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.

A pot of jam and a cabbage

I returned this week to visit some of the people I interviewed last year as part of my Estuary Life book. It was the first chance each person had to look at what I had written, a scary moment for me as well as them.

I have been very aware throughout the whole project how people have trusted me to let me into their homes and lives and reveal sometimes very private feelings about their situations so it was really important to me that they would like how I had portrayed them.

Along with the manuscript I bought each person a gift. What do you buy for people who have been so generous? In the end I bought them something related to their section of the story.

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela Welford had opened up the plotland shack that her mother, the author Lena Kennedy, had built along with her husband in the 50’s. Afterwards, over lunch with her family, friends and neighbours, they had reminisced “It’s not like the old days, then people were always popping around with a pot of jam, or a cabbage from the garden.” so Angela’s gift was easy. A pot of my special plum and mulled wine jam and a cabbage, if not from my garden, at least personally selected by me from the supermarket.

12 a parting drink

enjoying Alex’s homebrew on board his boat

Alex, the houseboat owner and former Radio Caroline D.J. wouldn’t let me leave without trying his blueberry brandy. I returned the complement with a bottle of my homemade cherry brandy.

Martin Simpson had let me stay on his houseboat at the end of my first weekend’s walk. I turned up at his luxury home on a damp Bank Holiday, dripping onto the parquet flooring and barely able to string a sentence together, I was so exhausted. He had poured me a hot bath and fed me pie and beer. He looked quite delighted when I returned the compliment and sent me a text later that evening to tell me pie was delicious.

martin looking happy with his pie

martin looking happy with his pie

All three people were thankfully happy with their part in the story. Now it’s time to brave the agents.

Estuary Life – The Journey begins

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Estuary by MLP

After months of planning and research I am finally taking off tomorrow on the first leg of my walk across the North Kent Marshes for my book Estuary Life. First stop is going to be the church of St Mary’s where Charles Dickens daughter got married. This little church on the edge of the marshes is a very important and peaceful spot for me and it feels fitting to set off from here and ask for a safe journey as generations of pilgrims have done before.Higham church

From there I am heading to the former plotlanders settlement of Cliffe Woods to meet the daughter of writer Lena Kennedy at the last remaining plotland shack in the woods. After this I hope to spend some time with two women who have possibly done more to protect and save the marshes than anyone else. Joan and Gill run the campaigning group, Friends of the North Kent Marshes and having successfully defended their homes against the airport threat which plagued the area 10 years ago they are now heading the fight to prevent the destruction of the marshes by Boris Johnson’s island airport.

caravanHaving accosted a farmer on the marshes a few weeks back I then hope to visit my old caravan bought by Keith a local sheep farmer for his daughter. I haven’t stepped foot in my former home since I was evicted from the marshes back in 2007 so going home will be an odd experience. I hope to finish the day camping with my oldest and dearest friend at a secret location on the marshes.

Today in preparation I visited this spot and hid my sleeping bag, camping mat and some porridge oats, well wrapped up in several layers of plastic. I felt like I looked deeply and worryingly suspicious as I headed across country with a heavy bin bag slung over one shoulder, but thankfully I encountered no one.

Hopefully, despite a day of heavy rain, they will still be ok when I get to them tomorrow night. I sent my friend a message with instructions on where to find this bounty. “Go to the old witch tree and then up, where old meets new, there you will find my stash.” I’m keeping my fingers crossed that no nosy hound or badger finds it first and snaffles my porridge oats.

After my nights camping, I am  heading to the Medway and visiting Alex an eighty something houseboat owner and former DJ for Radio Caroline before taking a mammoth walk along the river, passing the location where Sir Francis Drake spent his childhood. By nightfall I hope to make Rochester where my friend Martin has promised me a sailors supper aboard his boat.

Alex and Martin

Alex and Martin

I am so excited to finally be setting out on this adventure and to begin the bigger adventure of writing my book.


Away to the Woods

Lena Kennedy's shack in Cliffe Woods

Lena Kennedy’s shack in Cliffe Woods

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.

blue plaque at Lena Kennedy's shack

blue plaque at Lena Kennedy’s shack

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.