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.

Expect a fight


Rainham Marshes (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Worpole

Rainham Marshes (2010) © Jason Orton

Radical Essex Architectural Weekend: The Modernist County

10-11 September 2016

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


Along the Outskirts: edgeland aesthetics and the origins and revival of the New Town with Marc Atkinson & Ken Worpole

along the outskirts cover

Commissioned by the arts organisation, Metal, the photographer and film-maker Marc Atkinson has explored the edgelands of Peterborough for a film & photographic exhibition, accompanied by an illustrated catalogue for which Ken has written an introductory essay. More details of the exhibition and related events are provided at the end.

For his project, Marc Atkinson returned to document the hinterland of the historic city of Peterborough where he himself grew up, and spent many days tracking the surrounding terrain of Peterborough proper. In doing so he talked to walkers, residents, itinerant travellers, edgeland workers, as he documented the hybrid new landforms and erstwhile woodlands, now to be found encircling the city. Many of these outings have been compressed into a series of eight walks which he has written up and illustrated on a website specifically established for the project.

‘These are not timeless landscapes,’ wrote Atkinson in the course of writing up one of his walks, ‘anything but.’ This they share with the peripheral territory surrounding most towns and cities in the UK today. Development can sometimes happen almost overnight. The centrifugal force to re-locate new housing development, superstores, warehouses, and even religious buildings, to the perimeter is still the main thrust of urban policy, despite oft-repeated appeals to consolidate and revive town centres.

Atkinson’s photographs reveal many awkward conjunctions of parkways and pathways, railway lines and feeder roads. Today Peterborough’s edgelands are dominated by car use, and those people who still choose to walk are regarded as aberrant. The woodlands are still used by dog-walkers, perhaps today the most intrepid group of all urban wanderers, but also by those without homes, or those engaged in illicit activities. Like many seeing Atkinson’s photographs for the first time, I was disturbed by the extent of the abandoned camp-fires, forsaken sleeping bags, make-shift benders and shelters, as well as the areas of the woodland floor covered with the multi-coloured spaghetti of cabling discarded once the valuable metals have been stripped out.

‘The edgeland areas can be frightening,’ writes Atkinson during another of his forays. ‘They buzz and tremble with alternate currents of stasis and activity – they froth with new natural life and are scattered over with our cheap plastic droppings left like offerings for the dead. These activities over time have been compressed and compacted everywhere you look and occasionally their significance is too much to bear.’

To launch their collaborative publication, Along the Outskirts, Ken will be joining Marc to discuss the role of landscape as heritage, as a rich pictorial tradition in art, as an ecology, and, perhaps most importantly, as a site of crucial contemporary debates about the value and meaning of place in a modern, post-industrial society.

Saturday, 23rd July, 1:30 – 3pm (free admission)

Peterborough City Gallery & Museum, Priestgate, Peterborough PE1 1LF

To book visit:


Ken will also be speaking the following Saturday in Stevenage, at:

The Recommission for New Towns

An open event on the past, present and future of UK new towns, featuring Sarah Gaventa on public art in Harlow; Christopher Smith on filming Basildon; Ruth Potts on economic transformation and Ken Worpole on building utopias. There will also be tours, talks, & debate.

Saturday, 30 July, 2016, 10am – 5pm

Stevenage Museum, St George’s Way, Stevenage, Herts SG1 1XX

For more details go to: The Recommission for New Towns

Under a leaden sky

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Bow Bridge by W. J. Steggles

Our last blog suggested people hurry to see the ‘Peculiar People’ exhibition at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea. Now there’s an extra reason for a trip to the seaside. Only three hundred yards from Focal Point, the Beecroft Art Gallery is hosting a rare exhibition devoted to the work of The East London Group, and the two exhibitions complement each other perfectly.

The East London Group was a body of amateur artists inspired and taught by the academically trained painter John Cooper at an evening class in Bethnal Green (and subsequently Bow) in the 1920s and 1930s. They were quick to make their mark not only on the local scene but soon achieved national and even international acclaim. Hence the title of the beautifully illustrated volume re-issued again this year to accompany the exhibition, David Buckman’s, From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group. Within a few years of picking up their paintbrushes, two of the group, Elwin Hawthorne and W.J.Steggles, were selected to exhibit their work at the 1936 Venice Biennale.

ELG Front Cover copy

Full disclosure: everything I know about the East London Group I owe to Buckman’s wonderful book, a labour of love and the result of decades of research. To my shame I did not know of the group’s existence until this exhibition. Like the miners of Ashington, whose painting class was established in the same period, and whose work most recently enjoyed a revival of interest as a result of Lee Hall’s play, The Pitmen Painters, staged at The National Theatre, the East London Group was likewise made up of enthusiastic auto-didacts. The founding students included a park-keeper, basket-maker, engine-driver, window-cleaner and several office workers, who not unsurprisingly concentrated on painting domestic scenes and street life direct from experience.

According to one critic, what members shared in common was ‘the pale, attenuated light of the London streets’, while another chose to cite the American philosopher Emerson on the English aesthetic of evoking depth and sincerity in this kind of urban scene by painting as if ‘under a leaden sky’. Though focusing on street scenes to begin with, over time members travelled further afield, into Essex and Suffolk and beyond, where they proved equally adept at recording the mood and tones of different suburban and rural landscapes.

Cooper’s evening class in Bow was just one element in a rich network of ‘second chance’ opportunities for education offered in east London during this period – one thinks also of Toynbee Hall, The People’s Palace, Kingsley Hall, the Whitechapel Gallery and the Whitechapel Library, along with a number of Jewish organisations, clubs and theatres. In this period political activism and pedagogy went hand in hand.


Marian Square by Albert Turpin

The biography of Albert Turpin, a founder member of the group, is the stuff of legend. Born in 1900 in a tenement off Columbia Road, Bethnal Green, the son of a feather-sorter, Turpin left school at 14, became a boxing champion, fought in the First World War, and for the rest of his life earned his living as a window-cleaner. An active socialist he became Mayor of Bethnal Green, led the often brutal street-fighting resistance to Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s, as well as producing some of the finest oil paintings of East London life of any member of the East London Group. Towards the end of his life Turpin became attracted to the conciliatory ethos of Moral Re-Armament, as did a number of trade unionists and Labour Party stalwarts after the Second World War.

Not only were East London Group members lucky to have had Cooper as their tutor and fellow artist, they were also able to take advantage of Cooper’s contacts in the commercial art world. From the outset their work was exhibited in a West End Gallery, and was bought by collectors. Why the East London Group became forgotten – compared with the Ashington Group, for example – is a mystery, but the Beecroft exhibition combined with the new edition of Buckman’s book, brings them back into the light again, deservedly so.


Images of paintings published by kind permission of Francis Boutle Publishers

The East London Group – ‘Out of the City’ exhibition is on at The Beecroft Gallery, Southend on Sea, until 25 June 2016.

From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group, New Revised Edition, 2016, by David Buckman, is published by Francis Boutle Publishers.

‘We are not afraid of the future’ The Peculiar People: an exhibition at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, 19 April – 2 July 2016


Masthead of The New Order anarchist newspaper produced at The Purleigh Colony in Essex, and reproduced from ‘Alternative Communities in Nineteenth Century England’ by Dennis Hardy

There was a packed opening night at this new exhibition at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend on 16 April, and a great party atmosphere too. After decades of embarrassed silence, a rich history of political and religious non-conformism and radicalism in Essex is now being properly acknowledged, in a county that has been the subject of much cynical misrepresentation, but which is here revealed as a key social laboratory for all kinds of experiments in living in the 20th century. The exhibition title takes its name from a Nonconformist sect unique to Essex, The Peculiar People, about which we blogged earlier this year, and the gallery itself has been handsomely re-housed within the state of the art new public library, The Forum.

The tutelary spirit of anarchist historian Colin Ward hovers over the exhibition, for it was Ward, latterly with Dennis Hardy, who initially chronicled the self-built plotland communities and rural communes to be found on the margins of Essex. Ward suggested that they arose there because of a relative proximity to London’s politically volatile East End, but also – following the agricultural depression of the 1870s – land was cheap. The ground plans of the Dunton colony near Laindon are on display, but also included is a rare opportunity to listen to a recording of Ward giving his 1985 lecture, Arcadia for All – A study of the Essex Plotlands.

Close to Dunton, in East Tilbury, the Czech shoe manufacturer Tomas Bata established his model industrial village in 1932, having been persuaded by a local clergyman to come to the aid of the many unemployed in the area. At its peak, Bataville employed over 4,000 workers, many of whom lived in houses supplied by Bata, and designed in a modernist style. Workers were encouraged to participate in company leisure-time activities – outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, 350-seat cinema and technical college – and even took ski-ing holidays in Czechoslovakia at the company’s resorts there. No zero-hours contracts then. ‘We are not afraid of the future’ was Bata’s maxim, and a selection of plans and drawings of his model town are on display, supported by documentary footage from a film by Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope.


Credit: Fraser Muggeridge Studio

Along with Bataville, Silver End Garden Village near Witham was another attempt to build an industrial settlement as a utopian community (even if ordained from above, as both manifestly were). Established in 1926 by Francis Crittall (1860 – 1935), a successful manufacturer of metal window frames, the housing was designed in a high modernist style by architect Thomas Tait. The village was almost entirely self-sufficient, and at the time regarded as one of the healthiest settlements in Britain, and is still much visited by architecture students.

The overlap between the socially minded and the religiously inspired was strong in the early 20th century, so it is not surprising that many of the religious settlements featured in the exhibition – Hadleigh Farm Colony, Osea Temperance Society, the Othona Community at Bradwell, among others – were centres for the rehabilitation of those whose lives had previously been blighted by poverty, ill-health, addiction, or as places of spiritual retreat. Wide-ranging as it is, the exhibition only scratches the surface of the dozens of self-sufficient or therapeutic communities established in Essex over the past hundred years, many of which remain unrecorded.

The principal gallery space also includes the work of artists and architects who took a fancy to the Essex scene, possibly because of its rough and ready unfashionability. A large vitrine displays a model by architect Cedric Price for an unrealised 1972 proposal to construct an inflatable roof to cover Southend High Street, along with a number of Price’s bold and expressive drawings. Other exhibits include watercolours, drawings or prints by Edward Bawden, Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Milly Thompson, along with a generous display of work by poet and artist Henri Chopin.

The folk-modernist spirit of the old Southend Art College is captured in a display of books written and illustrated by Kurt Rowland, who taught at the college, and whose pioneering work in the field of design education became internationally renowned. Rowland may well have inspired the fanzines produced by the Southend Libertarian & Anarchist Broadsheet (SLAB) collective in the 1980s, a number of whom worked locally for HM Revenue & Customs, but, not unsurprisingly, contributed anonymously. Artist Christian Nyampeta completes the exhibition with his fashioning of Gallery 2 as a place for meeting, talking, reading and the exchange of views about the world, complete with striking murals, purpose-built furniture and book-shelves, all combining to create a small salon/library/retreat to which visitors can retire and reflect.

The exhibition is just one element in a longer project being carried out by Focal Point Gallery under the rubric, ‘Radical Essex’, and includes architectural study tours across the county, gallery talks, and related projects such as Matthew Butcher’s ‘Flood House’, the subject of our last posting. It’s a small step for Essex but a large step for mankind.


Ken will be giving a talk at the Focal Point Gallery at 7pm on Thursday, 12 May, 2016, as part of the exhibition programme:

The New Life in Essex: nonconformist life and culture in the 20th century’

Admission is free, but booking essential at

Before or after the Flood?

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Flood House, Thames Estuary. Drawing by Jason Coe

On Monday, 18 April, 2016, designer Matthew Butcher, will launch ‘Flood House’, an architectural prototype, at the Dauntless Boatyard in Benfleet, Essex, on the Thames Estuary. ‘Flood House’ is, in the words of Butcher, ‘a practical and poetic investigation into the living conditions of a seasonally flooded landscape.’

On first impression the proposed structure looks unwieldy, but for those aware of what often gets built on the fragile inter-tidal zone between land and sea – fishing sheds, pill-boxes, pontoons, houseboats – then the structure begins to make sense. It is also a gestural corrective to the old adage that architecture and water don’t mix.

Although Flood House will not be inhabited, it is nevertheless designed to test the conditions under which a floating habitat might work in the foreseeable future. This is with regard to ambient estuary conditions, whether in the form of changing weather conditions, tidal stresses, as well as air quality and changes in temperature and humidity inside the structure – all of which will be monitored. Flood House is made of ply and weatherboard and will float on three steel pontoons, all the elements of which will be assembled at the Benfleet boatyard, though much of it was pre-fabricated at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, where Butcher teaches.

‘Architecture is usually considered to be a stable, fixed entity where internal temperature and conditions of comfort are heavily controlled,’ Butcher wrote in his prospectus for the project. ‘Flood House seeks to challenge these notions, suggesting instead a nomadic architecture that forms a responsible relationship to its surrounding environmental conditions.’

When I recently met Butcher – along with project curator, Jes Fernie – I said I’d been following the architectural discussion in the UK over how the Dutch are now building on water. Butcher pointed out that admirable though the Dutch schemes are, they are mostly erecting conventional houses on floating foundations, which remain tethered to the shore. ‘Flood House’ is testing a prototype for a nomadic habitat, one that can be moved from one place to another, so in a way it is more boat than bungalow, more ship than shed. Following its launch on 18 April, the house will be towed from Benfleet to a boatyard in Wakering, then moored off Southend Pier, for public viewing.

‘Flood House’ is making more than just an environmental statement. Fernie, along with Focal Point Gallery, have also commissioned artist Ruth Ewan to work on the project. Under the rubric of ‘All Distinctions Levelled’, Ewan has designed a weathervane for the structure, inscribed with the palindrome ‘LEVEL’. ‘Level’ alludes to sea levels certainly, but also to levels of status and inequality, currently the subject of much political concern.

In the same way that the once abandoned canals of inner London have been given new life and public vitality in recent years by the proliferation of houseboat moorings, it would be inspiring to see more life in future around the coast and in the estuary as the result of a resurgence of foreshore or floating communities. Essex has a long tradition of houseboat communities – read Carol Edwards’ excellent little 2009 book, The Life and Times of the Houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea, for example – so one hopes that ‘Flood House’ represents an exciting new development in a continuing story of living off-grid, and on water.

‘Flood House’ is part of the larger ‘Radical Essex’ programme led by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, which will be the subject of our next posting.

For more details about ‘Flood House’ visit:

For more details about the ‘Radical Essex’ programme:


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.’