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: Little Toller Books

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

 

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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.

KW

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

littletoller.co.uk/shop/books/little-toller/no-matter-how-many-skies-have-fallen-by-ken-worpole/

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/

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