“Arcadia for all” by Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward

ArcadiaForAllHardy and Ward’s “Arcadia for all” is probably the most detailed account of 20th century plotland developments in Britain – a landscape divided up into small plots of land, on which their owners built makeshift huts, cabins, shanties, and chalets as weekend and holiday retreats in the countryside. Written in 1984, the authors were able to interview current and former plotlanders who remembered the peak of the movement in the 1920s and 1930s. The focus is very much on the areas around London, but the wider context of changes to planning law and similar developments in other countries are also surveyed. The book ends with a call for some freedom to begin it again, which echoes today’s movements like the campaign for Scottish hutting and even the sale of woodplots.

One of the authors, Colin Ward, was a leading British anarchist who viewed anarchism in a very pragmatic way as something that is always present at the grassroots level of people making their lives better and organising themselves into mutual agreements, associations, and institutions:

Many years of attempting to be an anarchist propagandist have convinced me that we win over our fellow citizens to anarchist ideas, precisely through drawing upon the common experience of the informal, transient, self-organising networks of relationships that in fact make the human community possible, rather than through the rejecting of existing society as a whole in favour of some future society where some different kind of humanity will live in perfect harmony.

He saw these self-organising instincts as being frequently suppressed by the socialist or capitalist state, but always ready to flourish when chances appear, “like a seed beneath the snow”, and like his other books “Arcadia” documents instances of this struggle between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual.

Near the start of the book, it discusses nineteenth century forerunners of plotland settlements, including those near Nottingham in the 1830s described by William Howitt:

There are on the outskirts of Nottingham upwards of 5000 gardens, the bulk of which are occupied by the working class … Every garden has a summer-house and these are of all scales and grades, from the erection of a few tub staves, with an attempt to train a pumpkin or a wild-hop over it, to substantial brick houses with glass windows, good cellars for a deposit of choice wines, a kitchen and all necessary apparatus, and a good pump to supply them with water. Many are very picturesque rustic huts, built with great taste, and hidden by tall hedges in a perfect little paradise of lawn and shrubbery – most delightful spots to go and read in with a pleasant party of friends.

Mid-twentieth century planning laws have made plotland development illegal, but in the decades before the Second World War they spread across England, as catalogued in a two-page survey in the first chapter. They existed on the banks of the Rivers Thames and Lea near London; in North Downs woodlands; on the Chilterns; in Marple and Mottram on the edges of the Pennines near Manchester; on the banks of the River Severn in Shropshire and Worcestershire; by the River Dee in Cheshire; by the River Wye on the Welsh border; on the shores of lakes in Cheshire and Rudyard Reservoir in Staffordshire; in Charnwood Forest in the East Midlands; in Hardwick Wood and Sutton Spring Wood near Chesterfield; in Holmhouse Wood near Middlesbrough; on the Lancashire coast near Cockersand Abbey; in former fisherman’s huts along Dungeness in Kent; on coasts in the South West at Severn Beach, Redcliffe Bay, Croyde, Hayle Towan, Whitsand Bay, Exmouth, and Beer; on the South Coast at Shoreham Beach, Peacehaven, Camber Sands; on the East Coast at Flamborough Head, much of the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts, Jaywick and Canvey Island; at Cranmore on the Isle of Wight; at St Leonards in Dorset; at Laindon-Pitsea in South Essex.

(Similar settlement appeared in Scotland and Wales, but often without the security of land ownership or long leaseholds, and so developed and were largely extinguished in different ways to the plotlands documented in the book.)

In the years before and after the First World War some very large areas of plotland on the coasts were laid out with thousands of plots, which were usually sold by auction in a marquee on site during the summer months, with free or subsidised trains put on from London. These larger, planned plotland developments were intended to be occupied by conventional houses or hotels as part of new seaside resorts and had restrictions on the minimum value of house that could be built. But in practice they were bought for a few pounds by people without the means to spend hundreds on a house. Instead, they put up self-built huts or chalets or even adapted retired railway carriages and trucks, and used them as weekend and holiday retreats.

The book quotes a report by Lord Mayo, and Professors Adshead, and Abercrombie on the process by which land went from tents to huts by the Thames:

At first a simple hut is erected behind the tents for cooking and other purposes; the next stage is for the family to take its meals in the shed in wet weather; a dining room follows; possibly a bedroom is added for a maid or for someone who does not care to sleep under canvas; and so gradually is built up a rambling series of shacks.

The authors note that the assumption of having maids is probably inaccurate, and that part of the motivation of the plotlanders was to escape the social conformity of urban life. One of the individuals they interviewed plainly stated that “we wanted a place which was primitive, where the children could do what they liked. They could play pirates, build rafts, fall in the river and get covered in mud, and nobody minded.”

Because the land and buildings were owned outright rather than rented for a week or two in the summer, the same families occupied them for decades and built up lasting relationships with the surrounding owners, and eventually a sense of community. Often extended families would come down during the summer and camp out on floorspace, or in a tent or caravan. Family and friends might go on to buy nearby plots themselves if they came back onto the market. As the owners aged, some of the buildings became permanently occupied, either as cheap housing, or as a substitute for homes bombed during the War, or as homes to retire to.

However, major changes to the law on land use and land ownership were taking place. Already in the 1930s, there were objections to the plotlands from the new planning professionals and writers. The 1945 Labour government’s manifesto had promised to nationalise rural land, and their first step was the Town and Country Planning Acts in England and Wales and Scotland, which set out to give the state control of land through a national planning system administered by local councils, who also acquired the right to compulsorily purchase land to enforce their decisions about its purpose. Over time these powers were used to blight and destroy most of the existing plotlands, and prevent the creation of replacements.

One of the most striking examples is the once thriving settlement of Laindon near the modern town of Basildon in Essex. In the 1940s, the decision to create the new town was taken, and the opportunity was taken to gradual eradicate the plotlands. The plotlanders were notified that compulsory purchase would be used in the future. This blighted the area and caused people to sell up one by one or abandon their properties. Article 4 planning restrictions hastened this process by requiring owners to get full planning permission for even trivial alterations. By the 1980s it was all over, and all that is now left is one cottage, the Haven in Dunton, which has been retained as a museum of plotland life set in roads and plots that have now become a nature reserve rather than the streets and houses of the new town.

Colin Ward’s anarchist criticism of the state comes to the fore when discussing why all this happened, and how mass, planned housing has come to be viewed as the norm:

In practice of course it only became the norm for those ideologists … who confused society with the State, and assumed that the activities of central government were to be equated with socialism. The norm, statistically, is owner-occupation as we have mentioned, in this and in many other countries, East and West, and this is just as well, or the public cost of housing an inert community would absorb the whole national budget. It is only in the capitalist West that people who regard their views as progressive have ideological difficulties about owner-occupation. In the countries of Eastern Europe, by the simple device of regarding a home as ‘personal’ rather than ‘real’ property, they have avoided this sterile blind alley. Several of the communist countries have a higher proportion of owner-occupation than Britain.

Those words, written in 1984 when communist regimes in Eastern Europe still believed they would continue indefinitely, explain how so many Russian families had dachas in the countryside, but why families in Britain had been robbed of their former right to similar properties by Labour’s planning restrictions, which Conservative governments did nothing to reverse.

As well as Russian dachas, the book surveys other similar developments around the world, drawing parallels with what we used to have. The European chalet gardens are particularly interesting, as they sound so like the 1830s Nottingham allotments with buildings quoted earlier, and yet so dissimilar to modern allotments in the UK with their tiny tool sheds and lack of social use by families and friends.

The authors close with suggestions about the future, and how planning rules could be varied to protect some landscapes and city green belts still, but allow plotland style development in other areas. They suggest that building regulations are too all-or-nothing, and do not give scope for self-built housing to be gradually brought up to standard, or even not at all in the case of recreational homes. One of the grounds councils have used for refusing new plotlands and working to destroy existing ones is the cost of providing roads and services like sewers and running water. But this too is a result of overly uniform thinking: rough roadways of the type put in by farmers, water from a standpipe, and composting toilets are all the plotlanders wanted:

But the same difficulty, and the same absence of those services taken for granted in urban areas, is found everywhere in rural England. People who have always lived in sparsely populated districts accept this as the norm. People who move to such places must expect it. The plotland areas of other countries exhibit this assumption. In the Norwegian mountains, there is a hytta zone, where people build holiday huts or second homes, which for some become first homes because they have chosen a simple way of life. The normal urban services are neither provided nor expected.

Thirty years on from the book’s publication in 1984, the Scottish Hutting campaign’s recent success in having a hut definition included in the Scottish Planning Policy to accommodate low impact buildings may be a start, and Wales has a low impact development framework (One Planet) which is also moving in some of the same directions. The situation in England at a national level seems to be little improved though.

In parallel with this is the growth of woodlotting, in which larger woods are subdivided and sold for recreational use or ‘family forestry’, often including camping. Some of the impulse of this movement is shared with the plotlanders desire to own a part of the countryside to go to on weekends and holidays. With the largely forgotten history of plotlands now in mind, it seems natural to refer to these woodlands as ‘woodplots’. Some of these woodplots are even acquiring buildings via the forestry permitted development route, which is easier to access than for agricultural land.

The final chapter of “Arcadia for all” includes a comment from one of their interviews with a former senior planning officer which sums up a lot of my own feelings:

What is the point of outlawing people’s legitimate aspirations? In the absence of a proper oulet, this kind if development still happens, but is driven into the hands of the wrong people. We will be left with a situation where both buyers and sellers don’t give a damn for official attitudes, and until we have clear-cut policies so that people know what to expect and an approach that acknowledges the demand for a plotland way of life, we will go on having exploiters and exploited, and we will continue to bring the whole idea of planning into disrepute among enterprising people.

Allotment huts in Hamburg

hamburg3I took these pictures in one of the pockets of allotment plots that are dotted around Hamburg. This one is in woods on the edge of the Altonaer Volkspark. As you can see there are flags and a noticeboard for the committee that runs it, and it’s surrounded by neat hedges and paths. But each plot is very individual and the wooden huts vary widely in style and size.

All the huts are really chalets or cabins, and much larger than the 8×6′ sheds for story tools that are pretty much all you’re allowed in UK allotments.  As is common with European allotments, people are allowed to stay in them overnight and so they can become second homes during the summer weekends and holidays. This encourages new generations of gardeners and growers, and has an important social benefit to families and groups of friends. The paranoia from UK planning authorities about allowing people to stay overnight or put up substantial huts means we don’t get those benefits from having allotment land.


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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:


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.

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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.