The edge of Essex... land of dreams

Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013. Photograph: �Jason Orton

Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013. Photograph: �Jason Orton - Credit: Archant

A writer once called Essex odd: ‘all East End overspill, yet strangely rural round the edges… an experimental compromise between… the expanding city and the defiant swamplands’. Right... STEVEN RUSSELL hears why such lands nevertheless have a grip on our hearts and minds

The New English Landscape, by Ken Worpole and Jason Orton.

The New English Landscape, by Ken Worpole and Jason Orton. - Credit: Archant

It’s a funny old thing, the great outdoors. A beautiful view makes something inside most of us miss a beat. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be pretty; we can find a decaying factory on a mudflat awe-inspiring, too.

Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013. Photograph: �Jason Orton

Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013. Photograph: �Jason Orton - Credit: Archant

Sometimes, the same place can both thrill and terrify. Ken Worpole explains the sense of wonder we can enjoy on the Essex coast, for instance, when standing on the edge of land where bears, elephants and hippopotamuses once trod – the kind of delight “plainly evident in children when they first encounter the sea”.

The ocean can prove an optimistic symbol of travel and new horizons –that sense of sailing away and beginning anew, and an escape from the claustrophobia of land-locked middle England.

On the other side of the coin, he quotes French historian Alain Corbin’s observation that the boundary between firm ground and a dampness underfoot can stoke our primitive fears about deep water, sea-monsters and drowned sailors.

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It can also see us navel-gazing, Ken notes, having us standing at the water’s edge, contemplating the insignificance of an earthly life “as brief as the scattering waves which collapse in on themselves before they reach the shore”.

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The coast can do that to you. Essex-born novelist John “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” Fowles once wrote of the loneliness of the Dengie peninsula (between the rivers Blackwater and Crouch) with its “God-denying skies”.

Jason Orton and Ken Worpole know all about that kind of thing. For almost 10 years they’ve been working together to document the changing landscape and coastline of Essex, particularly its estuaries, islands and “urban edge lands”.

One result of their chronicling is the book/essay The New English Landscape. It examines the changing geography and the way landscapes have altered and appealed since the Second World War, with a shift away from the pastoral inland areas (think lots of idyllic greenery and shepherds) to the very different eastern shoreline.

It talks about how writers and artists congregated in East Anglia, and then specifically Essex – interested in how areas had changed, often because of the effect military use or industry had on the landscape.

Bristol man Eddie Procter, fascinated by landscapes and the sense of place, reckons the 80-odd-page publication is “a reminder that the margins of Essex are as much a land of dreams as the loftiest of mountains and the purest of streams”.

Ken – whose family moved out of their Canvey Island bungalow the year before the 1953 North Sea floods wrought devastation to the east coast – has penned the 18,000 words. The senior professor at the Cities Institute, London Metropolitan University, has done a lot of work looking at the quality of modern urban life, identity and belonging.

Landscape photographer Jason illustrates the book with 22 colour images, including scenes of Mersea Island (not far from Colchester), Horsey Island (near Walton-on-the-Naze and featured in Arthur Ransome’s story Secret Water) and Maylandsea (south-east of Maldon).

Ken argues that one legacy of the Second World War was a change in attitudes, with less social deference. Folk widened their horizons and, thanks to growing wealth and chances for holidays and outdoor recreation, “democratised attitudes to the landscape and access to it”.

In 1951, for instance, The Country Code was published by the National Parks Commission: “a guide to town dwellers on how to treat the countryside with respect”. The coast, too, was visited and valued.

Mind you, there are frequent disagreements about what is easy on the eye and rewarding and what is a plain eyesore.

Ken points out: “The boundaries between town and country have become blurred in many places, with new homes, road and retail parks pushing into rural areas, while at the same time agriculture has industrialised.”

Some critics claim intensive farming techniques have damaged wildlife and the distinctive character of the landscape.

“Progress”, such as those techniques and building development, has come at a price, the essay suggests – “in rural areas the loss of habitat and biodiversity remains shocking”. In Essex, 75% of coastal grazing marsh has been lost since the 1930s, as well as 95% of hay meadows with their mix of wild flowers and nearly 50% of ancient woodland.

Ken says: “Of 30,000 hectares of inter-tidal salt march that surrounded the Essex coast 400 years ago, only 2,500 hectares remain. This loss of biodiversity is replicated throughout much of the UK.”

London is not immune. He laments how the building work for the 2012 Olympics wiped away much of the historic sense of the Lea Valley as home to developments in aeronautics, telecommunications, chemicals and the early film industry, “as well as acting as London’s kitchen garden and water basin”.

And yet a sense of “place” appears adaptable and enduring; “…every new generation develops an attachment to the landscape close to where they live, giving the lie to the idea that all change is for the worse, and that the golden age was always in the past, or only just within living memory, now gone forever”.

Ken goes on to talk about how writing about place has recently been dominated by the landscapes of East Anglia, with a growing interest in estuarine Essex.

Partly it’s because of the closeness to London. Interest was also generated during the war by the fear the county would be an early victim of any Nazi invasion. You realise what you’ve got only when it’s threatened.

Artists such as Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden headed in this direction. “Because so much of East Anglia is marshland and estuary, sky and water, the chromatic range on the east coast is quite different to that found elsewhere in Britain.”

Ken poses an interesting question about the coast today, though. Outside the seaside towns, where are the people?

“The majority of those who settled and worked in these peninsular territories are long dead. Even those who currently live in coastal settlements are rarely found pacing the seawalls, traversing the empty yards of former factory complexes, or walking the marshlands in deep winter,” he writes.

“The industrialisation of agriculture itself has produced its own eerie depopulation, as landscape historian Nan Fairbrother once observed, noting in a haunting phrase that even ‘the animals are coming indoors’.

“Yet evidence of human activity everywhere, whether in the exotic ballast flora growing in the vicinity of old ports and harbours, in the derelict jetties, cranes and warehouses of abandoned docks, in industrial ruins, in deserted asylums and hospitals, derelict boats, and a multitude of other memento mori [Latin for “remember you will die” – a reminder about the inevitability of death!] of past lives and endeavours.”

Ken gives a lot of detail about some of the “experiments in living” in remoter corners of East Anglia over the years, with idealistic settlements springing up and folk moving from London to Essex to forge new lives on the land.

There was a number on Dengie, for instance, such as the “socialist” Mayland Colony founded in 1896 and one at Purleigh (“Tolstoyan anarchist”).

Even for Labour, “the party of the industrial working class, the dreams of a bucolic rural homeland – Merrie England – remained powerful”.

Mayland’s settlement was promoted by Joseph Fels, the American son of European immigrants, who had already joined one-time Labour Party leader George Lansbury in establishing a land colony at Hollesley Bay (on the Suffolk coast near Woodbridge) in 1887.

“Within a few years of setting up, the Mayland experiment was growing its own food, producing its own meat and dairy products, and providing homes and a school, along with other social amenities, for the colonists.”

Today, though, Jason Orton’s photographs hint only of past glories, showing abandoned outhouses, overgrown glasshouses and former railway tracks.

Perhaps the mightiest symbol of positive thinking came at Silver End, near Witham, where manufacturer FH Crittall built a model village in 1926 for his workers. It included a farm, hotel, department store and sports centre, along with its own water supply and electricity generation. The estate – in 1930 adjudged the healthiest village in Britain – is still there.

Meanwhile, writer and Bloomsbury bohemian John Middleton Murry was involved in several Essex experimental communities. The first was The New Adelphi at Langham, north-east of Colchester.

Living in harmony was often tricky, however. “One probationary member, the anarchist George Woodcock, found the mix of people too volatile. ‘Under the same roof were anarchists, left-wing socialists and secular-minded pacifists; there were Quakers, Plymouth Brethren, Catholics and one mild-mannered man who professed himself a Satanist; there were some vegetarians, bicycle-club enthusiasts, Esperantists and nudists.’”

As war came, some of Murry’s followers moved to Frating Hall Farm, near Great Bentley, farming 370 acres of potatoes and cabbages, mostly, and tending 8,000 chickens. “Vera Brittain [the writer, feminist and pacifist] was a shareholder in the farm and her daughter, the Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams, worked there,” says Ken.

“These scattered utopias, old and new, are mostly unmarked on the map, but remain strong in people’s memories and in local history memoirs. Attachment to working the land, along with the physical benefits of life outdoors, still seems to provide a powerful impulse behind many utopian schemes.

“When walking the footpaths and seawalls, one still comes across smallholders, riverboat dwellers and others living and working ‘on the margins’; the landscape would be bereft without these small experiments in living. They act as both a safety valve and a beacon in an economic system that has almost eradicated the language of livelihood and self-sufficiency from the political vocabulary.”

And what of now? What do we do with the landscapes we treasure?

Ken argues it’s important to document and value them “if they are not to be levelled or ‘improved’ in the name of some larger political programme”.

He cites photographs of the Easington Colliery in County Durham in 1983, showing a still-working industrial complex, close to the sea and surrounded by farmland – “a classic mining landscape, in which the industrial and the pastoral co-existed alongside each other”.

In 2004, the site is pictured as rough grassland, levelled and barren. It’s easy to forget history when there’s nothing left to remind us.

He also suggests new landscape design needs to include references to the history of a site being redeveloped – to its old military or industrial life, for instance – so echoes of the past are built in. It’s good for us as humans.

He also points out that even the most blighted landscapes can be sympathetically recuperated and “re-enchanted”.

“The nature reserve at Fingringhoe on the River Colne, created by the Essex Wildlife Trust on the site of former gravel and sand extraction pits, is much loved and much visited.

“There, in high summer, nightingales populate deep avenues of blackthorn and hawthorn and fill the air with constant birdsong; adders can be seen dozing on vacant stretches of sand between large swathes of yellow gorse (with its heady smell of coconut).

“These wildlife reserves are the successors to the earlier land colonies, speaking to a contemporary need to imagine life whole again, human settlement and the natural world undivided.”

? The New English Landscape costs £15, plus £2.50 postage, from

(By the way, and just for the record, that writer who called Essex odd was drama critic and biographer Michael Coveney.)

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