Essex. The name conjures up many adjectives – ostentatious, loud, brash, trashy, suburban. The list goes on.
But the terms ‘biodiverse’ and ‘transcendental’ are just as accurate a description of this county as any prompted by viewing the East End’s hulkish neighbour through the prism of reality TV.
Prolific Stoke Newington-based author Ken Worpole’s new book reminds us that the traditional border of Essex is marked by the River Lea, meaning we are on the cusp of it.
The New English Landscape is a slim volume, but don’t let that fool you. It is brimming with thought-provoking observations offered up in Worpole’s essay and via 22 allusive colour photographs of the Essex landscape by Jason Orton.
Worpole’s essay ends by warning readers: “We all live downriver now.”
It is a message that sums up the author’s assertion that, while the upper Thames (the pickled stretch from Windsor to Oxford) is viewed as quintessentially English, the Thames Estuary is comprised of landscapes charged with relevancy.
Worpole, who describes himself as a writer on architecture, landscape and public policy issues, is a kind of landscape critic, and he possesses an authentic understanding of aesthetics, cultural shifts, history and literature.
Whereas writings about place and topography often end up being woefully convoluted, Worpole’s grounded tone cuts through the guff to make points about nature, the sea, the changing face of Britain after the Second World War and – interestingly – symmetries between religious paintings of Christ on the cross and modern photographs of electricity pylons.
Along the way he introduces intriguing writers such as JA Baker and DW Gillingham – men with what Worpole calls “an obsessive empaty” with the natural world.
After the war, Worpole writes, 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”.
Anyone interested in these landscapes – so near, and yet so other – should read this essay and allow themselves to be drawn in by the photographs, which complement the text and have a wonderfully mesmeric quality.
The New English Landscape is published by Field Station. ISBN: 9780992666903. RRP: £15