The Only Way is Essex

This post follows on from last week’s entitled The East Anglian Plains, The Topographic Sublime and looks at the work of Jason Orton and Ken Worpole.

Thanks to programs like TOWIE and Snog, Marry, Avoid, most people’s only perception of Essex is a lazy shorthand of fake tans, boobs and short skirts. While there is of course an element of truth to this stereotype, it is certainly not a localised phenomenon, and it is unfair to taint an entire region with it.

Photographer Jason Orton and author Ken Worpole have been working on a series of projects based on the topography of Essex since 2005, when Jason was commissioned by ExDRA, the Essex development agency to produce a series of images depicting the Essex coastline. Jason contacted Ken to contribute an essay on the history and topography of the region. These two linked essay, photographic and literary where published as 350 Miles: An Essex Journey (2005).

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In the early months of 2005, we walked, cycled and occasionally drove, separately or together, much of the 350 miles of coastline, taking in the atmosphere, the landscape, and the abiding relationship to the sea. At the end of the journey we appreciated, more than ever, that the Essex shoreline is especially memorable for its obstinate refusal to conform to conventional notions of what is beautiful or picturesque. This landscape is singularly rich in history, and full of layered meanings and visual pleasures to those who give it the time and attention it deserves’

Number 101, Lee-over-Sands
Number 101, Lee-over-Sands
Minewatching Tower, Dengie
Minewatching Tower, Dengie
Bradwell Power Station, Bradwell-on-Sea
Bradwell Power Station, Bradwell-on-Sea

Like many topographic bodies of work it is always a difficult decision whether to include people and portraits within the series. Since Alec Soth published Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) the use of the awkward large format portrait has in my opinion become saturated and there is a real danger of it detracting from story you are trying to tell.

There was one difficult editorial decision to be made, however, not without anguish, and that was whether to include any of the portraits which Jason had taken. These were of some of the people he had met in his travels – a boat-builder, a Salvation Army Captain, a well-known gardener, a gallery director – amongst others. Try as we may, we couldn’t make these portraits fit. For as we quickly came to realise, both Jason’s photographic point of view and my essay, were based on a sense of distance (though not detachment). Distance of space, distance of time. The portraits brought us too close in: broke the spell, disrupted the reverie we were each trying to create.

This does not mean that ‘350 miles’ is depopulated. The ghostly presence of human activity is to be found everywhere on this extraordinary coastline, and along its great estuaries, along with the ruins of past epochs and battles, buildings and boats. The water’s edge proved for both of us to be a memory theatre, a place of constant shape-shifting and evocation of past lives.
Memory Maps: ‘Estuary Lines: An essay on the Essex coastline’

Sand Extraction Plant, Fingringhoe
Sand Extraction Plant, Fingringhoe
Car and tractor, Fingringhoe
Car and tractor, Fingringhoe

Like the work of Mark Power and Daniel Cockrill on Destroying the Laboratory for the Sake of the Experiment (DTLFTSOTE) (2006-10), much of the journey was undertaken separately.

Although we communicated frequently between visits, discussing places we had been, it was always understood that the photography and the writing were being pursued independently – each according to our own distinctive interests and obsessions.

On publication a number of reviewers or commentators remarked how well they matched, and it is pleasing to record that this was wholly a matter of shared, elective sympathies, rather than brute aesthetic force. This is not to say that there was no editorial judgement involved in the final publication, far from it. The essay had certainly picked up on some of the places Jason had enthused about or found especially mysterious, whilst on several occasions I pointed him in the direction of places which over the years held a particular appeal to me. So there was a degree of inter-weaving of themes and places before the final editing took place.

Car, Holliwell Point
Car, Holliwell Point
Sea wall and jetty, Canvey Island
Sea wall and jetty, Canvey Island

An extract of Worpole’s essay is available on the V&A’s Memory Maps website.

In the proceeding years Orton has continued to work on projects around the Essex foreshore and the area now designated the Thames Gateway. Some of this has been in response to both this major planning project and the 2012 Olympic site at Stratford, which would eat heavily into the Lea Valley.

Owen Hatherley described the Thames Gateway as:

A gigantic dollop of land between London and the North Sea; an area which should really be described as the Industrial South. It begins with the disused wharves of the London Borough of Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs, extends up the the River Lea to the industrial estates of Stratford, then along the Thames past Silvertown, Barking, Erith, Dartford, Gravesend, Tilbury, Sheerness, Basildon and Canvey Island, finally departing up the Medway to Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham. It passes London’s internal organs, and places that the keep the capital going but which have long been expelled from the metropolis itself: container ports, factories both closed and thriving, petroleum refineries, sugar refineries, several power stations, marshes and nature reserves.

The Thames Gateway has recently often been a locus for M25 flanerie or exurban poetics… it is a slippery zone, its very name implying that it is merely the way into the real event, the Metropolis itself.
A New Kind Of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (2012)

The following images are taken on the site of a former smallpox hospital on the edges of Dartford and the M25 crossing. Since Orton took the pictures, the 264-acre brownfield site, including the former hospital grounds, has been developed into a mixed-use “community” of offices, industry and homes called The Bridge.

Littlebrook Nature Park, Dartford, Kent, 2006
Littlebrook Nature Park, Dartford, Kent, 2006
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2007
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2007
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2006
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2006
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2007
Site of the former Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent, 2007

Below are two of Jason Orton’s images from the 2012 Photofusion show Residual traces, which looked at the development of the Stratford Olympic site and it’s impact on the pre-existing edgeland community.

Channelsea River 01
Channelsea River 01

Cities need to have holes in them. Places where they can breathe – a valve where the unexpected can be let out
Silke Dettmers.

Residual Traces brings together photographic projects which have engaged with the consequences of the London 2012 Olympic Games coming to one of the most deprived areas of London, the Lea Valley.

This secret pocket, loved by the locals but little known to the rest of London, was an untamed part of the East End where golfers and quad bikes played next to gasometers and scrap yards and where giant weeds dominated the river bank.

The hinterland of sprawling post-industrial wilderness, an enclave with an eclectic social mix of young artists, street gangs and run down council estates was characterised in 2007 as a “ragged hole in the city’s fabric” [Andy Beckett, The Guardian].

Five years on the area has been transformed and the hole has been partially filled. New housing developments, restored tow paths, cycle tracks and organic cafes are evidence of a new era in the valley, but the older traditional society is still in residence, perhaps more marginalised than ever.
Taken from the exhibition statement for Residual Traces, Photofusion 2012

Channelsea River 02
Channelsea River 02

350 miles has now been joined by a companion book, The New English Landscape (2013).

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For nearly a decade we – Jason Orton and Ken Worpole – have collaborated on documenting the changing landscape and coastline of Essex, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography and architecture.

The New English Landscape critically examines the changing geography of landscape aesthetics since the Second World War, noting the shift away from the arcadian interior to the contested eastern shoreline. It discusses how writers and artists gravitated towards East Anglia, and latterly towards Essex, regarding these territories as places of significant topographical disruption, often as a result of military and industrial occupation, and the dramatic incursion of the sea.

These are landscapes of profound ecological and imaginative resonance, particularly along the Thames foreshore, and the islands and estuaries of its north-eastern coastal peninsula. The book assesses the past, present and future of this new territorial aesthetic, now subject to much debate in the contested worlds of landscape design, topography and psycho-geography.

Horsey island, Essex, March 2013
Horsey island, Essex, March 2013

While the subject of the images and essay aren’t necessarily considered edgeland site (as laid out by Marion Shoard) they are interstitial regions, and this is something that Worpole explores in his accompanying essay.

Maylandsea, Essex, february 2013
Maylandsea, Essex, february 2013

Many Londoners discovered a spiritual home along the River Lea, and further out in the Essex reaches, and loyalty to this ‘bastard’ countryside is complex and enduring. The distinctive topography of the Lea Valley remains hallowed ground. Combining industry, agriculture, leisure and recreation, ecology and a tumultuous social history, it was a prototype of a new kind of landscape which emerged after the war, a model of how a working landscape could be seen to possess aesthetic and communitarian qualities. Such hybrid landscapes capture the ambivalent feelings we all have about our wavering loyalties between town and country, the life of the street and the solitude of the woodland walk or coastal path.

The hard and fast distinction once made between town and country is no longer tenable in many parts of Britain today, especially as road building, housing development and retail parks have extended deep into formal rural terrain, whilst at the same time agriculture itself has industrialised.
There is today a wide and rich vocabulary used to describe these new hybrid landscapes, ranging from the relatively benign ‘suburbia’ to the scathing ‘drosscape’.

Maylandsea, Essex, february 2013
Maylandsea, Essex, february 2013

The Thames Estuary in South East England, home to the London 2012 Summer Olympics and wartime “bulwark shore against invasion”, is a drosscape to some but a place of great fascination to others. Photographer Jason Orton and author Ken Worpole have spent over a decade documenting these sodden flatlands and reveal them to be a place of quintessential English beauty.

Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013
Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013

Here Worpole explains for uncube the shifting English landscape aesthetic.

Landscapes, and the representation of them, are charged with political significance. This makes the study of landscape aesthetics – particularly around issues of topography and ‘sense of place -’ of continuing intellectual interest and concern, more so since the European Landscape Convention (also known as the Florence Convention) was adopted by the Council of Europe on 20 October 2000, and came into force on 1 March 2004. Article 5 states that “each party undertakes to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity.” The UK government belatedly endorsed this charter in February 2006.

What is considered beautiful in landscape changes over time. In wartime, highly sentimental representations of pristine fields and forests, along with crystal streams and snow-capped mountains are often patriotically evoked. However, most of Europe has now been at peace for seventy years, during which time rapid industrialisation, and subsequent post-industrial decline have altered many European regions irrevocably. Can we continue to insist that the study and representation of landscape remains a matter of picturesque, national-romantic or modernist frames of reference? Landscape aesthetics is now surely a much more shape-shifting and muscular affair.
In mainland Britain the aftermath of the Second World War brought about a profound geographical shift in what had hitherto been regarded as the quintessential ‘English’ landscape. Previously the ‘West Country’, along with the Peak District and the Lake District, provided the stock images of English life and culture, represented as small villages nestling within the folds of undulating uplands and gentle river valleys. After the war there was a marked shift to the east, particularly to the coastline of East Anglia. This was a somewhat harsher territory, bleaker in its marshes, mudflats and estuaries, but heroic in its role as ‘the bulwark shore’ against invasion.

The eastern shoreline was thus established as a steel, concrete and armoured wall, and the remains of those fortified structures can still be seen today, and have become not only familiar but almost cherished elements in the landscape. Writers and artists have also gravitated towards East Anglia, regarding this historic coastline as a place of significant visual and cultural disruption – the result of military or industrial occupation – and therefore open to a surrealist, constructivist or abstractionist interpretation.

In recent years there has also been significant interest in landscapes which have developed unbidden in the interstices of urban and industrial development. In North America topographers now talk of drosscapes, whilst in the UK and elsewhere the same abandoned land is described as urban fringe, edgelands, or bastard countryside. None of these terms is as effective in capturing this indeterminate territory as the 19th century French phrase terrain vague.

Benfleet, Essex, March 2013
Benfleet, Essex, March 2013
Horsey island, Essex, March 2013
Horsey island, Essex, March 2013

I really do wish that I could include more of Ken Worpole’s beautifully written essay, however I have already taken too much. I urge you to pick up a copy of this book; at £15 it is a bargain and worthy of a place in any topophiliac’s library. It is clear that we share many of the same references and interests and I’m sure will include elements in future posts.

All photographs are the copyright of Jason Orton, and all quotes are by Ken Worpole unless otherwise stated.

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