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 Village That Died for England by Patrick Wright

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.


To watch ‘Unfamiliar Territories’, go to:



Seaside Surrealism

Studland Bay_001

Studland Bay, Isle of Purbeck (2011)

Towards the end of a cycling holiday in Dorset and Somerset some years ago, our small group spent the last night at Castle Corfe, arriving in heavy rain. The morning after was perfect sunshine and the castle itself appeared like something from a fairy tale. Further visual derangement was to come. Piling the bikes in the guard’s van of the early morning steam train to the nearby seaside resort of Swanage, we discovered the carriages teeming with vintage train enthusiasts celebrating a local railway anniversary, as well as crowds of Morris Men, many blacked-up and covered in ribbons and bells, attending an international folk dance festival. The whole morning was like an extended scene from a 1950s film by Powell & Pressburger.

At the time none of us appreciated that Swanage and the Purbeck peninsula was the home ground of English surrealism. This was largely as a result of the influential photographs and paintings of Paul Nash, whose disturbing landscapes and found images made a great impression when they first appeared, and remain much admired to this day. There had been an even earlier pioneer in the re-fabrication of the Swanage townscape in the form of a Victorian builder and developer, George Burt, who had imported and integrated into the town’s parks, streets and seafront parade, an eccentric range of London clock-towers, streetlights, and architectural follies. Landscape historian, David Lambert, once devoted a fascinating essay, ‘Durlston Park and House: the Public and Private Realms of George Burt, King of Swanage’, in the New Arcadian Journal, 45-46 (1998), sympathetic to Burt but less so to Nash, whom he found guilty of lèse-majesté.

Nash and Burt (as well as Lambert’s essay) feature prominently in James Wilkes’ engaging study, A Fractured Landscape of Modernity: Culture and Conflict in the Isle of Purbeck, which, despite its geographical particularity, has much of interest to say about 20th century English visual and topographical culture. The 21st century branding of this stretch of southern England as the ‘Jurassic Coast’, has now brought into play a complicated admixture of the geological, the industrial (for stone quarrying has been the major form of employment in these parts), the militaristic, and a New Romantic aesthetic, all of which Wilkes explores deftly.

The author opens with a stunning example of morphological resonance, setting a photograph of a bathing tent used by Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on Studland Beach – in the shape of a cube surmounted by a pyramid – anticipating exactly the same form as the anti-tank blocks constructed in situ at the outbreak of the Second World War. (Imagine if you will, a tent designed for a medieval knight about to enter a jousting competition). Many other correspondences follow, folded within the envelope of ‘Seaside surrealism’, the title of an essay Nash wrote for the Architectural Review in 1936, around the same time John Piper published his influential essay, ‘Abstraction on the Beach’ – also in the Architectural Review.

Proper acknowledgement is made to Patrick Wright, who opened up this particular territory in his book, The Village That Died for England, especially in its military and bio-warfare encroachments on the landscape. Studland Bay remains a place of particular social conflict, rather less dangerous but still offensive to many, as a battleground for morality between nudists, holiday-makers, and sun-seekers keen on al fresco sex. So many contradictory impulses always seem to gather on the shoreline (or by the river). Published as an academic monograph, the price of which, alas, makes it really only available to library readers, Wilkes’ study is written with flair, and full of interesting ideas and cross-currents.


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