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.

Sanctuary, asylum and retreat


Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014) © Jason Orton



The Unbounded Savannah: Henry George and the Land Question


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

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

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

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

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


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

Expect a fight


Rainham Marshes (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Worpole

Rainham Marshes (2010) © Jason Orton

Radical Essex Architectural Weekend: The Modernist County

10-11 September 2016

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

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

IMG_3132.JPG WJS Bow Bridge ELG 70

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: