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A book on the changing landscape of Essex

The New English Landscape by Jason Orton and Ken Worpole.

Though this book’s ostensible subject is the ‘new’ English landscape, it is far from parochial, for readers in many countries will know the kind of sites it features. As in photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole’s previous book 350 Miles the focus is on Essex − the county immediately to the east of London, part-invaded by the capital, and fringed by the River Thames and North Sea.

Tastes in landscape slowly change. In the early 18th century, the Lake District was regarded with horror, but now many would say it is one of England’s most scenic destinations, along with such places as the Cotswolds and the coasts of Cornwall and Devon. Meanwhile, Essex is treated condescendingly and deemed unlovely, but in this book it becomes a test case for what we value and respond to in our surroundings because it represents so distinctly what Worpole calls ‘modern nature’.

His Essex is a county of hybrid landscapes. The Lea Valley on the edge of London ‘combines industry, agriculture, leisure, ecology and a tumultuous social history’, while the Essex foreshore is ‘wholly a product of the modern world’, with abandoned industrial and military sites alongside new reclamation and construction projects like London Gateway − a huge container port near Stanford-le-Hope. Pastoral idylls are few and far between as distinctions between town and country are eroded. But as well as modernity in the guise of numerous new retail warehouses (the UK’s ubiquitous sheds), there is the ruinous, the clandestine and the cryptic. The landscape can be mundane one moment and mysterious the next, or round a corner it can open abruptly onto expanses of marshland and sky.

For Worpole, ‘the particularities of local topography’ take precedence over ‘lofty statements on the true and the beautiful’. History, aesthetics and personal memoir are fused as he pursues these particularities.
The history, he admits, can sometimes be hard to read, but the evidence persists ‘whether in the exotic flora growing in the vicinity of old ports and harbours, in the derelict jetties, cranes and warehouses of abandoned docks, in deserted asylums and hospitals, derelict boats, and a multitude of memento mori of past lives and endeavours’. At Mayland on the River Blackwater was one of Essex’s mini-utopias, a ‘back to the land’ settlement that flourished in the early 20th century, but its glasshouses were being bulldozed when he and Orton visited. Sadly what to Worpole is an evocative palimpsest is to developers all too often a blank page.

Artists drawn to Essex and its neighbour Suffolk are mentioned − among them Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Prunella Clough − and it’s entirely in the spirit of the book that Worpole should quote their predecessor Constable’s love of ‘mill-dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brickwork’. That is a pedestrian’s take on the landscape, alert to minutiae, and it’s no surprise to learn that Worpole has spent many hours walking the county’s tracks and pathways and shoreline.

Maylandsea

Maylandsea, Essex, February 2013

While he doesn’t quite answer the question, Worpole asks why writers have lately been so responsive to these stretches of eastern England: ‘Why does the zeitgeist now favour
a lonelier, bleaker, more rebarbative sense of place?’ No doubt the key text is WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, but Worpole goes beyond specific references to reflect more generally on our experience of coasts, creeks and islands − the fluctuating boundary of land where waterlines, light and weather are always on the move.

Counterpointing these more speculative passages are ones of precise observation: for instance, a sustained description of an organic farm, in which the whole complex seems to have been improvised from whatever materials and objects were at hand − a kind of built collage accessed by rutted roads through pools of slurry. ‘Working landscapes create their own aesthetics,’
says Worpole.

The text is split into four sections, with groups of Orton’s photographs placed in-between, which stops them from being seen merely as illustrations to the text and gives them a life of their own. While the Thames can be turbulent, and high seas keep eroding the eastern coastline (Worpole mentions the Great Tide of 1953 in which 300 died), Orton prefers calmness to drama. He seems less concerned to capture an instant, a transitory effect, than something more intrinsic to the landscape. The tide is out, the mudflats glisten, and an abandoned boat founders in the sedge. Briefly exposed by the receding waters, the causeway to Horsey Island looks treacherous as it disappears in mist. The calmness encourages you to absorb the atmosphere of these scenes and to keep interrogating them, deciphering the traces of human intervention that Worpole mentions. They linger in your mind.

Text and photographs together enjoin us to take a more nuanced view of landscape, especially when it seems to be degraded or marginal. With a more enlightened attitude, the wholesale makeover of the lower Lea Valley for the London Olympics Park might have been avoided: ‘a unique landscape, polluted and in poor shape yet patently rich in its industrial and cultural heritage … eradicated entirely’. By contrast, Worpole commends the approach that architect Peter Beard has taken on the old military site of Rainham Marshes, creating ‘a subtle open-air theatre of memory’ at what is now an RSPB nature reserve.

The book concludes with a copious and eclectic bibliography, which ranges from texts on ecology and conservation to the poet Yves Bonnefoy’s luminous meditation on landscape, The Arrière-pays. Perhaps one could add to it a forgotten work from 1945, RSR Fitter’s London’s Natural History, which Irénée Scalbert recently unearthed in the Architectural Association’s journal AA Files 66, and which partly anticipates this book; while Ignasi de Solà-Morales’s essay ‘Terrain Vague’ (1995) surely merits a place too. More to the point, though, The New English Landscape should itself be firmly in bibliographies, with its implicit message for developers and designers: think twice before you deal with any landscape.

Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013

Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013

The New English Landscape

Authors: Jason Orton and Ken Worpole

Publisher: Field Station, London

Price: £15

Readers' comments (1)

  • Fantastic book well written and beautiful these landscapes are delicate and precious

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