Nature Notes, a working weekend at the Othona Community.

For my latest video diary I head over to Bradwell on Sea in Essex to spend a weekend with the Othona Community. I discovered this place a few years ago and it has become an important place in my life that always leaves me feeling restored.

 

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A Good Read – Islander, A Journey Around Our Archipelago, Patrick Barkham

islander patrick barkhamPatrick Barkham sets out on a journey to some of the small islands of Britain, drawn by the story of the, near forgotten writer, Compton Mackenzie, who owned and lived on a series of small islands from the 1890’s.
Each island conjures up a different story which Barkham tackles with sensitivity. From island as tax haven, to island as religious retreat, to island as hedonist party zone he travels with a light touch and captures something true about each destination.
On the Island of Eigg, where I spent several weeks working last year, he navigates the choppy waters between the idealists who go there drawn by its environmental credentials and the determined drinkers who congregate at the pier and snub drink driving regulations. He understands instinctively, as maybe I didn’t, that small island life requires people to rub along together and forgive a multitude of personality quirks.
The book raises interesting questions as to the benefits island communities bring to the mainlanders who often heavily subsidise them and suggests that islands provide a pointer to the future as they champion sustainability, community and local heritage which provides a healthy counter balance to fast paced cities with their excessive consumption and social isolation.
Less successful, I felt, was the rendering of the story of Compton Mackenzie. Barkham chooses to visit islands which Mackenzie had no relationship with and ultimately doesn’t illuminate the artists draw to island life. The book I felt would have stood up just as well without this thread.
For me, the strength of this book is its excellent travel writing about little known places and its insight into the lives of the quirky British characters who choose to live in remote places. I loved the tale of the sisters guarding the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay and the nun in waders living a hermits life on Bardsey. I immediately added both these to my wish list of places to visit.
Barkham sketches the people of these islands magnificently but touches something deeper when he comes to rest on a strip of saltmarsh off the Essex coast. Here he recounts how the island lingers after he has left, etching into his skin like a tree ring to tell a story of one moment in his life.

The only place is Essex

Essex, home of fake tan, crazy eyelashes and X Factor contestants. A coastline blighted by industry and pylons. England’s national joke. If you think you know what Essex is all about think again. Essex is also unspoilt beauty, lonely coastlines, secret islands and a place where time and again people have been drawn to step away from the ills of modern life and try to forge a better world.

sky-over-mudflatssky-over-essex-estuary

 

st-peters-on-the-wall-bradwell

St Peter’s on the Wall, Bradwell

I spent the weekend at Othona at Bradwell on Sea on the Dengie Peninsula, working, eating and laughing alongside a great bunch of people from all over the world who had chosen to step aside from the modern world and enjoy a simpler, kinder, communal way of life for a few days.

othona-sign

original-buildings

Othona’s original accommodation used in the 1950’s

the-stoop-othana

Things have got a bit more comfortable nowadays

 

 

The Peculiar People

May you live in interesting times

Essex, my home county. To many the word Essex is a byline for tacky; footballers wives, x factor contestants, white van men and girls with spray tans. What few people know is that Essex has long been a county where radicals dreamt of creating a new utopia, where, hidden away among the creeks and saltmarshes and on isolated islands, traditional ways of living were challenged.

The Peculiar People exhibition, on until the 2nd July at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend on Sea, brings together a collection of art, literature, correspondence and film footage that documents the various communities that sprung up along the Essex coast.

From the plotlands of Dunton, where Eastenders tried to create a home in the country away from the city smogs, to religious groups like the Peculiar People and Othona where people created communities based on sustainability, acceptance and humility to the Hadleigh Farm Colony where William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army dreamt that the ‘submerged tenth’ of the urban population in danger of drug and alcohol abuse or falling into prostitution could return to a more natural way of life, tending the land and receiving free education.

The exhibition was both inspiring and relevant in a world where so many people seem disillusioned with the dominant ideology of our time to make money and buy more stuff. Communities like Othona where people could escape the rat run and regain some sense of what is real and important by living simply and working the land seem like a jolly good idea.

There seems that there was a time in this country when people  still felt that an alternative was possible. Maybe the 100 years before Margaret Thatcher came and squashed out hope and ideology. Now, as we are told that the pursuit of profit is the only God worth serving, we seem stuck on a conveyor belt leading to the destruction of the planet and a loss of our own humanity.

But increasingly it seems that I meet people who just can’t follow this line. Who are falling, or jumping off the conveyor belt and saying ‘there has got to be some alternative to this.’ Maybe in the radical living experiments carried out in Essex we can find some hope that there is an alternative, that just by saying ‘no’ and living differently we can regain some sense of self and some sense of the divine.

As the poster says, we living in interesting times.

http://www.focalpoint.org.uk/exhibitions/current/63/

Beauty and the Beast

untitled (3)Visited the Shorelines Literature Festival of the Sea today at Leigh on Sea in Essex. A festival dedicated to the sea and the wonderful estuary landscape in both Essex and North Kent. I found the festival both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because of the really interesting stories people are telling about a landscape which I love but which is so often derided as ugly and valueless by people who judge beauty by some Cotswold, middle England set of values and depressing because of the scale of destruction taking place.

The Thames super port development is currently hoovering up the Thames seabed causing fish numbers to plummet, ancient oyster and muscle beds to be destroyed, beaches to erode at alarming rates and spewing tons of sludge containing heavy metals and untold other pollutants into our water. Why? so yet more cheap goods can be shipped in from the Far East.

http://www.aeonmagazine.com/nature-and-cosmos/will-massive-global-container-ships-destroy-the-history-and-ecology-of-the-thames-river-estuary/

Also at the festival I bumped into Joan Darwell and Gill Moore, friends from my previous life with the RSPB and long term campaigners against the destruction of the Hoo Peninsula to make way for London’s Super airport. The latest scheme, beloved monster child of  London’s mayor Boris Johnson, will see the whole of the peninsula and most of the Thames destroyed to create an airport far larger than Heathrow and a 6 lane motorway joining it to London. This will be built on some of the most important habitat for wildlife in England and one of Britain’s premier literary landscapes which inspired Charles Dickens to write Great Expectations.

www.stopestuaryairport.co.uk

The trashing of Britain’s countryside, traditions and history in order to line the pockets of the super rich is just beyond belief. These people will undoubtedly go down in history but maybe not in the way their super sized egos dream about. Boris Johnson will no doubt be taught about in schools in years to come but probably as a super villain who should have been stopped.

Shorelines Literature Festival of the Sea

Monika Kostera

Monika Kostera

Hurrah, hurrah, my much beloved home county of Essex is having a fabulous sounding literature festival from the 8th-10th November. The festival brings together writers, filmmakers and musicians who have been inspired by the, much maligned but actually fabulous, countryside around Southend-on Sea. Ian Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane and other writers have found much to celebrate in this landscape and, I for one, will definitely be taking a trip back home to visit this overlooked gem.  Follow the link below to book tickets.

http://shorelines.eventbrite.co.uk/