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: Jules Pretty

Live and let live

 

Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013 by Jason Orton

The battle over the ‘true heart’ of Essex – the words are those of novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner – continues. In his surprisingly approving review in The New Statesman of the recently published book Radical Essex, conservative historian and journalist Simon Heffer nevertheless still wants to claim the county as inherently individualistic and materialistic. If this were truly the case, consider two aspects of Essex history that question this assumption.

Firstly, the extraordinary story of public spiritedness and collective endeavor by which tens of thousands of people rallied to help others, often at great risk to their own lives, on the terrible night of the January 31st, 1953 flood. This spontaneous mobilisation has been minutely chronicled by Hilda Grieve in The Great Tide. As she reveals, the county’s population was at that time deeply embedded within an enormous range of voluntary organisations. These included the churches, the trade unions (the National Union of Railwaymen was especially active that night and during the following days), as well as the Women’s Voluntary Service, Civil Defence, Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance Brigade, Scouts and Guides groups. All of them – along with the emergency services, local government officers and workers of all ranks – responded to the crisis without a second thought to their personal risk or well-being. Grieve’s book is certainly one of the great works of 20th century English social history, and is a compelling story of human solidarity and mutual aid in the face of catastophe.

Secondly, if possessive individualism were so entrenched, why would Essex today be the home of one of the most long-established and successful County Wildlife Trusts, with an unparalleled record in nature conservation involving thousands of volunteers on a record number of sites? Essex has also provided a home for many other pioneering initiatives in land settlement, along with innovative industrial and housing communities, not to a mention, finally, a singular penchant for religious heterodoxy and enthusiasm. The reality is that the county’s history has always been strongly cross-grained.

However, Heffer – the man who coined the term ‘Essex Man’ for the Sunday Telegraph – is right in saying that the principle of ‘live and let live’ appears to come with the territory, but that principle allows for varying interpretations, and perhaps the matter is better left there. The discussion of national or regional temperaments and character types is dangerous at the best of times, and we are currently not living through the best of times right now.

The success of Radical Essex, which was ‘flying off the shelves’ at the LRB Bookshop I was told when I last visited, is now followed by another book concerned with such themes: Tom Bolton’s Low Country: Brexit on the Essex Coast, a handsome volume illustrated with atmospheric black and white photographs. Although it treads familiar ground, it deftly seeks to understand the relationship between marginal landscapes and embattled identities and loyalties in a world of political turmoil. Bolton and his partner Jo took weekends away from London in the troubled year of 2016 to walk the length of the Essex coast at a time when the nation was undergoing what Bolton describes as ‘a political nervous breakdown’. Union Jacks flew from bungalow gardens, and UKIP posters, both new and old, adorned boarded up pubs and abandoned High Street shops in coastal towns and villages.

While they found little personal antagonism in their encounters, an air of grievance was often palpable. Yet the terrain has always been difficult, historically suffering from the usual exigencies of farming country – agricultural depression, crop failure, animal culls, poor public transport and public services. Meanwhile the seaside towns saw their traditional visitors desert the hotels and beaches for somewhere warmer in Spain or Turkey. Bolton is alert to some of the ironies of the post-Maastricht world, finding that the winner and runner up to find the fastest fruit-picker in the annual Tiptree Strawberry Race were a Pole and a Romanian.

It was gratifying to find that some of the old footpath anomalies marked on the OS maps were still there too. As Jules Pretty, and other coastal walkers including myself have found, try traversing the non-existent ford at Alresford Creek, which if attempted could result in getting stuck in the mud and subsequently drowned. ‘The map says there is a ford across Alresford Creek,’ wrote Pretty some years ago in This Luminous Coast. ‘Not a chance.’

Interest in the Essex landscape continues to grow and Bolton’s book, with its engaging style and terrific bibliography will further enhance the county’s singular appeal, the astringent nature of which surely suits the times. It is also good to welcome a new website covering much of the same territory, in the form of The Thames Estuary Library which has just gone online. Bold design, clear text, beautiful images, it does the territory proud. Go see.

KW

Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013 © Jason Orton

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Take back control?

Starling murmuration, Hen Reedbeds, near Southwold © Jules Pretty

There is a lovely if chilling flight of fancy in Jules Pretty’s newly published appreciation of the East Anglian landscape, The East Country. Reflecting on Britain’s thousands of lost villages, which over time disappeared from the landscape as a result of war, plague, economic abandonment or other catastrophe, the author imagines how a new wave of end times will occur when nature finally takes back control:

Pavement and walkway would be quickly overrun by grass and flower, which given low nutrient status would mean highly diverse meadows. Expect many orchids.

Existing grasslands and parks would grow tall, then scrub and trees invade. Lawns would take on bramble and birch, becoming scrubby wood within fifteen years. Houses would disappear, like those Mayan ruins. Solar panels would continue to generate electricity, but no one would use it; wind turbines would turn until high gales ripped them apart. Existing woods would darken to dense forest, but some would be eaten out as deer invaded in growing numbers. Many fox would survive, as would badger. Pond and swimming pool would clog with reed; there would be dragonfly and damselfly. The rivers at low bridges would be blocked with debris, water spilled over banks to create wetlands. Beaver would spread.

The Conradian horror continues, as Pretty anticipates the slow extinction or reversion to a feral state of domesticated animals and livestock, the dereliction of all built structures, and ultimately the disappearance of all we thought might last for generations to come if not forever. Richard Jefferies offered a similar dystopian vision in After London or Wild England, but Pretty’s nightmare seems more credible today, attuned as he is to the latest forms of economic and technological hubris.

Author’s garden, Nayland, Stour Valley © Jules Pretty

Happily all is not doom and gloom in The East Country. The book is a vivid calendar of the seasons, as seen from the author’s garden window, widening out to reflections on walking in the wide-skied terrain of Suffolk and north Essex, home territory of most of his life. There is a kind of zen aesthetic underlining Pretty’s experience of the everyday world, stitched into place by his own short affecting poems, along with citations from Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and writers from the Black Mountain school.

Like Richard Mabey, Pretty reveals a rich taxonomic imagination in his knowledge of indigenous and migrant flora and fauna to be found in the region – he is a distinguished environmental scientist in his own right – which makes his concern with continuing environmental degradation prescient and trustworthy.

There are other anxieties too, which give the book its sense of urgency. In the period covered by his diaries, the author’s ageing father’s failing health leads to hospitalisation, and eventually death, all of which weigh heavily on the diarist’s own sense of mortality, having shared a love of the same windswept foreshore and meandering river-courses of the Suffolk coast and heartland. One of the most moving poems reads:

I could not believe I fell asleep in a dream.
I was walking with my father,
Yet felt so tired.
Nothing in the dream was reference to any place in the known world.
I fell asleep,
But was already asleep.

Some of the descriptive passages in what is a composite almanac derived from a number of years of observation can be dated from the weather extremes described – the summer when temperatures reached 35 plus degrees for days on end, the winter when it rained continually for more than a month, drowning all the fields, or a recent November evening when high tide on the East Anglian coast briefly reached 1953 disaster levels – causing Pretty to wonder whether seasonality, as once celebrated, is losing its symbolic and therefore emotional resonance.

Change is constant in the region, though now less patterned by the weather, and not always for the worst. The climate will certainly grow warmer but there may be more extreme weather events. The little egret is here for good, and no doubt other exotic birds will follow. A well-known advocate of re-wilding, Pretty looks forward to the return of sea eagles to the Suffolk coast – a small compensation in an uncertain environmental future, but uplifting nevertheless.

For much of the twentieth-century the literature of landscape and place was in the hands of conservative thinkers and writers – extremely so in the case of the notorious James Wentworth Day – and it is rewarding to see how the terrain has been secured today by more generous and outward-looking imaginations, as is evident in this deeply felt and open-hearted book.

KW

The East Country can be obtained with a 25% discount by citing 09EAST and ordering from: https://www.nbninternational.com/checkout/?isbn1=9781501709333