Jumped on my bike last weekend to undertake a pilgrimage to find Lena Kennedy’s woodland shack, the last remaining plotland home in what was once a thriving community of woodlands dwellings erected by enterprising East Enders wanting their own little country kingdom.
Lena Kennedy and her husband, like many others, came to Kent in the 50’s to escape the overcrowding and smogs of the East End of London, hoping for clean air and space for their children to spend their weekends. They bought a parcel of land with their limited savings, amongst the trees of Cliffe Woods and began slowly to erect their country home, first they bought a old railway carriage to live in and then slowly they began to build their little wooden shack, grow their vegetables and make friends with the other working class families who felt that, despite the lack of mains water, sewage or other facilities, they had found their little piece of paradise.
Many of these people showed a determination and resilience which can only be admired, some cycled out from London carrying the timber to build their houses on their backs or worked extra jobs to find the savings to buy their land.
Then in the 60’s the council declared the community of shack dwellers an unsightly shanty town and compulsorily purchased the land in order to build as Lena writes ‘small modern houses all the way over my lovely green hill.’ The shack dwellers were powerless to stop ‘this terrifying thing about to take over them all.’ Somehow Lena’s shack was spared and later, at the age of 60, when she became a best selling novelist, she wrote about her years in the shack in her autobiography, Away to the Woods.’
Early last Saturday I rode into an icy spring wind through the lanes of the Hoo Peninsula to Cliffe Woods. The woods are now tucked up behind the village and indeed the hill is as Lena feared, one big suburban sprawl of brick built mega bungalows and sprawling concrete drives. Very little remains of Lena’s lovely oaks and ash trees.
I had no idea where the bungalow was, but the plotlands, though vanished, retain their skeleton breath on the map, long gardens, regularly ordered, with little houses set well back in the plots. On View Road, I passed a wooden gate which seemed to lead onto a derelict piece of land. I would have walked by had not a glimpse of blue caught my eye. There, on what appeared to be a garden shed, tucked behind a tangle of hawthorn trees was a blue plaque, of the type which appear all over London buildings, drawing our eye to the homes of the wealthy and famous. Lena Kennedy was a prolific and successful author and this was where she came for over 30 years to write.
The shack, tucked away in its little garden full of daffodils and primroses was still a delight all the more so because it was now overshadowed by giant multi garaged monstrous homes. How could this little shack be considered ugly and inappropriate and the buildings that had replaced it more acceptable? Our sense of what is a correct and desirable way to live is all skewed, for me, I will take the simple life in the woods every time.