The Unofficial Countryside

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The small wooden box has the image of a pylon burnt by hand into the top. Inside the lid a photograph of birds roosting on a telegraph pole which rises from a meadow’s unmown grass. The seven 3 inch CDs are housed inside paper sleeves featuring images so close up that it is hard to identify them. Some are plants, others man made structures – some could by either. These images immediately bring to mind Epping Forest, and the Lee Valley marshes which I know so well. But at the bottom of the box six map fragments, when pieced together turn out to be the less familiar Western edge of London- Ealing, Wembley, Twickenham, and at the top Hertfordshire – tantalisingly close to, although not quite reaching Essex. The landscape of the maps is familiar though – built up urban areas, reservoirs, and on the fringe of the city those inbetween places, where there is clearly green – but not wild – space. London has already subsumed some of it, and, on the map, is a constant threat to these delicate edge lands.

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This is ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ – a new release from Wist Rec. In this era of downloading and streaming a physical music release can become a sought after artefact – most obvious in the resurgence of vinyl, but releases like this go way beyond the LP. Packaging, artwork, and concept go hand in hand with the music – and when it works are inseparable from one another.

This release, each 20 minute disc the work of a different artist, has much of interest musically. Electronic and acoustic sounds crossing the same inbetween space as the rural/ urban artwork. It is often impossible to tell where the boundaries lie between a found sound or field recording and a synth or acoustic line, or between composed or improvised, natural or processed sound. It is the sort of release that is best to immerse yourself in, without trying to unpick the artist’s processes – and it certainly wouldn’t be the same as an iTunes download or on Spotify.

The Unofficial Countryside is inspired by Richard Mabey’s book of the same name – and the routes marked on the enclosed maps illustrate the walks he took when writing this study of the space between city and countryside as long ago as 1973. The book was pioneering in this field – an area which continues to be explored by writers, musicians and artists today, and this small box and its contents both continue that journey, encourage a reading of the text which inspired it , and bring a new perspective to past and future Urban Wandering in the edgelands of London.

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Beyond TOWIE

Christmas brought a trip beyond the edge of London into Essex proper. An hours journey from Walthamstow along the A 12 took us past Chelmsford, to my in laws in Colchester for the festive season.

Despite having been visiting there for 15 years or so, I don’t know Colchester itself well – but I do know that this is a very different Essex to the land of TOWIE which borders our beloved Waltham Forest. It is also, I think a very different Essex from the places we generally do visit on these family weekends and holiday occasions.

We spent boxing day morning on the beach at Frinton on sea – a frequent haunt at all times of the year. Boasting a long, wide and sandy beach this town is a popular summer destination – it’s rows of beach huts exchange hands for prices which scare even Waltham Forest residents. It however has few of the normal trappings of tourist focuses seaside resorts – no beachside caf├ęs or ‘fancy goods’ shops, no hot donuts or candy floss, and you even have to leave the sea front and head into the main shopping street to source an ice cream in midsummer. The town’s first pub, Shepherds Neame’s Lock and Barrel opened in the year 2000. Planning decisions for the town are clearly very protective of it’s character and this makes it feel somewhat unique, and, on balance, it is all the better for it. On a summer day on the beach, or indeed this Boxing Day, the simple pleasures of sandcastles, footballs and frisbees were enough for the most serious ipad addicts, and curiously there was no clamour for candy floss or 2p arcade machines. It is however undeniably a slightly odd place which seems to exist outside of the rest of Essex with an atmosphere captured in recent documentary ‘The curious world of Frinton on Sea’

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Appropriately I had downloaded for Christmas reading a recently published pair of essays on various aspects of Essex – ‘trying to fit a number to a name’. This short e-book is from Influx Press – an east London based independent publisher who specialise in writing about place. These pieces from Lee Rourke and Tim Burrows, especially after my journey from Walthamstow, and the morning on Frinton beach reflected and developed many of my thoughts about Essex, and contain a combination of history and cultural commentary that, rather than try to capture here I will simply heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in the area or more generally in this sort of phychogeographical writing.

Essex is many things – a retreat from london, an isolated and overlooked rural area, commuter suburbs or aspirational retirement destination. It has been reviled and revered, developed, or, like Frinton, stubbornly refused to change. It is the immediate neighbour of my part of London- both reliant on and essential to the big city, but in either Chigwell, Colchester , Clacton or Frinton can feel as foreign to London as another country.

Art, books, community (and just a little mulled wine )

The community spirit I wrote about in my recent post on the Highams Park Plan was much in evidence last weekend, as the community came together for a day of festive events which highlighted how much has been achieved in just a few short months.

First up was the launch of our three little free libraries, a project I’ve been involved in as part is the arts and culture group (ARC). Since the launch of the little free libraries project UK, with 12 installations in Walthamstow this simple but powerful idea has captured the imaginations of communities across the country, and the network of little free libraries seems to be expanding every week. These small wooden houses are each decorated by a local artist and hosted in residential, )or sometimes business locations and are available to all to leave, take, or swap a book. The combination of public art, literacy and community engagement embraced by this very simple idea shows the potential of grassroots activity. Small interventions can enhance an environment and positively impact people on a day to day basis.

Our three Highams Park little free libraries are situated across the area covered by the Highams park plan, and each artist’s design reflects a different aspect of our unique part of London.

On Abbotts crescent, the Magic Forest by Hiding Fox incorporates clay pressings of leaves collected from epping forest, with tree branches created from ceramic coated clay.

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Yvette Sargent’s Bee House on Handsworth avenue depicts book reading bees surrounded by the flowers that attract them, both reflecting the beautiful garden in which the library is situated and drawing attention to the declining Bee population and the potential impact of this.

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Sam Johnson’s Design on Selwyn Avenue reproduces the Highams park signal box – itself recently saved by community action, and now undergoing a restoration and occasionally open to the public.

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These three pieces of public art are, as local legend William Morris would have said, both useful and beautiful, and are already being used and enjoyed by people every day. We celebrated the launch of each of them with especially written poetry from local poets, and by swapping gift wrapped books as well as enjoying mince pies generously supplied by our hosts.

We followed this up with some late Christmas shopping at the Christmas craft market – where the majority of stalls were run by local artists, as well as a representation from a number of local businesses including xylonite arts, grace and albert cook shop and the recently relaunched royal oak. We finished the day with a mulled wine singing carols with people from across the area. That all of these events were organised by local residents, working entirely voluntarily made the event feel very special and a true celebration of the talent and entrepreneurial spirit in our area. As we look forward to 2015, which will amongst other things see the formal creation of our local area plan it is really exciting to think ahead and imagine how all these initiatives will develop over the coming year.