Essex as a Place of Sanctuary

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Yesterday I attended the ‘Essex as a Place of Sanctuary’ event at the Beecroft Gallery in Southend-on-Sea, put on by Focal Point Gallery as part of their ongoing Radical Essex project. The event was described thus:

‘With its many land settlements and self-sufficient communities, Essex in the early twentieth century provided an escape from the poverty and mental distress of the slums of East London. From retreats such as Greenwood in Stock, the Othona Community at Bradwell and the work at Runwell Hospital, Essex has long been a home for new approaches to mental health and well-being – a tradition which continues to this day in the work of Trustlinks, Spiralseed and others.

Essex as a landscape for mental health and well-being will form the starting point for a panel discussion with Graham Burnett, Jessica Russell and Ken Worpole.’

The opening presentation by Ken Worpole was fascinating and you can see some of my notes from that in the image above. For me the idea of places of sanctuary, also described as ‘places of retreat’, had a relevance beyond the issue of mental health and resonated with the multiplicitous concept of Retreat that informed my publication Managed Retreat.

I was particularly interested in his quotations from the work of the novelist and poet Sylvia Townsend Warner. Warner had found a map of Essex in Whiteley’s department store in 1922 and being drawn to the marshes she saw depicted therein made her way to Paglesham where she was delighted by the landscape, later going on to explore the Dengie peninsula. Her explorations of the ambiguous territory of the Essex marshlands would go on to provide details for the setting of her 1929 novel The True Heart.

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The line Worpole cited which really shone out was from an essay by Warner on the Essex Marshes where she described her feeling about being in that landscape:

I knew that mysterious sensation of being where I wanted to be and as I wanted to be, socketted in the universe, and passionately quiescent.

‘Socketted in the universe, and passionately quiescent’ is certainly a phrase to roll around the tongue and mind. I think it captures something of the wonder of the local landscape which is too easily written off as bleak and despondent. (Worpole discusses Warner and tells more about her relations with Essex in his 2014 post ‘The Peculiar People‘) .

Worpole’s talk also included a mix of interesting reference to other places and topics, while many were known to me already there was lots of interesting stuff unknown to me and new trails to follow. Early on he showed an old map of Essex (I thought at the time that it was John Speed’s 1610 map, but on reflection it might actually have been the one published in Jansson’s Novus Atlas (1658)).

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John Speed’s 1610 map of Essex

He remarked about how he liked this map showing the landscape before the A12 and A13 when the east of Essex was a Terra incognita difficult to reach and little known. If I had commented in the discussion after the panel, I would have liked to addressed this: the tension between the asylum afford by isolation and the increasing (sub)urbanization of the landscape bringing higher population densities, new infrastructures and accessibility to once remote refuges that are now being absorbed into the hungry jaws of housing demand in the south east, the loosened commuter belt serving London. Is Essex still a sanctuary?

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‘St Luke’s Park’ housing estate built on the site of Runwell Hospital

The contributions by Jessica Russell and our good friend Graham Burnett addressed some of the contemporary challenges and opportunities faced working with mental health and well-being issues. They both spoke about the excellent work delivered by Trust Links, Project 49 and others – but their own comments and those of participants in the open discussion often reflected the increasing difficulties in providing care, refuge and solidarity in this era of austerity.

After the event I decamped to The Railway with Graham, Matt King of Trust Links and Stephen Jordan and were later joined by Ken Worpole and Tim Fransen. Tim is a parish councillor in Rochford and a web developer, he shared with us his project with Essex Record Office digitising the Chapman/André Essex map of 1777. I love this map so I was very happy to learn about this hi-res digital copy. It’s been something of a week of maps, at the pub I shared with Stephen Jordan the John Norden Essex map of 1594 I recently sourced on archive.org

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A section of the Chapman/André Essex map of 1777

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Malcontents in The Railway Hotel
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A section of John Norden’s 1594 map of Essex

At The Railway I kept it local and drunk (too many pints of) Crouch Vale’s Yakima Gold (abv 4.2%) and (just about) managed to get home on the train – hurrah for no bus replacements this weekends.

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