Plotlands in Jonathan Meades’ “Severn Heaven”

meadespic1You may know Jonathan Meades for his quirky and often brutally frank documentaries about architecture, and in the first of his 1990 series “Abroad in Britain” he visits a then-surviving plotland community in Bewdley on the river Severn in the West Midlands. Early in the programme is this striking aerial scene showing the huts, cabins, and chalets along the riverbank and going back into the countryside, accompanied by Howard Davidson’s sweeping music:

Meades clearly loves the place, and sees it as part of the wider twentieth century struggle between planners, academic architecture, and commercial developers on one side and ordinary people wanting some rural land to build a weekend retreat on.

Where suburbs were so often filled up with fake versions of rural buildings that just yielded another form of urban uniformity, the huts, shanties, cottages, and chalets of the plotlands are an authentic vernacular architecture.

Central to this is the idea of bodging. That is turning the available components and materials into the thing you need:

The idea of DIY has been traduced by the ubiquity of places such as this. The letters DIY nowadays constitute a sort of lie. You do it certainly, but you don’t really do it yourself. You may perform the physical act of hammering … but all you actually do is assemble a kit of parts, which obviates the necessity of bodging, and it obviates too the necessity of thinking. Kits are agents of uniformity. The true bodging tradition depends on having the nouse to realise that everything under the sun is mutable. That every object is fit for transformation from its original purpose. So every railway carriage is a potential luxury shack.

meadespic5Meades conducts the whole programme dressed in his trademark dark business suit, and where required by sunshine, dark glasses. Here he is rowing down the river Severn in this outfit. To be fair, he does have a pair of black wellies that he sports in the intro and where necessary when trudging across fields to examine abandoned huts.

The programme has lots more  of images of the buildings themselves:

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Looking today on the Google Maps aerial images and Streetview, it does appear as if many of the huts and chalets are still there, near the Northwood Halt station on the Severn Valley railway line.

Plotlands in England, Wales, and Scotland

meadespic3After the Scottish Hutters Rally and the afternoon visit to the Carbeth hutting site which has survived since the 1920s, I did some digging around looking for similar sites in England and Wales. As soon as I found the word “plotlands”, I started finding these sites all over. There’s an overview of the breadth of their distribution in the early twentieth century in “Town and Country” by Barnett and Scruton:

By the end of that century another form of unofficial settlement had appeared, known first as ‘bungalow towns’ and later as the ‘plotlands’.

They hoped, on their plots costing between £5 and £50, to start a smallholding or chicken farm, or simply to build a holiday home or country retreat. The word evokes a landscape of a gridiron of grassy tracks, sparsely filled with army huts, old railway coaches, sheds, shanties and chalets, slowly evolving into ordinary suburban development.

In the south-east of England, the plotland landscape was to be found in pockets across the North and South Downs, along the Hampshire plain, and in the Thames Valley at riverside sites like Penton Hook, Marlow Bottom and Purley Park. It was interspersed among the established holiday resorts on the coasts of East and West Sussex at places like Shoreham Beach, Pett Level, Dungeness and Camber Sands, and most notoriously of all, at Peacehaven. It crept up the east coast, from Sheppey in Kent to Lincolnshire, by way of Canvey Island and the Jaywick Sands, and clustered inland all across south Essex.

Nor was the plotland phenomenon confined to the south-east. Every industrial conurbation in Britain once had these escape routes to the country, river or sea. For the West Midlands there were sites along the Severn Valley; for the Liverpool and Manchester conurbations, places in North Wales and the Wirral; for Glasgow, the Ayrshire coast and even the banks of Loch Lomond. Serving the West Yorkshire towns and cities there was the Yorkshire coast and the Humber estuary, and for those of Tyneside and Teesside, the coasts of Northumberland and Durham. It is as though a proportion of the population was obeying an instinct or a natural law in seeking out a place where they could build for themselves.

I’m going to keep posting references to the text, images, and video footage of this once widespread but now almost entirely forgotten way of connecting to the countryside.

 

Scottish Hutters Rally

I went to the Scottish Hutters Rally earlier this month, organised as part of Reforesting Scotland’s “Thousand Huts” campaign. They’ve now posted a report about the day which gives a flavour of the enthusiasm that was in the air at the event. Coming back to England afterwards and doing some digging around into the history of “hutting” here has prompted me to start this blog. I’m intending to record some of the things I’ve been finding out, and also post about wider topics related to small woodlands and forestry too.

The Rally started on a high with the newly published Scottish Planning Policy which explicitly mentions and defines huts:

Plans should set out a spatial strategy which … where appropriate, sets out policies and proposals for leisure accommodation, such as holiday units, caravans, and huts. … Hut: A simple building used intermittently as recreational accommodation (ie. not a principal residence); having an internal floor area of no more than 30m2; constructed from low impact materials; generally not connected to mains water, electricity or sewerage; and built in such a way that it is removable with little or no trace at the end of its life. Huts may be built singly or in groups.

That’s a pretty good definition of the kind of building a lot of people with small woodlands would like, but the hope in Scotland is now to persuade planning departments to allow that kind of low impact development on various types of land, both individually and in groups. Planning law and planning officials is a theme we’ll keep revisiting on this blog.

One of the themes of the Scottish hutting movement is community, and I think that is heavily influenced by the model of the Carbeth hutting community just north of Glasgow, which has about 150 huts on 90 acres. There was an organised trip out to Carbeth by coach on the afternoon and we were shown round by some of the hut owners and welcomed into their huts.  It’s very hard to put into words what the huts were like: very individual and personal, and not the semi-manufactured environments that people’s houses often are now. It’s like the difference between a city street of long-established local shops, versus a street of multinational chains. Carbeth is a partially wooded site on a hillside, with conifer plantation on the higher ground, and from some of the early photographs in the 1920s it looks as if it was originally mostly open grazing land. Another theme we’ll be revisiting in this blog is the idea that hutting provides a motivation for creating and managing small woodlands.

I did notice a lot of concern at the Rally about tenancy issues, and reform of tenancy law is one of the issues mentioned in the report of the event. There did seem to be an implicit assumption in many of the talks and conversations that it’s not practical to buy land to hut on in Scotland due to the resistance of large landowers to splitting up their estates. I’m not sure how true this is though, as there do seem to be small parcels of woodland for sale, for example, in the same way they are in England and Wales. So it may well be practical for individuals or families to buy (the Scottish equivalent of) freehold land for hutting. However, for creating communities like Carbeth, some form of collective purchase of the land and then tenancy from the legal body created to hold the land would seem to be a good way forward, such as people in apartment buildings and New York style co-ops do.

For the future, a Scottish Hutters Federation is being formed to support people doing hutting, and to carry the campaign on.