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.

Tag: Gareth Evans

After the rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

KW

For more details of the Flipside Festival:
http://www.flipsideuk.org/flipside-festival

For more details of Bettina Furnée’s film, Lines of Defence: http://bettinafurnee.co.uk/works/lines-of-defence-2008/

My House of Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KW

For more details about My House of Sky and to order the book, go to Little Toller Books https://www.littletoller.co.uk/shop/books/little-toller/my-house-of-sky-hetty-saunders/

Place and its meanings

LowRes_Towards_ReEnchantment

Three years after its original publication in 2010, which sold out almost immediately, it is good to see Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings back in print. Edited by Gareth Evans and Di Robson, this was an influential collection of contributions around issues of place by writers, poets and photographers across the UK, as well as being one of the catalysts for our project, The New English Landscape.

At the time few if any contributors engaged directly with that powerful Victorian notion that as a result of the rise of science and secularism, the world had become ‘disenchanted’. Rational, scientific explanations of how everything in the world came into being, moved and eventually disappeared, appeared to strip human experience of mystery and even poetry. What is interesting is how attachment to place, and to the natural world, came to be substituted for what were once considered religious experiences, variously described as spiritual, rhapsodic or epiphenomenal.  It is significant how many contemporary writers, not least Will Self, increasingly refer back to William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, as a text to be revisited for our times.

Pool Spar Markers, Thames River

We’ve been intrigued and flattered at what bloggers and reviewers have said so far about The New English Landscape, because most have alluded to or occupied this territory of the numinous and the utopian. Wallpaper magazine suggested that, ‘Jason Orton’s photographs provide an almost forensic insight  into a shifting landscape, while Ken Worpole’s texts take you into the strange histories of these emotionally remote places.’  Meanwhile Caught By The River referred approvingly to ‘a sense of everyday otherworldiness’ of the prose and the photography, while Josh Loeb wrote of the ‘wonderfully mesmeric quality’ of the photographs, and even went so far as to describe the project as ‘transcendental’.

Yet it could be argued that this current search for ‘enchantment’ in the natural world, or in the psycho-geography of urban space, is only a new version of the 18th century projection of human emotions on to an indifferent universe in its localised material presence in the form of landscape and place.  The ‘pathetic fallacy’ as it came to be called, whereby all kinds of emotions could be attributed to certain kinds of landscape – wild, unruly, placid, calm – is alive and well, but we hope we’ve avoided such forms of projection through establishing a tension between words and images, the exigencies of social history and visual richness, so that there is an interrogative presence at work in our response to landscape as well as an appreciative one.

Ken will be in discussion with Gareth Evans and Rachel Lichtenstein about The New English Landscape at the London Review Bookshop next Thursday, 28 November at 7pm – don’t forget to book a place.