The New English Landscape. Jason Orton & Ken Worpole. Field Station, London. 2013. ISBN 978 0 9926669 0 3. 86 pages, illustrated. £17.50 (paperback).
This has to be one of the most curious books I have read for some while. It has a plain green cover with bold orange title. Its illustrations by photographer Jason Orton are hardly what you would describe as picturesque, although beauty has to be in the eye of the beholder. It is a book about Essex, and seems to me to be a meditation on the way human beings have interacted and shaped the landscape around them particularly since 1945. Ken Worpole, a writer on landscape, architecture, and public policy, has created a most thought provoking work, so much so that the Society had to wait for the reprint run in order to obtain a copy.
Focussing on Essex, Worpole considers how local writers and artists have perceived its landscape. He considers, for example, C Henry Warren’s two works of 1944, “This Land Is Yours” and “Miles From Anywhere”, arguing that these were written as a response to the thought that Britain may have been invaded via Essex: “a reaction against the blasted terrain of the Flanders battlefield occasioned by the First World War”. Warren to me evokes, to quote Betjeman, that “Edwardian erstwhile” to which we cannot return. This is an interesting view from Worpole: that our land is precious. It depends therefore whether the emphasis is on the words ‘our’ or ‘precious’. The author then says “every new generation develops an attachment to the landscape close to where they live”. Holidaying at the time in the Peak District I could see this affinity but perhaps in a wider context. Then comes the curved ball. Since the Second World War Essex has lost 95% of its hay meadows and 50% of its ancient woodland. Citing the Lea Valley as “hallowed ground”, particularly to Londoners, Worpole argues that the area was “transformed [for the better] beyond recognition for the 2012 London Olympics”. Somehow man has improved the natural landscape and therefore is redeemed. But, in a book full of reflection, Worpole remarks that the Lea Valley has lost its industrial and cultural heritage. What does regeneration do? Worpole speaks of the coal mines elsewhere in the country which have gone. Whilst on holiday we drove through Tibshelf in the north east corner of Derbyshire – a place which has recently lent its name to a service station on the M1 – described as a coal mining district in older guides, but today the car driver would be hard placed to find such a legacy. There are no collieries. Worpole seems to mourn that all has gone: “a ruin reawakens imagination. A monument”, in this case a bike trail, “closes the lid”.
The book draws a conclusion that Canvey Wick is now a haven for wildlife. The industrial has changed to a natural, if somewhat reclaimed by nature or manmade landscape. But is this a conclusion? I think the book is one that you read but then keep returning to its ideas. “We all live down river now” are its final words.
The book is something of a departure for a Library acquisition. “Ducit amor Essexiae” is the motto of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History. Translated as “Led by a love of Essex” this book, because it is county focussed, is a worthy addition to our shelves. I suggested that ‘The New English Landscape’ is a meditation, not of course in a religious sense. It is this newness which causes us to reflect, where we have come from, where we are today, and where regeneration might take us in the future.