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

When we build again

The annual Davidson Prize for the best new ideas in housing has just been won by a small consortium including architect Charles Holland, artist Verity Jane-Keefe, the Quality of Life Foundation and Joseph Zeal-Henry. The theme of this year’s prize was co-living – more collective and flexible forms of communal housing design – and the winning team focused on rural renewal on brownfield sites. Here’s their pitch:

Rural areas in the UK suffer from a shortage of affordable housing and are overly reliant on a narrow but ubiquitous development model – often leading to atomised communities of single-family units in car-dependent cul-de-sacs.

Co-Living in the Countryside proposes instead a new type of shared, communal housing to re-invigorate rural communities and attract new and more diverse residents. Addressing community, character, governance, affordability, sustainability, employment, health and wellbeing, the design focuses on solutions for a typical site for new housing within the South Downs National Park. In a new model of co-operatively managed and owned co-housing, individual units are connected by shared facilities such as kitchens, dining rooms, offices, studios and gardens.

The idea is that residents share space, resources and household tasks including gardening and childcare, with shared space and facilities for visiting friends, extended family members and social and community use. The design aims to reduce the need for car ownership and the stress and loneliness of commuting by providing shared working spaces and transport.

A new approach to architectural language encourages owner-adaptation, customisation and personal choice as part of the design process. Takings its cue from experimental rural housing such as the plotlands and other self-build communities, the aim is to establish a new, dynamic model of co-living in the countryside.

Davidson Prize Winner 2022: Detail by kind permission of CLIC (Co-Living In the Countryside)

Both Charles Holland and Verity Jane-Keefe have been involved in a variety of Essex projects over the past decade – Charles famously with his design for Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex, and Verity for her many projects in east London, including her outstandingMobile Museum in Barking and Dagenham, one of the most exquisite celebrations of popular history in a long time.  But neither of them are resting on their laurels: each has had separate exhibitions of their own at RIBA in the past year. If Essex is the social laboratory of modern Britain, then Charles and Verity are currently in the engine-room.

This turn to the rural indicates that while theories of urban regeneration have dominated planning and social policy in recent decades, the climate crisis has refocused attention on what is happening in rural Britain, especially with regard to food production, the industrialisation of the landscape, factory farming, second home growth, the flight of young people to the cities, the pollution of rivers and seashores, and much else. This is evident in the current proliferation of books about rural regeneration: Bella Bathurst’s Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land, Marina O’Connell’s Designing Regenerative Food Systems, Dieter Helm’s Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside, John Lewis-Stempel’s The Running Hare, George Monbiot’s Regenesis, James Rebanks’ An English Pastoral, Neil Ward’s Net Zero, Food & Farming, Isabella Tree’s Wilding, amongst others. But the question left unanswered is: what about the people in rural Britain – where and how will they live?  A recent RIBA report on age-friendly housing worried that, ‘Our small towns and villages are set to become retirement communities.’ Yet much existing village infrastructure – social housing, schools, churches, care homes, libraries, shops, voluntary organisations – is going to struggle to survive with a population consisting mostly of older people or second home owners. The social mix and resilience of rural life is as much an element in the sustainability programme as land use and biodiversity.

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So much has happened in the past year since No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen. The first edition has now sold completely out and a new edition will be back in print soon. The public interest in the story has been gratifying, most recently being BBC Radio 4’s broadcast of its ‘Open Country’ programme devoted to the history of Frating Hall Farm and a nearby companion settlement, the Othona Community at Bradwell. The programme is now available here.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0019rcl

One of a variety of self-build initiatives at the Othona Community, Bradwell

Also available online now is a short film of a walk from Wivenhoe to Frating I did with artist Michael Landy, part of a series commissioned by Firstsite Gallery, with other contributors being Maria Anastassiou, Gillian Darley, and Elsa James. It was great fun to do and on the day the weather held – just. This particular walk has become rather special, and when visiting Frating, I always walk there from Wivenhoe station: trains, bikes or walking boots being all you really need to travel these days on the mainland. Michael Landy was a terrific walking companion, and the film crew enjoyed it as much as we did.

With Michael Landy at Frating Hall Farm ‘Video still courtesy of Firstsite and Aura Films.’

The lessons of Frating Hall Farm and The Othona Community suggest that if serious social and environmental changes are needed, then party politics alone cannot create, let alone sustain, the forms of collective endeavour needed to tackle the enormous problems associated with climate issues, social inequality, and a more meaningful rapprochement between town and country. The pioneers who established the Frating and Othona communities were sustained by a rich ply of political, social and religious beliefs, each one reinforcing the other. Tackling climate change is a moral issue as much as an environmental one. The title of the posting is taken from a book by Colin Ward, who would have been delighted I am sure to have been alive to catch up with all these initiatives.

KW

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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: https://www.bahs.org.uk/RHT/RHT%20issue%2042.pdf

KW

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

Dancing in circles and dancing in lines

Circle dancing in the Bruderhof community, Liechtenstein, 1930s

I enjoyed meeting Anna Neima last week, author of The Utopians, a new book about 20th century experimental communities, currently attracting wonderful reviews. Published in the same month as my history of the Frating community, it was a relief to find that we were both working towards the same understanding: of how idealistic ‘experiments in living’ rise and fall – while invariably exerting a powerful after-life. They often seed yet further attempts to find that elusive ‘art of living together in harmony’, which Aldous Huxley thought the most difficult of all the arts of the social world.

As with the origins of Frating, Neima’s own stories of ‘six attempts to build the perfect society’ – in India, England, Japan, France, Germany and America – were all responses to the catastrophe of the First World War. It was an era when people the world over began searching for what William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, described as ‘the moral equivalent of war’. There had to be other ways in which people could demonstrate citizenship, self-sacrifice, and community without resorting to nationalism or bloodshed.

Underpinning most of these experiments was a commitment to pacifism, and a return to self-sufficiency through experimental forms of agrarian settlement. There was often a connection to Theosophy, a once-influential hybrid of world religions allied to psychological theories of individual self-actualisation, which attracted adherents from all walks of life and countries in the early 20th century. Finally, the lives and writings of three major figures from the previous century, William Morris, Leo Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore also played an important part (as did the work of D.H.Lawrence for the Frating community, but that’s a separate story).

It is Tagore’s school and study centre, Santiniketan-Sriniketan, in Bengal, which opens Neima’s book, and is perhaps still the most successful and influential of all model communities, its former participants including film-maker Satyajit Ray, economist Amartya Sen and, the woman who would later become Prime Minister of India, Indira Ghandi. It also inspired the English philanthropist Leonard Elmhirst – having visited Tagore’s project – to establish with wife Dorothy, the Dartington Hall settlement in Devon. This was a progressive school, agricultural settlement and crafts centre and forms the subject of the book’s second case study. The others were Atarashiki Mura’s rural commune in Japan, Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France, the Bruderhof in Germany (still well established in the UK), and finally Trabuco College in California, for a while the home of Aldous Huxley.

Anna and I agreed that ideology alone was rarely enough: the more successful often had a religious aspect to them, seeing the personal development of members as being of equal importance as the cultivation of a collective spirit. These usually came together in recreational time, when singing and dancing, along with rituals such as harvest suppers, birthdays, and other calendar events were celebrated.  As the extraordinary photograph of a circle dance by the Bruderhof in Liechtenstein in the 1930s shows, time for play was vital, similarly evident in the photograph portraying a festive line dance in the big barn at Frating Hall Farm in the late 1940s.

Folk dancing in the barn at Frating Hall Farm, circa 1950

We also discussed the dangers of investing too much in building a grand architectural template for a new way of life, by formalising in bricks and mortar aspirations which remained to be tested in everyday working out. Tagore’s Santiniketan-Sriniketan was a mish mash of old and new buildings, usually constructed by volunteers on site often without plans or drawings, of which Neima writes: ‘Tagore’s community looked like it had been built of fragments gathered from across the world.’ Likewise, Frating made up their settlement out of existing buildings, barns, and workshops, supplemented by a small collection of modest cottages built by their own building team, all of which are still to be found there, and in use, today.

At Trabuco in California, Neima suggests, ‘it was the visitors rather than Trabuco’s participants who carried (Gerald) Heard’s ideas out into the world, giving the community a resonance far beyond its boundaries.’ The same was true at Frating, where its many visitors wrote some of the most enthusiastic accounts of life there. It might have been a different story had they been present only during the depths of an East Anglian winter, rather than in the spring and summer months of sowing and harvesting. Nevertheless, the after-life of the Frating story remains as inspiring as ever.

It was very gratifying that our two books were published at the same time – and were appreciatively reviewed as such by Olivia Laing in the Times Literary Supplement recently – as in many ways they were in conversation with each other, though neither of us was to know that at the time. As life begins to re-adjust to the new conditions of a post-Covid (and soon to be post-Cop26) world, new ways of thinking about how we might live more equitably and mor sustainably, may at last gain a sense of urgency.

KW

Links:

The Utopians by Anna Neima

No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen by Ken Worpole

Ken in conversation with historian, Patrick Wright on YouTube

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.

K.W.

To watch ‘Unfamiliar Territories’, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppBm44KLwos

 

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/

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