Sunday, March 10, 2013

The death and life of the English village

This year my students at UCA, Canterbury have been looking at ruralism and 20th century villages*. Two of these -  East Tilbury in Essex and Whiteley in Surrey - are places I've read about, talked about and generally pontificated on but never visited so over the last month I have made journeys to both. 

What follows are photographs and observations from both trips. The photos of Whiteley in particular were very rushed as I had a bored family drumming their fingers in the car. There are further and far superior photos, drawings and films of the villages on our studio blog ** which I have linked to at the bottom of this post.....

Whiteley lies on the edge of Weybridge, a well-healed suburban enclave in stockbroker belt Surrey. John Lennon once lived there and Elton John still does, along with a welter of other, lesser celebrities.  It's expensive basically, prime real estate on the southern fringe of London. The roads roll gently through a landscape that is leafy and affluent and full of gated communities with little sentry boxes guarding their exclusive avenues.

Sitting amongst all this is Whiteley, a retirement village built  in 1907 by William Whiteley, the owner of the west London department store. It is both entirely typical of the area and strangely alien.  It is laid out as an octagon, a pure geometric form sitting incongruously in the gentle surrounding countryside. From the air it looks like a crop circle or some ancient and very impressive earthwork. It has a rationalist rigour, reminiscent of 19th century architects like Ledoux and Boulee. Very un-English in other words and seemingly free of the picturesque planning that you might expect in a place like this.

Wandering around Whiteley is a strange experience. It is odd for a start to visit somewhere where it is so obvious that you don't belong. No one in Whiteley is under 65 so architectural tourists are even more conspicuous than normal. Its relative obscurity though means that you can pretty much wander around quite happily as they are hardly deluged with visitors. And of course, everyone is very nice.

The other odd thing is the scale. The buildings are small, positively dinky in fact. But they are also set within impressive amounts of space. The density is closer to that of a wealthy US suburb than the more tightly packed European norm. Houses are set within acres of lawn and with the surrounding trees clear visible between them. Even in winter with many of the trees bare and the gardens not in flower, the landscape shares at least equal billing with the buildings.

Whiteley is a model village in that sense of having one of everything you might need: a church, a shop, a post office, a community hall. The hall is the grandest building, a beautiful arts and crafts essay in purple and red brickwork and with a superb proscenium arch interior. When I visited it also had a large metal tea urn gently bubbling away in the kitchen inside, which was pretty much exactly what you would hope to find there. 

Whiteley, like its residents, looks very well looked after. In fact it is quite pristine. The houses and cottages have been lived in and accumulated domestic clutter - including one with a 1/3 scale wooden model of an elephant - but they are also immaculately maintained. There are no additions, no UPVC windows and no pebble dash. Depending on where you stand (and  I'm never entirely sure on this question) this is either a blessed relief or mildly terrifying.

What's true is that you would be very hard pushed to find a better preserved collection of high quality arts and crafts buildings anywhere in the country. There are nearly three hundred listed buildings here, all exquisitely detailed and sharing features such as twisted 'barley sugar' columns and subtly patterned brickwork.

East Tilbury is - to use a technical architectural term - a different kettle of fish altogether. It was built in the early 1930's by Tomas Bata as a UK outpost of his vast, global shoe manufacturing business. It is much better known than Whitely, mostly on account of its modernist housing and factory buildings that loom incongruously out of the Essex marshes just before they disappear altogether into the Thames estuary. It is a kind of twin to the original Bata town of Zlin in the Czech Republic, in which Thomas Bata rather scarily had an office built inside an elevator in order to survey his workforce.

When we visited it one chilly, late winter's afternoon a mist seemed to descend over the buildings giving it an even gloomier countenance than it might normally have. The factory is of course closed now and the bits that seem to be in any kind of use are employed for that growth industry of the UK, self-storage. This is grimly inappropriate, as the future suggested by East Tilbury was one of well-designed, reasonably generous workers housing. Instead, as our housing stock has got both worse and less and less plentiful, our city fringes have filled up with vast warehouses used to store all the stuff we can no longer find room for.

Anyway, the largely empty factory buildings are still hugely impressive, unrelenting slabs of glass and stucco with elegantly rounded columns providing steady punctuation. The flaking stucco and general air of sad neglect offers plenty of money shots for the ruin-porn enthusiast.  As we approached the furthest end of the factory complex, two men who appeared to be digging some kind of hole, looked up and stopped. We stared at each other for a while before deciding it was best to turn around.

A couple of the factory buildings nearest to the town have been refurbished and are being offered as office space, although its hard to imagine anyone having the desire to move out here. Looking in at their vacant factory floors, my companion wondered whether it would be feasible to set up an office in one, surrounded by space and the lowering Essex skies. I can see some downsides. 

The housing is laid out on a garden city suburb plan with roads of small semi-detached worker housing fanning out from a radial center occupied by larger, manager's houses. These latter have large open verandas which seemed particularly optimistic on the day we visited. 

The houses have undergone various amounts of alterations, so that often the original details are buried under innumerable layers of pebble-dash and some fairly bizarre extensions. I'm no conservation purist, quite the opposite really, but much of the original character of the place has undoubtedly disappeared. At East Tilbury, the indignity of the UPVC window upgrade has been extended to the factory buildings with mildly tragic consequences.

It's still possible to discern in some of the houses, the restrained elegance of the original vision, when the flat roofs projected with a modest flourish beyond the wall line. As I say, it's dangerous to be purist about this, not least because I find conservation area stuffiness problematic and because there's undoubtedly a class issue around all this. It's more that the original houses are better than much of what gets built today. 

A large, impressive ocean-liner of a building in the centre of East Tilbury now contains some pretty basic shops but was once the village hotel. This is one of the first buildings you notice as you arrive and its scale and impressive logic is completely unexpected. Even more than the houses, it seems to have set sail from east Europe before coming to rest by a small, country lane in the middle of nowhere.

The cinema and social club have also closed down. The village hall, painted (perhaps originally) in two shades of brown is still going and was encouraging people to hold their party there, albeit in a fairly desultory manner.

East Tilbury is a close cousin to Silver End, another modernist Essex village based around a now defunct industry. Both were featured recently in Jonathan Meades' excellent The Joy of Essex. Of the two Tilbury is the far more desolate. The Crittal window factory that sustained Silver End has closed but the village seems to have lived on slightly more successfully. 

East Tilbury has an undeniably 'end of the line' quality, unsurprising really given that there is little beyond it other than flat fields and muddy brown water. There are plans, which you can read about here, but this is not the Surrey hills and I wouldn't hold your breath.

Looked at as a pair, Tilbury and Whiteley are fascinating. Both are the products of a paternalistic philanthropic vision, an idealistic capitalism that now seems thoroughly benign in relation to the version we have today. They could hardly be more different either, a beautifully preserved arts and crafts retirement village and a crumbling industrial suburb. It's remarkable really that they were built just twenty odd years apart. In their current condition they exemplify much about our current situation too. 

* The subject matter for this year's studio was partly inspired by Gillian Darley's book Villages of Vision.  The book's final chapter - No New Villages? - was the jumping off point for proposing some 21st century rural settlements. 

** Some of their work can be seen over at the studio's Electric Edens Tumblr. For more about Whiteley, watch UCA students Sam Brewer and Michelle Sweeney's very nice film here. And for an intriguing mash-up of present day East Tilbury, historic footage and heroic Bata promotional music watch this film, by Maria Mantikou, Dana Mahmoud and George Liaramantzas.


limestone columns said...

There are few other villages around Weybridge apartfrom Whiteley which are having same story.
- Herman Swan

Artog said...

Amazing. I'll definitely make a trip to Whiteley, I reckon it's a 15 minute drive (depending on how many wrong turns I make). I might go today in fact! Tilbury will have to wait a little longer, like maybe never.

Charles Holland said...

It's quite tricky to find because the whole of that area seems to be some gated community built around a private gold course....but worth it.