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: The Peregrine by J.A.Baker

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.’


For more details about My House of Sky and to order the book, go to Little Toller Books

D.W.Gillingham: Chronicler of the Roding Valley


Just as J.A.Baker achieved posthumous fame for his exquisite writings about the natural landscape and avian life of the River Chelmer and the Blackwater Estuary – notably in The Peregrine – it is timely to remember another Essex naturalist and writer, D.W.Gillingham, rather less well known today but equally alert to the Essex landscape. Born in Walthamstow in 1906, after moving with his family to Canada in 1911, Gillingham returned to settle in Loughton in 1934, where he lived at 28 Roding Road until his death in 1965.

Throughout his Loughton years he kept a journal – eventually published in 1953 as Unto The Fields – a meticulous and exquisite record of the woodlands, streams and rivers of the Roding Valley, rich in bird-life, small mammals and wild flowers, even though the streets of London’s east end were less than ten miles away. From the hills of Loughton he claimed to be able to hear the roar of the London traffic, or from the height of Epping ridge see the smoke from steamers on the Thames at Galleons Reach. Others may want ‘scenery’, he wrote, ‘but the beauty of the English countryside is far less in its wide panoramas than in its intimate nooks and corners, in what lies so near at hand.’


Illustration by Harry A. Pettit

Read Unto the Fields with the OS map close to hand and it is astonishing how much Gillingham observed and recorded in such a tiny area on between Epping Forest and the Roding Meadows. His early morning, late night and weekend walks never took him more than four miles from home, mostly between Chigwell Lane and Warren Hill, but in these ‘intimate nooks and corners’ he saw otters, deer, stoats, foxes, redshanks, snipe, lapwings, owls, herons, nightingales, dozens of different finches and song-birds, many becoming familiars, their habitat and routines ecstatically noted and loved. ‘Find me a fairer spot in Essex!’ he wrote of a walk close to Chigwell Lane, before going on to admit that there were as many other such places in the county as there were people to cherish them.

Gillingham’s life appears to have been one of extremes. After his parents emigrated to Vancouver he attended the University of British Columbia, subsequently travelling to the Arctic Circle with fur traders, while writing short stories, at least one of which was published in the prestigious literary journal, The Dial. At some point in his early life he trained as a pilot. By the 1930s, back in Loughton – like J.A.Baker – he worked in an office (‘uncongenial work’), escaping from the ‘arid plain of failure’ to cycle everywhere on his early morning or night-time forays into the nearby fields and forests. Even so, when war broke out he spent two years with a Night Fighter Squad, before being posted to the Middle East. After the war he became a familiar figure locally, his obituary in the local newspaper recording that, ‘His many friends will remember him best for his shapeless beret, stout walking shoes and amiable booming, cultured voice.’ In his last years Gillingham worked as a private gardener.


Illustration by Harry A. Pettit

Unto the Fields is worth searching out, the early editions beautifully illustrated by Harry A.Pettit, a book illustrator whose work continues to be admired. In the published writings of both Gillingham and Baker, there is little mention of work, of domestic life or other interests – just an obsessive empathy with birds, and their migrations, nestings, feeding patterns and interaction with the rest of the natural world. From such patient observations, the modern reader is given access to a myriad of small worlds then to be found in suburban lanes and along the banks of the smallest Essex creeks and rivers. In Gillingham’s case, his notebooks recorded Loughton before the arrival of a wartime barrage balloon station and, subsequently, a new housing estate, close by. Gillingham’s description of his adopted territory, recalls those wonderful passages in the early novels of D.H.Lawrence when that writer rhapsodised about the walks he made from his terraced street of miners’ cottages in Eastwood to the nearby farms and woodlands.

This post is based on a talk to the Loughton Historical Society on 13 November 2014. Thanks are due to Jan Kinrade for additional biographical information about Gillingham.