Caught by the River

A landscape of fens, forest and farms

Ken Worpole | 6th June 2021

An extract from Ken Worpole’s contribution to ‘Fens Forests and Fields: Discovering the unique landscape and stories of the Land of the Fanns’, a new book about the Essex/East London landscape.

Photograph by Tamara Stoll

Border country

Many years ago I interviewed a man called Walter Southgate at his bungalow in Harold Park, as part of a local history project based in Hackney, where Walter was born and spent much of his early life. He had grown up in poverty on the borders of Hackney and Mile End and found escape from harsh circumstances through socialist politics and – as importantly – through founding the North East London Clarion Cycling Club in 1910.  The opportunity to journey out of London into the Essex countryside at the weekends along with fellow Clarion members changed his life. In his autobiography, That’s the Way It Was, published in 1982, he wrote that, ‘I can say truthfully that one of the best periods of my life was the days I spent cycling through the Essex countryside before motor cars and lorries came to spoil it all. Our journeys were accompanied by singing and ringing our bells – it was a real fraternal outing in the fresh air, far from the stinks and grime of East End life.’

One of his cycling companions was a young woman called Grace whom he married shortly after the First World War, and who, if anything, was even more enthusiastic about the countryside than Walter. In 1921 they bought two acres near Kelvedon Hatch in order to build a small cabin which would serve as a rendezvous for cycling parties. Over the next couple of years in the kitchen of a two-room flat in Hackney they assembled all the sections of wooden bungalow they had designed and built from scratch, eventually hiring a van to carry it all to Kelvedon Hatch where it was bolted together and laid on foundations they had dug and concreted themselves. Having first served as their weekend retreat and cycling headquarters, Walter and Grace went on to build a bungalow on the same site, where they lived happily from 1928 until 1955, without ‘piped water, gas, electricity or the telephone.’ A retired miner living nearby dug a twenty-two foot well to provide the water supply, and they relied on bottled gas for heating and cooking.

Like so many others who established plotland dwellings or small settlements in the first half of the twentieth-century in the hinterland between east London and rural Essex – essentially the landscape which makes up The Land of the Fanns – self-sufficiency was a way of life. ‘We always had on our table all kinds of fruit. Some of the fruit trees I grafted myself,’ wrote Walter. ‘We made jams, preserves and grew vegetables all the year round, even attempting a little wine-making. We had eggs, poultry, rabbits and geese. We even bred goldfish in our lily pond.’ In 1940 as part of their contribution to the war effort, Walter and Grace planted a coppice of 650 saplings for timber. Alas there was a sad ending to their story. Shortly before making their final move to Harold Park in 1955, Grace was involved in a cycling accident, and badly injured.  She became house-bound but Walter cared for her devotedly until her death in 1959, dedicating his autobiography to her memory. Walter died in 1986 at the age of 96, a much-loved member of the Romford Historical Society, and who, despite his politics, earned the honour of an obituary in The Times. In his old age he was still making quill pens by hand, a craft he had learned as a young man.

Writers on rural matters as well as geographers have for a long while been trying to find the right word to describe the kind of landscape that simultaneously connects and separates urban London and rural Essex, the landscape that meant so much to Walter and Grace. The current favourite is ‘edgelands’, though I prefer the term suggested by the writer, Raymond Williams, who calls such territory ‘border country’. There’s a French word that is perhaps best of all, ‘terrain vague’, but let’s not go there in the present climate. Not only is it difficult to find the right word to describe this complex landscape – a patchwork of ancient woodlands and pasture, former aristocratic hunting grounds and overgrown manor house gardens, temporary airfields, utilities infrastructure and designated green belt – it remains unknown territory for many, especially outsiders, a place that has been described as ‘a coherent, unified landscape that has been lost over time’. This is now changing thanks to the endeavours of many local groups now engaged in environmental and historical rehabilitation projects across the county, and may change even more rapidly in a post-Covid world, where there is likely to be a greater wish to spend more time outdoors. 

As part of the evaluation of the potential resources of this complex landscape, the division of the ‘Fanns’ into eleven distinctive character areas now described by Land of the Fanns Partnership Scheme (LFPS)  is a helpful step forward. These are: Havering Wooded Hills, Ingrebourne Valley, Brentwood Wooded Hills, Thurrock Reclaimed Fen, Langdon Hills & Farmland, Orsett Lowland Hills, West Thurrock Quarry Townscape, Mardyke, Belhus Lowland Quarry Farmland, Rainham, Aveley and West Thurrock Marshes and the Dagenham Corridor. The eleven character areas can be further reduced to five basic landscape forms which make up this part of Essex: the highlands of Havering Wooded Hills, Brentwood Wooded Hills, and Langdon Hills; the lowlands of Belhus, Thurrock and Orsett fens; the three river valleys of the Dagenham Corridor, Ingrebourne Valley and the Mardyke Valley; Rainham, Aveley and West Thurrock marshes; and the urban quarry landscape of West Thurrock. The distinctiveness – and even uniqueness – of these different landscape types offers a crucial insight into understanding the value bequeathed by geological, environmental and historical change to the people living across ‘the Fanns’ today.


‘Fens, Forests and Fields’ is the result of a community project led by the Land of the Fanns Landscape Partnership Scheme, which has aimed to connect people back to their local places and spaces. More information, including about how to purchase a copy, here.

Ken’s latest book, ‘No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the land in wartime Britain’ is published by Little Toller.