“If you know the history, the whole landscape comes into focus,” says Ken.
Revealing a place’s hidden past alters your understanding of the present. With that mindshift comes an awareness of alternative possibilities: of a future emerging from a place, and of different experiences to be had within it. It’s not about a ‘New’ landscape, but rather a ‘New’ point of view.
That’s the ambition of the Radical Essex project. Can we imagine Essex in a different light? A kind of 'Wild East' of pioneers and revolutionaries. It has its fair share of fake tan and boy racers — an Essex girl would be the first to admit that — but what of the soaring estuary skies and slivery flatlands, the rich wildlife, the ancient fortresses. Think of those loveable Essex boy qualities of endurance and resilience; the deep respect for family and community; that independent, entrepreneurial spirit.
I’ve always warmed to people from Essex. Not too uptight, always up for a laugh, “a bit rough and ready” says Ken. These abiding mentalities mean that it was a place always open to people living within the landscape in alternative ways. Whatever goes, goes.
And it went: From Britain’s first naturist colony in Wickford to self-build communities inspired by anarchist architect, Colin Ward. Just part of the little-known history of radical politics, lifestyle and architecture that the project aims to uncover. More recently it’s welcomed “A House for Essex” created by TV’s favourite cross-dressing potter. Not only was Essex a place for different modes of living, it was an escape from the confines and hardships of 20th Century East London, a therapeutic haven available for all. “Driving out to Othona is like driving to the edge of the earth” says Ken, talking of this sanctuary settlement way out on the Dengie peninsula. Canvey Island once claimed to be the ‘Healthiest Town in Britain’. Meanwhile, Hackney decamped en-masse to the caravan parks of Wrabness to take in the fresh air and watch the tankers promenade past.
And yet Essex was a landscape deemed to to be of little value — in the traditional picturesque sense — which made the perfect testbed for reinvention and experiment. “We’ve been throwing things away for centuries, only realising that there is no such place as away. We all live downriver now,” concludes Ken in the New English Landscape. This is a place shaped by man-made ambition — take Thurrock’s massive Superport — but also violent force of nature, like the devastating Canvey Island floods in ’53. “Where’s the thinking that integrates our houses into the landscape?” concludes Ken, “We have to re-learn to make habitats for people to live within the landscape, and Essex has a head start on everyone else.”