Last autumn I was able to visit the Langdon Nature Reserve near Basildon in Essex, and took the collection of photos at the end of this post. The site was a plotlands community of chalets on plots of land owned by “residents” and “weekenders”. Originally it was largely occupied by weekenders who had bought their plots as places to escape to from London on days off work, and often built their chalets and huts themselves. Gradually the fraction of residents increased, helped along by wartime bombing of London homes and people retiring to their holiday chalets.
However in 1948 local and national government decided to develop Basildon as a New Town, with “proper” houses owned by branches of the State rather than the people who lived in them. All the plotlands were designated for compulsory purchase, and Langdon was no exception. But in Langdon’s case the plotland community wasn’t destined to be levelled to make way for the next generation of people escaping London (into the Basildon Development Corporation’s houses) but to become the artificial nature reserve it now is. The site hasn’t been returned to its state before the plots were sold before the First World War: it had been grazing land for centuries, possibly thousands of years. Instead it has become fenced-off scrubland dotted with trees and bushes that can only persist in this form in the absence of wild grazing animals (that our ancestors killed off or domesticated.)
In this nature reserve the authorities allowed one plotland property to survive, and the one chosen was the “Haven”, and it was turned into a museum.
Despite its origins, the Haven museum of plot land life is excellent. It is not the equivalent of a stuffed buffalo kept in an American shopping mall with a sign saying: “Look at what we exterminated to bring you all this!” The worst that can be said is that it has an exterior that looks like a conventional brick building, and so by itself it can’t represent the variety and individuality of the plotlands. As Deanna Walker says “it is quite posh compared to our little wooden chalets!”
The nature reserve and its volunteers have done a sterling job with it though. It has been faithfully populated with 1940s furnishings and goods, right down to a kitchen cupboard full of tins and boxes in 1940s packaging.
It’s a small building but it’s not claustrophobic and the space works well. Maybe I would feel differently if I’d been cooped up in it for most of a rainy August? But there’s no attempt to hide the fact that it feels comfortable, and desirable, and above all viable, especially for weekenders and resourceful residents.
Walking from room to room reminded me of Mr Foster’s house in the BBC “Plotlands” TV series from the 1996 which was clearly based on the site, with its fictional name of “Langton Fields”.
In the back garden are outbuildings, including a wartime air raid shelter, and a workshop for fixing bikes and other plotlanders’ household machinery, and a hen house for eggs – illustrating the self-sufficiency the plotlanders often strove for, both out of necessity on a site with poor roads, and in following the unconventional spirit which brought them there in the first place.
That grid layout of poor roads has now become gravel paths tended by the nature reserve and you can still follow them up the hillside and along the ridges, picking off the locations of individual properties. The leaflet and sign boards that are thoughtfully provided help with this, as would Deanne Walker and Peter Jacksons’ books which are available from the gift shop. Despite the encroaching trees, the more elevated trackways still have some dramatic views across towards London, with the Olympic park in the foreground.
At first I dutifully ticked properties off the map, then visited the Haven, and then got near the top of the hill and stood in the brick foundations of “Hawthorn’s” bay window. This looks down over a large glade amongst the trees and bushes, almost like a lawn. I tried to imagine what the land must have been like as chalets on their plots.
Then I suddenly realised that I didn’t need to imagine. It would have looked very like Carbeth does now, just with straighter lanes and perhaps less trees. Furthermore I realised that’s what it would look like now if the plotlanders had just been allowed to keep their plots and their community.
And then I just felt angry at such vandalism by the State.