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

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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Beach of Dreams. Mile 304, Sunday, 18 July 2021

Beach of Dreams 2021. Walkers arriving at Othona, Bradwell-on-Sea © Mike Johnston

The Beach of Dreams project is a 500 mile ‘collaborative walk’ from Lowestoft to Tilbury this summer, organised by Kinetika, a much-admired arts and design organisation that specialises in hand-painted silks and flags (based on the long-standing carnival work of Director, Ali Pretty). Kinetika works with communities to explore a sense of place and identity: on this occasion to draw attention to the rich history and topography of the East Anglian coast and its many shoreline settlements. I joined the walkers for Mile 304, having been invited to write and tell the story of St Peter’s Chapel and the adjacent Othona community at Bradwell-on-Sea. This piece is printed below, inspired by a small detailed photograph of the south wall of St Peter’s, with its Roman and Anglo-Saxon building materials.

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And withal, a great silence

We live in a material world, in which geology has for the larger part of human history been the single-most important influence on human settlement. On the southern aspect of the bend of the Blackwater estuary where it flows into the North Sea, lies St Peter’s Chapel, on the site of the former Roman fort of Othona, and adjacent to the modern Christian settlement of the same name. Looking across the mouth of the estuary to Mersea Island, one can see the sand-cliffs and beaches at Cudmore Grove that have provided a treasure trove for fossil hunters, finding traces of a time when monkeys, bears, elephants and hippopotamuses walked this shoreline, though it wasn’t a shoreline then. Until 12,000 years ago people could walk from Bradwell-on-Sea to the continent across Doggerland. Today the North Sea swirls around the East Anglian coast and its estuaries, endlessly shifting the contours and coastline in its wake. In such strongly tidal landscapes, everything is in constant flux, which is why it exercises such a compulsive need to go there, especially when life in town becomes too fraught.

I have been returning to Bradwell-on-Sea since the early 1960s, when I attended a political summer school held at Bradwell Lodge, then home of the colourful and often controversial Labour MP, Tom Driberg. Ever since, walking this particular stretch of shoreline has been a place of wonder and escape. In recent times I have tried to make a point of visiting the modern Othona community tucked just behind the seawall here, as part of a long-term interest in the social history of Essex, and its tradition of alternative communities, sanctuaries and retreats. When the founder of the community, former RAF padre Norman Motley, came to this small, isolated promontory in 1946, he knew immediately he had found the setting for the retreat he had dreamed of during the war: a place where British and German Christians could come together in a spirit of reconciliation.

‘On that vivid afternoon we came under the spell of that ancient building and of the whole area of the Blackwater Estuary. St Peter’s is situated a few hundred yards from the south shores of the river at the point where it enters the North Sea. There, one can breathe. The land on which we stood is almost a peninsula, with the mile-wide estuary to the north and Bradwell Bay behind – and all round, and curving to the south, the North Sea. The cry of the curlew was heard, and a variety of maritime flora and many sea birds were evident on the saltings; and withal, a great silence.’

History is an accretion of events, changing ways of life, and relationships with landscape and forms of settlement. The photograph below, a detail of the south wall of St Peter’s, captures for me something of this accretion in its most essential forms. Historian David Andrews describes the materials used include ‘tufa, septaria, ironstone and a variety of limestones.’ Some were imported from other parts of Britain, and possibly France, others were excavated locally. In addition, as you can see in the photograph, there are also flints and fragments of red tile, which along with the other materials, were once part of the Roman fort, later re-used. Even some of the mortar is Roman in origin and has been re-used, and still holds everything in place and true.

Detail of the south wall of St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell-on-Sea © Ken Worpole

At Othona next door the idea of using everything to hand for building anew is now part of the community’s environmental ethos. The settlement is off-grid and supplies all its own energy as well as recycling all waste back into the natural cycle.  The new dormitory block is made of rammed earth excavated from the ground beneath, and is raised above ground level in anticipation of future flooding. Looking both to the past and the future, this small stretch of coastline is a place of memory but also offers an endowment for the future.

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Watching the walkers leave for the next stretch along the seawall to Burnham-on-Crouch, I didn’t envy them. The long, narrow and sometimes overgrown embankment, curves a wide fifteen-mile arc round the Dengie marshes, with no escape routes, shade or resting place, and pitiless in hot weather. All went well I was pleased to hear.

Walkers leave St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell-on-Sea en route to Burnham-on-Crouch © Mike Johnston

For more details about the Beach of Dreams and to follow the progress of the journey: https://beachofdreams.co.uk

To read Kevin Rushby’s blog-post: https://kinetika.co.uk/bradwell-to-burnham-on-crouch

To follow the illustrated journey day by day: https://arcg.is/1OXPiP0

K.W.

‘We are not afraid of the future’ The Peculiar People: an exhibition at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, 19 April – 2 July 2016

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Masthead of The New Order anarchist newspaper produced at The Purleigh Colony in Essex, and reproduced from ‘Alternative Communities in Nineteenth Century England’ by Dennis Hardy

There was a packed opening night at this new exhibition at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend on 16 April, and a great party atmosphere too. After decades of embarrassed silence, a rich history of political and religious non-conformism and radicalism in Essex is now being properly acknowledged, in a county that has been the subject of much cynical misrepresentation, but which is here revealed as a key social laboratory for all kinds of experiments in living in the 20th century. The exhibition title takes its name from a Nonconformist sect unique to Essex, The Peculiar People, about which we blogged earlier this year, and the gallery itself has been handsomely re-housed within the state of the art new public library, The Forum.

The tutelary spirit of anarchist historian Colin Ward hovers over the exhibition, for it was Ward, latterly with Dennis Hardy, who initially chronicled the self-built plotland communities and rural communes to be found on the margins of Essex. Ward suggested that they arose there because of a relative proximity to London’s politically volatile East End, but also – following the agricultural depression of the 1870s – land was cheap. The ground plans of the Dunton colony near Laindon are on display, but also included is a rare opportunity to listen to a recording of Ward giving his 1985 lecture, Arcadia for All – A study of the Essex Plotlands.

Close to Dunton, in East Tilbury, the Czech shoe manufacturer Tomas Bata established his model industrial village in 1932, having been persuaded by a local clergyman to come to the aid of the many unemployed in the area. At its peak, Bataville employed over 4,000 workers, many of whom lived in houses supplied by Bata, and designed in a modernist style. Workers were encouraged to participate in company leisure-time activities – outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, 350-seat cinema and technical college – and even took ski-ing holidays in Czechoslovakia at the company’s resorts there. No zero-hours contracts then. ‘We are not afraid of the future’ was Bata’s maxim, and a selection of plans and drawings of his model town are on display, supported by documentary footage from a film by Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope.

FraserMuggeridgestudio_FPG_PeculiarPeople.11

Credit: Fraser Muggeridge Studio

Along with Bataville, Silver End Garden Village near Witham was another attempt to build an industrial settlement as a utopian community (even if ordained from above, as both manifestly were). Established in 1926 by Francis Crittall (1860 – 1935), a successful manufacturer of metal window frames, the housing was designed in a high modernist style by architect Thomas Tait. The village was almost entirely self-sufficient, and at the time regarded as one of the healthiest settlements in Britain, and is still much visited by architecture students.

The overlap between the socially minded and the religiously inspired was strong in the early 20th century, so it is not surprising that many of the religious settlements featured in the exhibition – Hadleigh Farm Colony, Osea Temperance Society, the Othona Community at Bradwell, among others – were centres for the rehabilitation of those whose lives had previously been blighted by poverty, ill-health, addiction, or as places of spiritual retreat. Wide-ranging as it is, the exhibition only scratches the surface of the dozens of self-sufficient or therapeutic communities established in Essex over the past hundred years, many of which remain unrecorded.

The principal gallery space also includes the work of artists and architects who took a fancy to the Essex scene, possibly because of its rough and ready unfashionability. A large vitrine displays a model by architect Cedric Price for an unrealised 1972 proposal to construct an inflatable roof to cover Southend High Street, along with a number of Price’s bold and expressive drawings. Other exhibits include watercolours, drawings or prints by Edward Bawden, Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Milly Thompson, along with a generous display of work by poet and artist Henri Chopin.

The folk-modernist spirit of the old Southend Art College is captured in a display of books written and illustrated by Kurt Rowland, who taught at the college, and whose pioneering work in the field of design education became internationally renowned. Rowland may well have inspired the fanzines produced by the Southend Libertarian & Anarchist Broadsheet (SLAB) collective in the 1980s, a number of whom worked locally for HM Revenue & Customs, but, not unsurprisingly, contributed anonymously. Artist Christian Nyampeta completes the exhibition with his fashioning of Gallery 2 as a place for meeting, talking, reading and the exchange of views about the world, complete with striking murals, purpose-built furniture and book-shelves, all combining to create a small salon/library/retreat to which visitors can retire and reflect.

The exhibition is just one element in a longer project being carried out by Focal Point Gallery under the rubric, ‘Radical Essex’, and includes architectural study tours across the county, gallery talks, and related projects such as Matthew Butcher’s ‘Flood House’, the subject of our last posting. It’s a small step for Essex but a large step for mankind.

KW

Ken will be giving a talk at the Focal Point Gallery at 7pm on Thursday, 12 May, 2016, as part of the exhibition programme:

The New Life in Essex: nonconformist life and culture in the 20th century’

Admission is free, but booking essential at http://www.fpg.prg.uk

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