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: Othona Community Bradwell-on-Sea

Sanctuary, asylum and retreat


Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014)

Liverpool Street Station is the location of two memorials to the ‘Kindertransports’, the name given to the evacuation of ten thousand Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia at the start of the Second World War organised by the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM), in which Quakers played a major part. Both are by the sculptor Frank Meisler, himself one of the child refugees. Britain seems to have been rather kinder to children fleeing war and persecution then, as only three years earlier in 1936 several thousand Basque children were given shelter and a new start in life during the Spanish Civil War. Several ‘retreat’ communities in Essex – the Salvation Army Colony at Hadleigh, and The Adelphi Centre in Langham – gave the Basque children a ‘place of greater safety’.

A deeply moving book on this subject, Sanctuary & Asylum: A Social and Political History by Linda Rabben, has just been published, raising questions of how we live alongside others in an age of large-scale migration resulting from a new era of poverty, war and persecution. Rather than recount the many shocking stories which led to the development of more codified agreements about rights to asylum or sanctuary, which Rabben’s book provides in detail, some general principles emerge which govern the conditions in which asylum is culturally accepted.

The first is that the concept of sanctuary itself is religious in origin, and remains largely so today. In pre-Christian times, those seeking personal safety from the violence of others, would hurry to a sacred site where the gods were held to be present, and thus secure divine protection. Christianity continued this tradition, with the church taking on the function of inviolable space, where the rule of the law, or vengeance of others, no longer obtained. Thus sanctuary has always acted as a counter-authority to the power of the state, ‘outside or against the law’ in the words of Rabben, and from time to time refugees still find sanctuary in religious buildings, where they are supported by church congregations.

In contrast, refugee status is ascribed from above, by legal processes usually involving recognition of statutory rights granted by individual nation states or international agreements. These rights are often bitterly contested and hard fought, and sadly have become deeply politicised as a result of globalisation, of which everybody wants the benefits – the cheap food, clothes, electronic goods, exotic holidays – but not the trade-offs and social obligations.

There is certainly a geography and landscape of sanctuary. In the era of the Greek city-states, we are told that, ‘Sanctuaries on the frontiers of city-states were well known. Promontories, considered sacred to the god Poseidon, often served as places of asylum, because they were accessible by both land and sea.’ During the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War, several villages in the remote mountainous Haute Loire region, most famously Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, sheltered hundreds of Jews for the whole duration of the war successfully, at great risk to the lives of the villagers and their families too, as well as those they sheltered.

The reference to the coastal location of the Greek sanctuaries reminded me of the Othona Community at Bradwell-on-Sea, bringing a third type of inviolable space – the retreat – into the vocabulary. Established originally by British and German Christians in 1945 at the end of the Second World War in a spirit of reconciliation, it still thrives and is open to people of all religions and none as a quiet place of short-term retreat. It too stands on the edge between land and sea.

In the course of researching the social history of land settlements and experimental communities in Essex over the past hundred years – which often employed the vocabulary of sanctuary and retreat – it has become clear that religious traditions and impulses lay behind the majority of them. It has been the conjunction of religious and political ideals that have resulted in the most successful experiments in promoting social – and more recently, environmental – change. This is still true today. In this respect I am looking forward to reading Duncan Bowie’s forthcoming book, The Radical and Socialist Tradition in British Planning: From Puritan Colonies to Garden Cities, due early next year, which examines the ethical and philosophical debates and initiatives which fore-shadowed 20th century town planning, and in which the overlap between religious and political beliefs was always extensive.


Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014) © Jason Orton


Swords and ploughshares

Rainham Marshes

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, and many different ways will be found for marking this catastrophic event and the permanent impact it had on people’s understanding of place and sacrifice. Not least are the many First World War memorials which continue to provide a focus for civic life, identity and public memory across Britain.

In addition, the eastern and southern coastline is marked by the remains of both First and Second World War defences against invasion, creating a ‘bulwark shore’ which continues to this day, with large tracts of coastal land still under military control. Over time such military ruins have insinuated themselves into the fabric of the landscape, and have become accepted familiars of place.

The scale of the defences from a hundred years ago  – in Essex alone – is captured by historian Norman Longmate in his book, Island Fortress, where he claims that: ‘North of the Thames, during the first winter of the war (1914), no fewer than 300,000 men were deployed. One defence line ran from north of Chelmsford to Maldon and Danbury Hill, another, the last main barrier guarding the capital, from Ongar to Epping.’ It is hard to imagine this militarisation of the landscape in what are today such quiet pastoral and estuarine settings.

Ken will be talking about the large areas of land, including whole islands such as Foulness, still under military control at the forthcoming ‘Place: Occupation’ weekend at Snape Maltings on February 1st/2nd 2014. Decades of restricted access have meant that many of these coastal areas have become invaluable sites for bio-diversity and protected flora and fauna.  In the case of Rainham Marshes, bought by the RSPB in 2000, but previously in use for military training and ordnance storage since the end of the 18th century, this long-protected space is now a flourishing wildlife conservation area.

Nissan Huts_Bradwell

By contrast, the very same landscape has also acted as a place where more quietist ‘back to the land’ movements have established themselves over the years, including  two farming projects set up by the eminent pacifist and writer, John Middleton Murry, at Langham in Essex and later at Frating Hall Farm. These farms were peopled and worked on by Second World War conscientious objectors.  We have interviewed some of those who worked the land with Murry, and these interviews will also be part of the material presented at Snape, along with a discussion of the Othona Community at Bradwell-on-Sea which was established in a spirit of reconciliation between British and German Christians immediately following the end of the Second World War, and which still operates as a spiritual retreat, and which Jason photographed for 350 Miles.

Meanwhile we are gratified that The New English Landscape is attracting such wonderful reviews, as this one by Hana Loftus for the December issue of Architecture Today:

‘Worpole’s connection to the eastern fringes is personal and spiritual, one in which the landscape bears physical testament to the ongoing cycle from creation to ruin to resurrection. He travels with a mind full of histories, literature and art to layer onto what he sees, and his writing is at its best when meandering into tangential lines of inquiry and quietly revealing this extraordinary knowledge (the book is worth buying for the bibliography alone).

Orton’s photographs are almost luminous, despite the brooding skies, and make sacred spaces out of bulldozers slowly creating land out of the sea at London Gateway port, or an overgrown, deserted greenhouse.’

This will be our last post before Christmas, so until the New Year, many good wishes.