dykes and lonely hamlets, isolated between the fens and the sea. Very flat, Norfolk, was Noel Coward’s dismissive ventriloquism, but in his engaging collection of literary postcards from home, The Regional Book, the cultural geographer David Matless gathers support from Georges Perec’s injunction to ‘Force yourself to see more flatly’.

Matless is rightly admired for his near-definitive, Landscape and Englishness, first published in 1998 (rumoured to be back in print again next year in a new edition), and ever since a rich resource for anybody interested in the social history of landscape. The Regional Book is rather different, and much more allusive, a gazetteer of 44 Norfolk places, each described in telegraphese, halfway in style between Pevsner and the poet Roy Fuller. It is very persuasive.

The frequent re-iteration of similar viewpoints and settings evokes a landscape where the historic infrastructure of canals, dykes, navigations, cuts, sluices and locks, slipways and quays, reedbeds and saltwater creeks, still dominates the experience of place, perhaps more than anywhere else in England. Furthermore, since water transport is largely for leisure purposes today – as well as being seasonal – for most times of the year the Fens and the Broads remain under-populated, with in Matless’s words, ‘a past in league, a present in trust.’ That past is this watery world of former medieval peat excavations, shallow but flooded ever since, and interwoven with the rivers Ant, Bure, Thurne, Waveney and Yare. Although ‘the Broads’ became an important element in the post-war landscape of Englishness, it needed Matless to venture beyond the benign sun-dappled shallows to discover a more mysterious, complicated terrain where nothing can remain hidden for very long.

The spare, enigmatic prose style – something of a house style for its publisher, the small but perfectly formed Uniformbooks – reminded me of one of John Cowper Powys’s lesser known novels, and the only one set in East Anglia, Rodmoor. First published in America in 1916 but for some strange reason not issued in England until 1973, it too is permeated by rivers and tidal waters, and the constant flooding, draining and re-flooding of place and memory. Despite a bizarre accumulation of characters and plotlines, part King Lear, part Cold Comfort Farm, Rodmoor succeeds best as a disturbing evocation of East Anglia, taking the yellow-horned poppy as its totem, and with admiring references to the Norwich school of painters and the hallucinatory, destabilising inter-relationship between marsh, sky and sea. At one point one of the characters, Nance, asks why ‘there is always something horrible about tidal rivers? Is it because of the way they have of carrying things backward and forward, backward and forward, without ever allowing them either to get far inland or clear out to sea. Is a tidal river the one thing in all the world in which nothing can be lost or hidden or forgotten?’

It is this recursive, refractory nature of the East Anglian fens and marshlands that make them the ideal landscape for the return of the repressed, most recently given another outing in the film, 45 Years. The film is set close to Norwich, in a wintry landscape, employing that Sebaldian device – first used in The Emigrants – whereby a letter arrives informing the principal characters that a body lost to the mountain ice decades earlier has been returned to the surface still perfectly formed, thus bringing about the painful unraveling of once solid assumptions and understandings.

Matless first raised the flag for the Norfolk Broads in the opening section of Landscape and Englishness, defending the chalets and shacks of inter-war holiday-making against the claims of the heritage police as to what was considered appropriate or inappropriate development in such a singular landscape. It required the rise of cultural geography to make the case for the vernacular landscape as a field of localised habitation, places where men and women have created a home for themselves in the world, and especially where it still remains possible to live differently because of what Powys described as ‘the illimitable space around…as boundless as infinity.’


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


Epping Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

KW/Epping Forest © Jason Orton

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

The London Park


Sarah Pickstone, Willow, 2011, by kind permission of the artist

The best book about London is Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s, London: The Unique City, published in 1934, and still easy to find. Primarily about London’s architecture, Rasmussen nevertheless reserves his highest praise for the London park, which he admired as a social gathering place for everybody. It was, in his words ‘the ideal place for an outdoor life’, and the outward expression of civility and democracy. Many other foreign correspondents have reached the same conclusion. Everybody loves parks, except neo-liberal economists and politicians, who, as Oscar Wilde once wrote with regards to cynics in general, know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Park Notes is a handsome new book focused entirely on Regent’s Park, compiled by artist Sarah Pickstone. The result is a colourful and effusive cornucopia, combining Pickstone’s own delicate but exuberant paintings, alongside essays by writers as varied as Ali Smith, Olivia Laing, Amanda Coe and Marina Warner – and it sings. The anthology had its origins in two projects, the first being a series of paintings by Pickstone begun in 2009 of women writers who had been inspired by their relationship to the park, and the second was an essay by Ali Smith commissioned and published by the Royal Parks, which activated Pickstone to contact Smith and propose a book of essays and paintings. We are now lucky to have it.

Smith’s opening essay is a jeu-d’esprit, a hymn to the pleasure of suddenly finding oneself in a place where time stops still.

‘I stepped out of myself and into the park, I stepped off the pavement and into a place where there’s never a conclusion, where regardless of wars, tragedies, losses, finds, the sting, or the sweetness of what’s gone in a life, or the preoccupations of any single time, any single being, on it goes, the open-air theatre of flowers, trees, birds, bees, the open vision at the heart of an old city.’

In this lovely evocation, the voices of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen are summoned up, and true enough, these tutelary spirits are conjured up by nearly every other contributor, in what is primarily a book exploring a woman’s view of life in the city’s sanctuaries and sacred groves – its parks.


Sarah Pickstone, Hylas study, 2009, by kind permission of the artist

In her appreciation of Pickstone’s paintings, and in conversation with the artist herself, Marina Warner writes that, ‘Sarah Pickstone speaks of the park as a realm on its own terms, neither a garden nor the countryside, neither a landscape nor a wilderness, but something in-between.’ It is this unique quality of city parks – one of the great achievements of municipal culture – which is so difficult to define, but so palpably felt by millions of people daily, that this book seeks to capture, and does so well, worthy of putting alongside the great essay by Claudio Magris, ‘Public Garden’, in his book on Trieste, Microcosms, to my mind the definitive evocation of the other-worldliness of the urban park. A great debt is owed to the Heritage Lottery Fund for making the cause of urban parks one of their main priorities over the past two decades, though this recent golden age of parks now faces the levelling gales of a revengeful politics of austerity.

Of course there were always those who have felt estranged from the urban park’s promiscuous humanity. One of those was Virginia Woolf, conflicted as ever, whose wider human sympathies were sometimes clouded by class anxiety. As Alison Light records in her 2008 study, Mrs Woolf and the Servants, on the occasion when Woolf travelled to Stoke Newington in July 1937, to find the grave of her great grand-father, James Stephen, in St Mary’s churchyard, she wandered into the adjacent Clissold Park, close to which our family have lived, and which we have loved, for nearly fifty years. Alas Woolf felt otherwise, recording in her diary that ‘it smelt of Clissold Park mothers; cakes & tea; the smell – unpleasant to the nose – of democracy.’

Fortunately Woolf’s exquisite and humane novels redeem her occasional private maladversions, and Pickstone’s anthology brings the better side of Woolf to the fore as one of the most dedicated chroniclers of London’s emotional geography. At this time of the year there is nothing like sitting in the shade of a park with a good book – and this is such a book.







Park Notes is published by Daunt Books Publishing

Dig where you stand


Ponders End Allotments, London (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KW/Ponders End Allotment photograph ©Jason Orton






A People’s History of Gardening

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

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




On The Beach


Perhaps it started with Jonathan Raban’s Coasting, or was it Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom By The Sea? Ever since, most writing about the coast allegorises the state of the nation. In the 19th century, it was all very different, a time when writing about the shoreline was another way of asking, where is God?

Patrick Barkham’s new book, Coastlines: The Story of Our Shore, is an acute set of observations on the nature of the contemporary beach and foreshore as a public commons. Readers should be warned, however, that while promoted as another milestone in contemporary nature writing, it is, more truthfully, a lively piece of institutional history – notably the story of Enterprise Neptune, the National Trust’s post-war campaign to acquire and protect large areas of the coastline against further development. Barkham’s study combines a series of descriptive walks in and around some of the 742 miles of NT coastal acquisitions – including Stackpole, Strangford Lough, Wembury, Orford Ness and the Lyme Regis Undercliff, as well as Lundy, Brownsea, Scolt Head and Northey Islands – along with grid references, travel details, and recommended guide books. A book for armchair reading as well as for the wild swimmer’s beach bag (once the paperback is published).

In enthusing about places noted for their isolation and tranquillity, Barkham appreciates that in he is inevitably compromising these qualities by encouraging increased visitor numbers – but this paradox comes with this particular literary territory. ‘Loved by the nation, hated by the locals,’ is a refrain he often hears from National Trust Rangers about the organisation they work for, encapsulating a modern, if less serious, version of ‘the tragedy of the commons’, whereby in promoting the public amenity of the coastal footpath system, non-locals are encouraged to share the cliffs, harbours and beaches which local residents once thought exclusively theirs.

This is why I like this book. Unlike so much other topographical writing, Barkham comes back time and again to the public policy issues raised by questions of ownership, management, aesthetic judgement, and institutional creativity in regard to widening landscape access and appreciation. I only wished that he had eschewed the use of the possessive ‘our’ in the title, as well as elsewhere in the text, a proprietorial trope now thoroughly debased in public discourse, especially amongst ingratiating politicians.

When a holidaymaker describes her holidays on Lundy Island as a profound experience of ‘peaceful exhilaration’, we are brought affectingly close to what so many people find precious about proximity to the sea, especially as they grow older. Barkham is a sympathetic listener to other people’s stories about the meaning of the foreshore and its wide horizons, talking to visitors and NT Rangers at length, and quoting them fully. There is nothing solipsistic about his writing, which perhaps comes from the fact that he has been a journalist on the Guardian’s ‘Society’ pages for some time. There are premonitory warnings about the decimation of fish stocks from coastal waters, as well as vivid evocations of coastal erosion, the large scale dumping of sewage, industrial waste, and domestic litter. It is not all golden sands and bracing sea air out there on the margins.

It would have been wonderful to have been a fly on the wall at the early Trust meetings when the aesthetic agonies of cliff-top caravan and camping sites were discussed (let alone naturist beaches), and when outright class war was, apparently, only narrowly avoided. Likewise the desire to rid all former military buildings and installations from some of the sites acquired from the Ministry of Defence, may have made good aesthetic sense, but entirely erasing the historical record from the landscape ought surely now to be regretted.

The shoreline has always been both a playground and a battlefield – mostly the latter for much of history. This theme is picked up in artist Richard Wentworth’s contribution to the current History is Now exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery. Wentworth has focused on the wartime and post-war representation of the beach as a place of terror and death – as in Robert Capa’s grainy photographs of the D Day Landings, and in paintings by Paul Nash such as Totes Meer – as well as a place of innocent recreation. These latter pleasures are evoked in L.S.Lowry’s July, the Seaside and Henry Grant’s enchanting 1952 photograph, Londoners relax on Tower Beach, amongst others, in an exhibition well worth seeing for Wentworth’s curated section alone.


This Island Race

Ken will be chairing a discussion on coastal landscapes with artist Richard Wentworth, Pat Carter of the Radar Museum in Suffolk, and Lara Feigel, Co-editor of Modernism-on-Sea, under the title, This Island Race, as part of the Changing Britain Festival at the South Bank, on Saturday, 18 April.

For more information:

The Law Of The Forest And The Freedom Of The Streets

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This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies. 

Giambattista Vico, The New Science

‘What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?’ raged Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, when served with a notice to move his caravan from its woodland clearing, in Jez Butterworth’s 2009 anti-arcadian play, Jerusalem. The kids who come there, he claimed, are safer than at home. This is where the wild things are. The opening stage direction: ‘England at midnight’.

Butterworth’s explosive ‘state of the nation’ drama raised many questions about the state of the nation. In a highly urbanised society, talk of the ‘meaning’ of the forest today might seem anachronistic. Yet it raises anew the spectre of waking up to find that many historic freedoms – about rights to roam and freely associate (and on occasions run foul of the law) – have been subtly suborned, or deleted. As the 1215 Magna Carta is being celebrated, it is a good time to remember its significant addendum, the 1217 Charter of the Forest. The Forest Charter formalised the right of unbonded men to access and use of the goods of the royal forests (grazing, fuel, food), while implicitly assuming the right to wander freely in the landscape as well as providing a place of refuge for those cast out of the social order. Forest sentiments still run deep, it would seem. It was public protest against the sale of Forestry Commission woodlands which prompted the first political turnaround of the present Coalition government in 2011.

Since 1215 such rights have been subject to political reversal. ‘Claim and counter-claim have been the condition of forest life for centuries,’ wrote historian E.P.Thompson, in his forensic dissection of the 1723 Black Act in Whigs and Hunters (1975). That Act introduced nearly 50 new capital offences, and was brought in to come down hard on poachers in the Windsor Forest. It resulted in a flurry of executions at Tyburn of villagers who had gone into Windsor and other forests in disguise (blacked up, hence the Black Act) or armed with staves or guns, poaching for deer.

Much of what we know about forests is owed to Oliver Rackham, intrepid historian of the woodlands of the world, who died last month. Rackham would have been sceptical to say the least about any attempt to conflate natural history with political symbolism, writing on several occasions that he had no time for any discourse which assumed ‘that trees are merely part of the theatre of the landscape in which human history is played out.’ ‘Trees are the actors in the play,’ he asserted, and from what we know today of the dire results of de-forestation around the world, he was right.

Yet the symbolic threshold between ‘civilisation’; and ‘the forest’ still holds fast – even in an age of CCTV, satnav, and satellite-tracking mobile phones. Mythologically, the forest was a place of alchemy and transformation: women become men and men become women; children turn into beasts, as Max does in Maurice Sendak’s, Where the Wild Things Are, and as Butterworth’s unruly youth do in Jerusalem. In the modern world, however, it has been the city which has provided the role of the forest, as a space where people can appear and disappear at will, associate with whoever they choose, and where a plurality of lifestyles, beliefs, and timetables co-exist, licensed or not. Yet if the young are demonised in rural England, as Butterworth’s play suggests, they are under even greater threat of containment or dispersal in the modern city, where the presence of young people in groups is today perceived to be a social problem.

When Danish architect and urbanist, Jan Gehl, was invited to undertake a study of the quality of London’s public spaces in 2003, his final report, Public Spaces and Public Life – London (2004), noted a particular absence of children and the elderly on the streets of the capital: of all people observed in the case studies, 95% were between 15 – 64 years of age. In a subsequent interview, Gehl said he thought the absence of children on London’s streets was not only surprising, but worrying, as it evinced a narrowing of the urban ‘public’. Anna Minton’s 2009 book, Ground Control, and the 2011 London Assembly Report, Public Life in Private Hands, both highlight an increase in surveillance and control in the public realm as the management of newly designed public spaces is ceded to developers, rather than retained by elected local authorities, resulting in a winnowing out of people thought ‘undesirable’.

future forest

For this and other reasons, when the architectural practice, Witherford Watson Mann, won a competition in 2007 to develop a public realm strategy for London’s Bankside, they chose to develop the project under the rubric of ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’. The final proposal, on which I also worked, is still being implemented. It imagined the Bankside public realm strategy as developing an urban forest rather than a park. There is an important difference. The term park originates with the Latin parricus or French parc, meaning enclosure. The early deer-parks were royal hunting grounds and strictly policed, whereas the forest came to be regarded as a place of liberty, without boundaries.

In recent times ‘forest space’ has acquired a set of architectural and topographical associations, signifying open-endedness and permeability, as a terrain which can be entered or exited at any point at the edges, and which visually changes and re-configures itself as the traveller moves through it. Because of their organic origins, forests offer a multiplicity of paths, routes, changes of direction, as well as clearings, copses, streams, rides and allées. ‘A person should be able to walk through a forest on the way from home to work,’ the architect Alvar Aalto once said. The American literary critic, Robert Pogue Harrison, in his book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation, has made similar claims for the forest as an abiding element in human experience, even when transplanted into modern conditions:

‘If forests appear in our religions as places of profanity, they also appear as sacred. If they have typically been considered places of lawlessness, they have also provided havens for those who took up the cause of justice and fought the law’s corruption. If they evoke associations of danger and abandon in our minds, they also evoke scenes of enchantment. In other words, in the religions, mythologies and literatures of the West, the forest appears as a place where the logic of distinction goes astray.’

Though the forest idea introduces elements now associated with ‘greening the city’, and largely determined by ecological imperatives – to counter CO2 emissions, to lower ambient temperatures, to increase surface water retention and avoid flooding – there are equally important social and economic imperatives in the forest strategy too. By adopting a more ecological approach to urban space strategies, there are greater opportunities to support local economies and conserve historic street patterns and connectivities. The forest idea is not based on centre-periphery economies and spatial hierarchies, but on equitable networks of livelihood and exchange. It embodies many historic associations with freedom and social justice.

Urbanists have for some time now been drawing attention to the ‘over-scripting’ of public space in modern urban regeneration schemes, so that all conflicts and loose ends are designed out of the development, and people are subtly organised and choreographed into patterns of use and timetables decided by others. This disallows for that sense of wandering, of going off-piste, and of discovering a neighbourhood or district by serendipity. The very qualities for which we admire historic European towns and cities have often been designed out of many new urban quarters in the UK. ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’ was intended to resist this over-inscription of public space.

The notion of the city as a forest is not a new idea. The idea of creating forest-like conditions as the basis for a new kind of urban public realm, builds on the past, but also embodies new ecological imperatives for making cities more sustainable environmentally, economically and socially. At its heart lies the historic ideal that both the forest and the city (Stadtluft macht frei – city air makes you free) are realms of individual liberty, and need be defended as such.


Illustrations from ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’ are published by kind permission of Witherford Watson Mann.

This short essay was commissioned by OpenDemocracy as part of a series on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and is published simultaneously on their website at: