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: Radical Essex

Neither land nor sea

Benfleet, Essex, March 2013 by Jason Orton

First walk of the year this week, and perfect weather. Three of us ambled slowly from Benfleet-on-Sea to Leigh-on Sea, just five miles, but much to look at and enjoy. Bargain tickets on C2C trains, just £6 return to Leigh from London’s Fenchurch Street Station, with a Freedom Pass and a Senior Railcard. The train journey itself tells the story of London and its expansion to the east in accelerated time. Limehouse, West Ham, Barking, Upminster (all variations and attenuated extensions of the historical East End), until one reaches the marshlands and estuary shoreline of Rainham, the scrubland of Laindon with its motley scatterings of ponies and horses, before the train pulls directly alongside the Thames at Benfleet Creek. From then on it is open skies and vast expanses of bright water.

I’ve done this train journey on and off for nearly seventy years – since a steam train used to take my mother, brother and myself from Benfleet to Barking to visit relations in East Ham in the early 1950s. While the London end of the trip is now a place of constant change and upheaval, the approach to Benfleet Creek and the view across to Canvey Island and the North Kent coast has hardly altered. Even the railway station seems much the same. As the writer William Gibson once wrote, the future has arrived but has been unevenly distributed. The further you travel to the Essex coastal creeks and marshlands, the further you travel back in time. A lot of the broken carcasses of old houseboats, cutters and sailing barges beached on the mud at Benfleet date back to pre-war times, if not long before.

Benfleet is not only the start of the downland approaches to Leigh and Southend, but also provides a bridge to Canvey Island. From here on it is ‘neither land nor sea’. At high tide water flows in, around, behind, and sometimes all over the shoreline and its myriad tributaries and creeks. Islands, outcrops of saltmarsh, grazing land, all appear and disappear in the space of a couple of hours. Hence the swirling clouds of waders in the sky, as their feeding grounds disappear beneath the waves, and they are forced to move further inland. This particular walk was memorable for so many of these fast-drifting swarms of dunlin, curlew and Brent Geese, the former shoaling in the air, wave after wave. The mud shines iridescent before it succumbs to the incoming tide. There is a lot of bird piping, particularly from redshanks, oystercatchers and curlew.

Rather more eerily, looking out to the Thames beyond Canvey Island, backlit by the sun and therefore in hazy outline, a strange shape was seen moving slowly downriver, against the tide. It looked like the whole of Basildon or Thamesmead was being towed out to sea. In fact it was one of the vast container ships heading into the Channel from the container port, DP World: London Gateway, at Thurrock, now creating a monumental shadow theatre. Turning inland, in complete contrast, there are the dramatic ruins of the 13th century Hadleigh Castle, painted by Constable shortly after his wife died, a darkening psychological study in abandonment. On this walk however it was more a case of ‘the splendour falls on castle walls’, as a bright sun lit up the remaining and imposing corner tower.

We sat for a while overlooking the western tip of Two Tree Island where the salt-water lagoons have become a thriving breeding ground for avocets, though this year’s cohort have yet to arrive. Instead, large numbers of curlew were re-grouping there. Finally arriving at Leigh-on-Sea, on what had become a warm Spring half-term holiday, the fishing village was en fête: packed to the gills. All the pubs had spilled out onto the cobbled High Street, and the seafood stalls had long queues. It was difficult to remember that it was still February. It always surprises me how too few Londoners know of Leigh-on-Sea, given that it is a proper working fishing harbour, with a picturesque collection of pubs and cafes, less than an hour from London by train. On the journey back to Fenchurch Street I suddenly remembered that some years ago I wrote up this walk for the Royal Geographical Society’s project on ‘Discovering Britain’: one of a number of ‘modest’ walks they had commissioned, and it can still be found online here.

KW

Benfleet, Essex, March 2013 © Jason Orton

Books and talks
Although both editions of The New English Landscape are now out of print, there are still a few copies of 350 Miles: An Essex Journey available, though not for much longer. You can buy them here. Meanwhile the Radical Essex book is currently re-printing and the Essex Book Festival starts next week.

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Live and let live

 

Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013 by Jason Orton

The battle over the ‘true heart’ of Essex – the words are those of novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner – continues. In his surprisingly approving review in The New Statesman of the recently published book Radical Essex, conservative historian and journalist Simon Heffer nevertheless still wants to claim the county as inherently individualistic and materialistic. If this were truly the case, consider two aspects of Essex history that question this assumption.

Firstly, the extraordinary story of public spiritedness and collective endeavor by which tens of thousands of people rallied to help others, often at great risk to their own lives, on the terrible night of the January 31st, 1953 flood. This spontaneous mobilisation has been minutely chronicled by Hilda Grieve in The Great Tide. As she reveals, the county’s population was at that time deeply embedded within an enormous range of voluntary organisations. These included the churches, the trade unions (the National Union of Railwaymen was especially active that night and during the following days), as well as the Women’s Voluntary Service, Civil Defence, Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance Brigade, Scouts and Guides groups. All of them – along with the emergency services, local government officers and workers of all ranks – responded to the crisis without a second thought to their personal risk or well-being. Grieve’s book is certainly one of the great works of 20th century English social history, and is a compelling story of human solidarity and mutual aid in the face of catastophe.

Secondly, if possessive individualism were so entrenched, why would Essex today be the home of one of the most long-established and successful County Wildlife Trusts, with an unparalleled record in nature conservation involving thousands of volunteers on a record number of sites? Essex has also provided a home for many other pioneering initiatives in land settlement, along with innovative industrial and housing communities, not to a mention, finally, a singular penchant for religious heterodoxy and enthusiasm. The reality is that the county’s history has always been strongly cross-grained.

However, Heffer – the man who coined the term ‘Essex Man’ for the Sunday Telegraph – is right in saying that the principle of ‘live and let live’ appears to come with the territory, but that principle allows for varying interpretations, and perhaps the matter is better left there. The discussion of national or regional temperaments and character types is dangerous at the best of times, and we are currently not living through the best of times right now.

The success of Radical Essex, which was ‘flying off the shelves’ at the LRB Bookshop I was told when I last visited, is now followed by another book concerned with such themes: Tom Bolton’s Low Country: Brexit on the Essex Coast, a handsome volume illustrated with atmospheric black and white photographs. Although it treads familiar ground, it deftly seeks to understand the relationship between marginal landscapes and embattled identities and loyalties in a world of political turmoil. Bolton and his partner Jo took weekends away from London in the troubled year of 2016 to walk the length of the Essex coast at a time when the nation was undergoing what Bolton describes as ‘a political nervous breakdown’. Union Jacks flew from bungalow gardens, and UKIP posters, both new and old, adorned boarded up pubs and abandoned High Street shops in coastal towns and villages.

While they found little personal antagonism in their encounters, an air of grievance was often palpable. Yet the terrain has always been difficult, historically suffering from the usual exigencies of farming country – agricultural depression, crop failure, animal culls, poor public transport and public services. Meanwhile the seaside towns saw their traditional visitors desert the hotels and beaches for somewhere warmer in Spain or Turkey. Bolton is alert to some of the ironies of the post-Maastricht world, finding that the winner and runner up to find the fastest fruit-picker in the annual Tiptree Strawberry Race were a Pole and a Romanian.

It was gratifying to find that some of the old footpath anomalies marked on the OS maps were still there too. As Jules Pretty, and other coastal walkers including myself have found, try traversing the non-existent ford at Alresford Creek, which if attempted could result in getting stuck in the mud and subsequently drowned. ‘The map says there is a ford across Alresford Creek,’ wrote Pretty some years ago in This Luminous Coast. ‘Not a chance.’

Interest in the Essex landscape continues to grow and Bolton’s book, with its engaging style and terrific bibliography will further enhance the county’s singular appeal, the astringent nature of which surely suits the times. It is also good to welcome a new website covering much of the same territory, in the form of The Thames Estuary Library which has just gone online. Bold design, clear text, beautiful images, it does the territory proud. Go see.

KW

Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013 © Jason Orton

Expect a fight

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Rainham Marshes (2010)

When someone talks about the creation of a ‘new nature’ expect a fight. Yet it is happening all the time, since human activity has been re-shaping the natural world for millennia. Nevertheless, the pace of change has been accelerating, and for many observers now appears out of – if not beyond – control. Oliver Rackham wrote in his excellent ‘History of the Countryside’ that ‘Much of England in 1945 would have been instantly recognizable to Sir Thomas More, and some areas would have been recognized by Emperor Claudius.’ Coming closer to home he also noted that the pattern of development in south-east Essex today ‘has all been inserted into a grid laid out nearly two thousand years ago.’ When landscape architect Peter Beard marked out the footpath systems for the new RSPB site at Rainham Marshes, on the Thames, close to London, he told me he was following the lines of ancient brushwood tracks, traces of which date back to the Bronze Age.

The claim that we are in the process of creating a new nature is made by environmental historian, Paul Warde, in a collection of essays, Local Places, Global Processes, just published by Oxbow Books. Warde is one of a number of artists, academics and environmentalists gathered together for a series of workshops held at three large nature conservation projects in England, the papers, reports and findings of which are now in print. The projects evaluated were: Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, the Quantock Hills (England’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and Kielder Water and Forest in Northumberland, an almost entirely twentieth-century man-made environment of reservoirs and commercial forestry.

This is probably a book for a specialist readership, particularly those involved in nature conservation and landscape character assessment (though there is by now a tourist industry audience keen to develop new niche markets in ‘green leisure’). Issues of what is beautiful, what is sustainable, what is authentic and what is truly ‘wild’ are repeatedly discussed, often in subtle and rewarding ways. T.C.Smout’s short essay, ‘Birds and Squirrels as History’, is especially enjoyable and original, in tracing the rise and fall of different avian species in relation to social and economic changes in the environment. Equally clear-eyed and to the point is Paul Warde’s chapter, ‘Names and Places’, alerting us to the impoverishment of environmental awareness resulting from the loss of attention to the proper names of things and their provenance – an issue on which Robert Macfarlane has been much exercised in recent times, and rightly so.

The contributors make up a broad church, working along a continuum of interest in landscape matters, ranging from the art-historical, the aesthetic, the conservationist, the managerial, to those working in landscape design, as well as people interested in deep ecology and re-wilding. This is welcome. Although I much enjoyed Richard Mabey’s recent dismantling of the reputation of Capability Brown in the New Statesman, echoing and developing Mabey’s long-standing scepticism about nature conservation in general, and landscape architecture in particular, there is also much to be admired in the work of those who are trying to bridge the gaps, and work across the borders.

Neither is it too late to change your mind. Marianna Dudley tells the story of how the ageing Wordsworth – of whom it is commonly believed that he became an irredeemable and intransigent Tory – was told that his dinner party host one evening was the man responsible for building a wall across a local footpath. On learning this the poet shouted, ‘I broke your wall down, Sir John, it was obstructing an ancient right of way, and I will do it again. I am a Tory, but scratch me on the back deep enough and you will find the Whig in me yet.’ That is fighting talk.

Ken Worpole

Rainham Marshes (2010) © Jason Orton

Radical Essex Architectural Weekend: The Modernist County

10-11 September 2016

Ken will be joining a panel at the Radical Essex weekend on Saturday 10 September at Silver End to discuss Landscape, Identity & The London Spill. Other speakers include Matthew Butcher, Tim Burrows, Gillian Darley, Charles Holland and Rachel Lichtenstein. For the full programme of the weekend’s talks and visits go to: www.fpg.org.uk

Before or after the Flood?

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Flood House, Thames Estuary. Drawing by Jason Coe

On Monday, 18 April, 2016, designer Matthew Butcher, will launch ‘Flood House’, an architectural prototype, at the Dauntless Boatyard in Benfleet, Essex, on the Thames Estuary. ‘Flood House’ is, in the words of Butcher, ‘a practical and poetic investigation into the living conditions of a seasonally flooded landscape.’

On first impression the proposed structure looks unwieldy, but for those aware of what often gets built on the fragile inter-tidal zone between land and sea – fishing sheds, pill-boxes, pontoons, houseboats – then the structure begins to make sense. It is also a gestural corrective to the old adage that architecture and water don’t mix.

Although Flood House will not be inhabited, it is nevertheless designed to test the conditions under which a floating habitat might work in the foreseeable future. This is with regard to ambient estuary conditions, whether in the form of changing weather conditions, tidal stresses, as well as air quality and changes in temperature and humidity inside the structure – all of which will be monitored. Flood House is made of ply and weatherboard and will float on three steel pontoons, all the elements of which will be assembled at the Benfleet boatyard, though much of it was pre-fabricated at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, where Butcher teaches.

‘Architecture is usually considered to be a stable, fixed entity where internal temperature and conditions of comfort are heavily controlled,’ Butcher wrote in his prospectus for the project. ‘Flood House seeks to challenge these notions, suggesting instead a nomadic architecture that forms a responsible relationship to its surrounding environmental conditions.’

When I recently met Butcher – along with project curator, Jes Fernie – I said I’d been following the architectural discussion in the UK over how the Dutch are now building on water. Butcher pointed out that admirable though the Dutch schemes are, they are mostly erecting conventional houses on floating foundations, which remain tethered to the shore. ‘Flood House’ is testing a prototype for a nomadic habitat, one that can be moved from one place to another, so in a way it is more boat than bungalow, more ship than shed. Following its launch on 18 April, the house will be towed from Benfleet to a boatyard in Wakering, then moored off Southend Pier, for public viewing.

‘Flood House’ is making more than just an environmental statement. Fernie, along with Focal Point Gallery, have also commissioned artist Ruth Ewan to work on the project. Under the rubric of ‘All Distinctions Levelled’, Ewan has designed a weathervane for the structure, inscribed with the palindrome ‘LEVEL’. ‘Level’ alludes to sea levels certainly, but also to levels of status and inequality, currently the subject of much political concern.

In the same way that the once abandoned canals of inner London have been given new life and public vitality in recent years by the proliferation of houseboat moorings, it would be inspiring to see more life in future around the coast and in the estuary as the result of a resurgence of foreshore or floating communities. Essex has a long tradition of houseboat communities – read Carol Edwards’ excellent little 2009 book, The Life and Times of the Houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea, for example – so one hopes that ‘Flood House’ represents an exciting new development in a continuing story of living off-grid, and on water.

‘Flood House’ is part of the larger ‘Radical Essex’ programme led by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, which will be the subject of our next posting.

For more details about ‘Flood House’ visit: http://flood.house

For more details about the ‘Radical Essex’ programme: http://www.focalpoint.org.uk

KW