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: Ken Worpole

More news from Frating Hall Farm

Following the publication of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain in May 2021, I was contacted by a number of people who had read the book and were keen to tell me more, as well as share letters and other documents in the possession of their families. What follows is an extract from a short essay now published in Rural History Today, the journal of the British Agricultural History Society, a link to which is given at the end for those who want to read the whole piece. Many thanks to Rebecca Ford for commissioning this essay.

In the Autumn of 1950, a young Cambridge graduate, Helen Johnson, went to work as a volunteer at Frating Hall Farm in Essex, a long-established farm close to Wivenhoe on the River Colne, acquired by a group of Christian pacifists in 1943 in order to establish a communal settlement. While there she wrote a series of long letters to her fiancée, Arthur Fox, describing daily life on the farm, including the people she met there, the potato picking and roof-thatching, the political and religious discussions, the harvest festivals, choir concerts and barn dances.

These letters came to light in the summer of 2021, when her son, Andrew Fox, recognised his mother on the cover of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen and got in touch. The book was an oral and documentary history of the farm and its idealistic members during its eleven-year occupation, as well as a discussion of the passionate religious and political ideals of the back-to-the-land movement in wartime and post-war rural England. I was not aware of Helen Johnson’s letters until after publication. Fortunately, the story they told endorsed my own understanding of the community’s fascinating history: a life of hard work, hard winters, redeemed by deep and lasting friendships, wonderful communal meals and harvest suppers, closeness to the natural world, and a feeling of internationalism even on such a small stage.

Frating Hall Farm 1950. Helen Johnson is the young woman on the right on the potato-planter; the woman on the left is the young Shirley Williams.

Although I had written about some of the volunteers from abroad who came to support the farm, especially during harvest time, I was unaware of how important a part they played or where they had come from. Helen’s letter to Arthur on Wednesday, 23 August, 1950, reveals all:

‘The visitors this time are all perfectly normal. There’s Jeanne’s mother and sister, and the mother I think is as sweet as Jeanne herself, and Anna, a Dutch schoolmistress who comes here quite often, so Dutch is practically the official language.  Then there’s Margaret, a German girl, a student at Heidelberg, called Gisela, and myself.  Looking around the table the other day I noticed that there were only 6 English to 7 non-English people present, 4 Dutch, 1 German, 1 Austrian and 1 Czech.’

For most of the time, Helen worked out in the fields, often in the company of women from the village paid to help with the vegetable picking.  But there were more delightful tasks too. Here she writes of the Hall’s generous kitchen garden:

‘In the afternoon most people went into Colchester, but I sat out in the garden in the sun, helping Irene to bottle plums. She had 56lbs to do, and we got through ¾ of them, which wasn’t bad going.  She also took me round the kitchen garden by way of a break.  They have a lovely old walled vegetable garden, of which David attends to the vegetable half and Irene to the fruit half. David’s half is beautifully tidy, because Mrs Heckmann did quite a lot of weeding in it but Irene’s, though, not nearly so tidy, has all sorts of exciting things in. There are already peaches, pears, plums and nectarines growing against the wall, and she’s put in a whole lot of new ones, and some figs, vines and apricots as well. She’s also got an apple cordon planted and a new strawberry bed set out, so there should be all sorts of good things in the years to come.’

The cultural life of the Frating community seemed to have compensated for all the hard work, as well as overcoming some of the personal differences among those who lived there. The Harvest suppers in the great barn were remembered fondly by everybody, as were the choral concerts and plays. The members’ amateur efforts were sometimes augmented by those of the talented summer visitors who flocked to Frating to help with the harvest, including a number of notable writers and musicians.

Johnson writes wryly about some of the visitors who came to Frating, believing that paradise had already been achieved. They were soon brought down to earth after a few days of cabbage-lifting in the rain. In another of her letters to Arthur, Helen pens one of the most lucid and insightful passages I’ve read about that most difficult of arts: the art of living together in harmony.

‘It’s a sad thing in a way that the people with great ideas about communities are usually much worse fitters-in than the ordinary people without any theories who just like living at Frating Hall, or even spending their holidays there. I wonder if it’s just because the people who’re good at living in communities all do live in lots of them, in families and streets and colleges and factories and churches and clubs, and all the other places where people have common interests and a sense of loyalty to one another, and consequently rarely bother to evolve theories on the subject. Certainly, I have a feeling that the more Frating does feel like a community, and the more its individual members fit in, the less they’re interested or bothered with theories of what the place is for or about’.

I am grateful to Helen’s sons, Andrew Fox and Robin Fox, for sharing these letters with me and the surviving members of the Frating community. Still a young woman of twenty-five when she began writing them, her letters are full of life and curiosity – keen to learn about other people, keen to understand how the world works, and to play her full part in it. They are also wholly attentive to the pleasures of the natural world and to the seasonal pageant of rural life – and an unexpected gift to rural history.

For the full version of the essay in Rural Life Today go to:


No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain, is published by Little Toller Books. £14.


The 1946 Conference on the Post-War Loaf

Potato sorting, Frating Hall Farm, circa 1950

One of the responses to my recent history of the Frating Hall Farm community, No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen, came from writer and broadcaster Philip Conford. His chronicle of the organic farming movement in Britain, The Origins of the Organic Movement, was one from which I have now learned much. Conford’s is a particulalrly fair-minded approach, given that the history of organicism in British farming life and culture is generally riven with ideological enmities and questionable political associations, and his book proves a trustworthy guide through the thickets.

As he suggests, in the heady days of the post-war Labour government the farming community ‘saw the war as an opportunity for Britain to re-establish farming at the heart of its society and economy’, and indeed the 1947 Agriculture Act was a step towards achieving this ambition. The seriousness of the cause was evident in the establishment of a government ‘Interdepartmental Conference on the Post-War Loaf’, which reported in 1946. The quality of bread became a key metric for public health policy, after decades of adulteration and nutritional debasement between the wars. For millions of families, bread was a cornerstone of the daily diet – too often ‘bread salted with tears’ – as one Frating community member remembered, cited in my book.

The Frating community was in origin a Christian socialist and pacifist community, though over time not all new members had strong religious attachments, and some arrived with none at all. In its Christian leanings, however, it was at one with many other farming communities, where, in Conford’s words again, ‘a belief in the natural order and natural law was rooted in the Christian faith.’ In particular, the organic movement drew very strongly on Biblical understandings and proscriptions.

In most other ways though the Frating farm was an outsider. Too often in the first half of the 20th century farming politics and theology took a distinctly right-ward turn. One prominent and long-standing commentator on rural affairs in the 1940s and 1950s – and Secretary to the Council for the Church and Countryside – was Jorian Jenks, a self-declared member of the British Union of Fascists (and for a while imprisoned as such). Quite a few other ruralists, especially those espousing a hard-line organicist point of view, were overtly sympathetic to the ‘blood and soil’ ideology of fascist sentiment.  Melissa Harrison’s novel, All Amongst the Barley, is especially good on this, and the recent publication of the uncensored diaries of the Tory grandee, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, reveals how so many of the old money establishment and landed gentry were admirers of Hitler, sometimes undyingly so. Richard Smyth’s recent essay in Inkcap of new forms of eco-fascism is also timely. 

It is good to see Patrick Wright’s early book on rural history, The Village That Died for England, back in print again. This was an early foray into the disturbing territory of nativist ecology, and another book that helped shape my own understanding of agrarian politics in Britain – especially for an unreconstructed townie like myself. In recent years the dynamic interplay between urban and rural economies and their political trajectories has become a source of increasing fascination. This is one of the many topics Patrick and I discussed in our recent filmed conversation at the Swedenborg Society, now available online under the title ‘Unfamiliar Territories’.

Another response to No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen came from Andrew Whitehead, an old friend who runs the excellent website London Fictions, and who kindly sent me a wonderful book published in 1938, Community in Britain. Issued by the Christian Community Service Committee, and printed at the Cotswold Bruderhof Press, it is an eloquent gazetteer of some of the most active land colonies and settlements, ashrams and kibbutzim, camps and voluntary organisations, then gaining attention. These case studies are interwoven with essays on the future of communitarian initiatives, in both town and country, and elsewhere in the world. It sits nicely next to Anna Neima’s new book, The Utopians, already garnering great reviews, of which more soon.


To watch ‘Unfamiliar Territories’, go to:


Walking Back To Happiness – The Essex Book Festival launch of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen, 1 August 2021, Wivenhoe & Frating, Essex

Storm Evert was expected to peak in East Anglia on Sunday, bringing heavy winds and driving rain: just the day for a book launch outdoors. The plan was a morning walk from Wivenhoe to Frating Hall Farm, followed by an open air gathering of walkers and former members of the original Frating pacifist community (1943 – 1954), the latter recounting the story of the settlement as they remembered it from growing up on the farm.

The morning walk from Wivenhoe to Frating Hall Farm

On the day itself, however, walkers unexpectedly enjoyed a sunny, rain-free ramble across farmland, enlivened by downriver views of the Colne estuary, as well as pathways through two ancient broadleaf woods, before arriving at Frating Hall Farm, whose striking Hall chimneys were visible through the trees from several fields away. There we were met by those who had grown up on the farm in the 1940s and 1950s, happy to share memories. They recalled what life had been like then: the elementary living conditions, the rigours of winter time, the ostracization at school because of their parents’ pacifist beliefs. But they also remembered a sense of immense freedom to play and roam, oblivious for the most part to the adults’ struggles to make a living while staying true to their religious and political beliefs. Several had not been back to the farm or seen each other for more than sixty years, so it was an emotional occasion, for which enormous thanks are due to Barbara and Martyn Thomas, still at Frating Hall Farm, who helped organise and cater for this moving reunion, as well as for us, their guests.

The walkers listen to memories of childhood from members of the Frating Hall community

The book launch proper had been arranged for the afternoon by Wivenhoe Bookshop at the Nottage Institute in Wivenhoe. The ‘Nottage’ is the riverside home of wooden boat-building history in East Anglia, filled with elegant glass-cased models of sea-going, coastal and river boats, and a downstairs workshop where boats are still made using traditional tools and construction methods. The Institute is one of the most perfect evocations of a ‘world we have lost’ to be found anywhere along the East Anglian coast, certainly equal to the Sailor’s Reading Room in Southwold.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, the upstairs assembly room at the Nottage was Covid-compliant and ready for the talk and questions, all impeccably organised and catered for by Sue Finn of Wivenhoe Bookshop.  The setting and atmosphere felt just right, with stunning views of the tidal River Colne and quay from the room’s balcony: a near-perfect way to end the day.

Book launch at the Nottage Institute, Wivenhoe, organised by Wivenhoe bookshop

Many thanks to Ros & Jo at Essex Book Festival, Barbara and Martyn Thomas at Frating Hall Farm, Sue Finn at Wivenhoe Bookshop, Jon, Adrian, Gracie and Graham at Little Toller Books, The Nottage Institute, and, finally, Gillian Darley, Jason Orton and Alex Rook for transport, catering and online logistics.

‘Worpole is a literary original, a social and architectural historian whose books combine the Orwellian ideal of common decency with understated erudition.’ 

Jason Cowley in The New Statesman, 30 July 2021, on No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen

Ken’s history of Frating Hall Farm, No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain, is now published by Little Toller Books, 2021. £14


No matter how many skies have fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain

‘Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or rather scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.’ from Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H.Lawrence

In 2019 I gave a talk called ‘Brightening from the East’ at the Firstsite Gallery in Colchester as part of the Essex Book Festival. It was based on an essay written the previous year on alternative communities for the book Radical Essex. The festival prospectus listed some of the settlements under discussion, one of which was Frating Hall Farm. In the audience were two women, Barbara Thomas and her daughter-in-law Tessa Thomas both from the farm itself, Barbara having lived there for more than fifty years with her husband, Martyn. After the talk my wife Larraine and I were invited to visit the farm the next time we were in the area.

A few weeks later we found our way to Frating, and were shown the family’s personal collection of documents and photographs recording the history of the farm when it had been managed as a Christian pacifist and socialist settlement between 1943 and 1954. The couple put me in touch with others who had grown up in this community, and with whom they were still in touch, and one by one I contacted them and recorded their stories.

At the heart of the Frating story was a small group of pioneers, radicalised by their religious beliefs and their pacifism, who on ‘Lady Day’, March 1943, took possession of a vacant farm in a hamlet on the Essex Tendring Peninsula. Several had been part of an earlier attempt in the late 1930s to create a socialist residential community at Langham near Colchester, where a series of famous international summer schools were held. Though successful as a meeting place, the Langham Centre failed as a farm. As a result, a breakaway group led by former Durham steel-worker, Joe Watson (a good friend of Jack Common, George Orwell and Sid Chaplin), left Langham and went to Frating to start afresh. Both ‘back to the land’ communities had been inspired by The Adelphi journal, an influential periodical of the 1920s and 1930s in whose pages D.H.Lawrence, John Middleton Murry, Vera Brittain, Iris Murdoch, George Orwell and others shared ideas for the future with European religious radicals such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Martin Buber and Simone Weil.

In time there were more than fifty people living at Frating, including refugees and several former prisoners-of-war. Though the settlement was based on the idea of pastoral self-sufficiency, members continued to subscribe to the larger ideal of ‘the New Life’, a term then used to describe a mix of ‘back to the land’ sentiments, simpler lifestyles, and human fellowship promulgated across Europe after the catastrophe of the First World War.

The title of my new book is taken from the opening paragraph of Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, first published in 1928, a work full of references to the new life. In No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen I have tried to recreate the unique world of the Frating community, repaying an intellectual debt long owed to the inspiration of the late social historian, Raphael Samuel, and the legacy of the Ruskin History Workshop movement.

The story of Frating Hall Farm, hitherto ‘hidden from history’, is thus based on the reminiscences of those who grew up on the farm, supplemented by their own personal artefacts and memorabilia. In short, the book offers a kaleidoscopic history of the community during its eleven-year occupation, as well as recording the passionate religious and political ideals of the back-to-the-land movement in wartime and post-war Britain.

All those I interviewed had been children when they lived on the farm. All recalled growing up with an extraordinary sense of freedom and happiness, coming and going into each other’s houses to eat or sleep, wandering the fields and woods when not at school, playing in the barn, feeding the animals, going on trips to the seaside on the back of a lorry, and much else. The young Shirley Williams, who sadly died earlier this year, had, on leaving school, taken up the job of second cowman at Frating: her mother, Vera Brittain, was a keen supporter. It was only in adult life that those I spoke to realised how difficult it had been for their parents at times, yet all remembered the community with pride in what had been attempted and for a while achieved.

The story of Frating Hall Farm is an important chapter in the history of rural communitarianism, and my thanks are due to Little Toller Books who responded so enthusiastically to the initial proposal to document its history, by commissioning and publishing such a beautifully designed book.


No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain, by Ken Worpole, is now published and available from Little Toller Books, May, 2021. £14

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

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


A rather large lorry…


A rather large lorry arrived yesterday, full of boxes containing, we are pleased to say, copies of our new book The New English Landscape. The book has been printed in Belgium by Cassochrome, who specialise in the production of art and photographic books, so no expense has been spared. This is what it says on the back cover:

The New English Landscape critically examines the changing geography of landscape aesthetics since the Second World War, noting the shift away from the arcadian interior to the contested eastern shoreline.  It discusses how writers and artists gravitated towards East Anglia, and latterly towards Essex, regarding them as sites of significant topographical disruption, often as a result of military and industrial occupation, and the dramatic incursion of the sea.

These are landscapes of unique ecological and imaginative resonance, particularly following the Thames, and the islands and estuaries of its northerly coastal peninsula. The book assesses the past, present and future of this new territorial aesthetic, now subject to much debate in the contested  worlds of landscape design, topography and psycho-geography.


The New English Landscape contains 22 colour photographs, an 18,000 word essay, extensive bibliography, maps, and is a medium-to-large format paperback.

ISBN 978-0-9926669-0-3

Publisher: Field Station|London

Price £15.00

Ways to buy The New English Landscape.

1. By cheque.

Send a cheque for £15.00 (postage-free) made payable to ‘Ken Worpole’ to 40 Clissold Court, Greenway Close, London N4 2EZ.  Don’t forget to include your address. We’ll send the book by return.

2. Using PayPal.

For sales in the UK only

Buy Now with Paypal

For International orders use the RIBA Bookshop link below:

RIBA Bookshop

3. You can also buy it in the following bookshops:

London: The Soul of the Streets

This should be an interesting evening, involving three very different approaches to urban form. Austrian media artist Hubert Blanz is exhibiting work which takes a highly compositional approach to the signs and symbols of the city sometimes as circuitry, sometimes wholly computer-generated, and sometimes as traditional photo-montage. His particular interest in the London housing form, the subject of the Homeseekers project, continues the central European fascination with British terraced housing, most famously described in one of the greatest architectural studies of all time: The English House by Herman Muthesius, first published in 1905.

Iain Sinclair is as much concerned with the psychological resonances of built form and topography as much as its constructional, visual history.  He is well known as a walker and a chronicler of the myriad associations of past and present, fear and loathing, utopianism and catastrophe, in the life of the city.

Andrea Zimmerman is an artist and housing activist in Hackney, whose film, Estate: a reverie, is a beautiful and moving record of how a run-down public housing tenement estate was transformed, through collaborative projects signalling the dignity and diversity of experience and personal history of many of the people condemned to live there.

Where we live, how we live, and how the shape and feel of London exerts so much influence on the street life and culture of the city is bound to raise some very interesting questions. Ken will be chairing this event.


London: The Soul of the Streets

May 23 2013  7.00 pm Austrian Cultural Forum London

28 Rutland Gate, London SW7 1PQ

Admission free, but booking is advised

Horsey Island, Essex

Jason and I have been doing a lot of walking this winter along the Essex coast – and even spending time on some of the smaller islands – while thinking hard about how to join Martin Amis’s ‘war against the cliché’ when it comes to writing about and photographing these tidal fringes.  We spent several nights on Horsey Island in Hamford Water in late February, before the wildfowl breeding season, and got up in the dark for early morning forays along the seawalls, peering into the gloom to try to distinguish sky, sea and mud from each other, with little success. It is all very fluid and mysterious out there.

Crossing the causeway to Horsey Island is an hallucinatory experience. Unusually, the causeway is below the level of the adjacent river-bed, so we were driving almost at eye level with the mudflats and flowing watercourses on either side, where the waders seem almost unperturbed, making it possible to pass within six feet of a curlew or cluster of elegantly-crested lapwings. The crossing is a white-knuckle ride from side to side and up and down through the pot-holes and small residual sea-water ponds left by the tide.

The islands of Essex are too little known.  Apart from their wildlife conservation qualities, they have also served in the moral rehabilitation of people, whether at Osea Island near Maldon, where conscience-stricken brewer, Frederick Charrington founded  a Temperance Hotel – later being adapted as sanctuary for those with addiction problems – or on Canvey Island where ‘The Girls’ Bungalow’, otherwise known as the Social Institute, was established by Miss Clara James in 1909 (who later founded the Labour Party on the island) as a holiday home for working girls from East London. Canvey, where for a time I lived as a child,  was also the setting for Hotel Ozonia, a temperance and fresh-air settlement, which in 1938 advertised over 60 rooms available for healthy recuperation.

Less benignly, Bramble Island, also located like Horsey Island in Hamford Water, has been used for developing, testing and storing explosives, and is still very much out of bounds. Foulness Island, further south on the northern edge of the Thames Estuary,  has for more than a hundred years been sequestered for weapons development and testing by the military. The indigenous community on Foulness was once so isolated from the wider world that the women of Foulness wore Dutch costume as normal attire until the First World War. Even I can remember carnival time on Canvey when we all had to dress up as little Dutch girls and boys.

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