diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Essex isn't the first place you'd think of with regard to pioneering twentieth-century architecture. But the county contains several examples of radical Modernist buildings, particularly housing, and last weekend these were celebrated in the first Essex Architecture Weekend.

A fantastic selection of tours, talks and events was planned, focused around a trio of sites, plus supporting action across the county. You could have explored the premium Modernist estates of Frinton-on-Sea, or the brutal concrete of the university campus in Colchester. You could have taken tours of Silver End, the Crittal factory village I visited back in July, listened to panels of experts in the village hall, and attended a free disco DJ-ed by a member of St Etienne with the help of a Depeche Mode tribute band. You could have looked round the sleek Royal Corinthian yacht club in Burnham-on-Crouch, and dipped into individual homes in Braintree, Harlow, Westcliff, Romford and more.

A free hourly bus service was in operation to link the key sites, making it possible to visit several in one day. A skim back down the organisation's Twitter feed might give you a very good idea of the range of places and experiences covered, as well as the enjoyment engendered. And the accompanying 24-page guide was gorgeous, with sufficient information inside to ensure that you could still download it and go on a self-guided tour of the main streets at a later date. The whole thing must have taken ages to organise, and was much appreciated by the hundreds who attended, so let's hope there's another one next year.

The Bata Estate, East Tilbury

In 1932 the Czechoslovakian shoe magnate Thomas Bata chose a site on the bleak Essex Marshes east of Tilbury for his first British factory. He sadly died in a plane crash before construction was completed, but the resulting operation became one of the UK's finest examples of a Company Town, with houses for employees and every necessary amenity provided almost on-site. What's more these were Modernist houses, built with welded steel columns, flat roofs and reinforced concrete walls, and nothing like the crammed terraces workers might have expected elsewhere. Management got larger houses at the end of the street, each with an upper balcony, and the estate slowly grew as production stepped up. At its postwar peak more than 300 British High Streets had a Bata shoe store, but production eventually drifted back overseas and in 2006 the Bata factory was closed.

To help retain Bata's UK heritage a Reminiscence Centre was established in the local library, tucked into a niche of display cases to the left of the entrance, and the group of volunteers responsible unlocked their collection over the weekend and organised guided tours of the centre of town. These were very good. The library isn't an original building but the long block of flats opposite is, originally the Bata Hotel for visiting employees, plus hostel rooms for certain male employees on the upper floors. The ladies' hostel was across the road at the head of Bata Avenue, the very first residential street, where the cul-de-sac's younger residents stared blankly at the middle-class intruders taking photos of their front gardens, then went back to cycling, gossiping and running about.

The highlight of the tour was the opportunity to enter the factory site, now the Thames Enterprise Centre, past the weary weekend security guard on the gate. Bata's first workplace is now the Administration Block, with boxes of archived documentation stacked up on shelves behind the upper windows. A grid of low sheds covers the majority of the site, repurposed from their original shoe-related tasks to house a variety of light industrial and office-based services. But the two largest buildings, still dominant on the skyline hereabouts, are the former leather works and rubber works where generations of boots and shoes (and wellingtons) were churned out. The rubber works is in a fairly bad state, and hence fenced off, but a large red Bata trademark still graces the uppermost tower as a fast-fading reminder of glories past.

What the the tour did best, amply magnified by the exhibition in the Heritage Centre, was recapture the sense of everyday life on a patrician commercial estate. Standing by the central roundabout we imagined that the flats alongside were still the open air swimming pool, whereas the row of shops behind the library used to be a huge Espresso Bar, and the Village Hall opposite used to screen Saturday morning flicks. Photos of the company's annual football match against West Ham conjured up an era of company pride and the simpler days of product sponsorship, not to mention the joys of ticketed teas with bread and butter, jelly and and blancmange.

In the surrounding streets a new generation of residents now intermingles with the old, no longer rushing from their homes every morning at seven thirty to clock on, and the Eastern Europeans no longer solely Czech. But Thomas Bata's isolated village lives on, and continues to grow, with a diversity of housing stock now less distinctive than the original. We can't all live in a Modernist house, indeed developers take far fewer risks these days in the types of buildings they erect. But perhaps the best tribute of all to East Tilbury's past, architecturally speaking, is that the developers of the latest housing estate infill by the railway have built one row of their new homes with flat roofs... and these are selling best.

More about the Bata Estate:
» Bata Heritage Centre (old website)
» Thurrock Mobile Explorer (excellent audio-visual app which can be used to take an actual, or virtual, guided walk around the streets of East Tilbury)
» The town that Bata built (Guardian) (2006 article)
» Bata-ville - a film by Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope (trailer)
» Nina's photos of East Tilbury

"The Haven", Dunton Plotlands, Laindon

For many a working class Londoner in the early part of the 20th century, the fields of south Essex became a place of escape. Advances in agriculture meant the clay soil was no longer profitable to farm, so large areas of land were divided into thin strips and sold off to those in search of a weekend retreat - the so-called Plotlands. Slum dwellers would take the train or charabanc out east to a cluster of makeshift cottages, enjoying two days on a smallholding of their very own before rushing back to town on a Sunday evening. During World War Two many thousands moved in full-time, and some stayed on with limited services and ropey sanitation until the late Sixties. Compulsory purchase saw the Plotlands and the surrounding countryside swept away so the new town of Basildon could be built in their place. But on the western fringe at Dunton the mass development never came, so a grid of grassy 'streets' and a single cottage remain to this day.

The site is now owned by the Essex Wildlife Trust, and the bungalow is open at weekends as a small museum. it really is small, essentially a hallway between two rooms, plus a later extension out back with a kitchen and extra bedroom. The floor in the sitting room very definitely slopes, as you might expect from a prefab construction long past its use-by date, and the far wall of the master bedroom leaves a gap where it buckles away from the lino. Everything's been laid out as it might have been in the 30s and 40s, with rag roll rugs and basic ornamentation, and the volunteers delight in showing small children how their great grandparents might have lived. Their lively stories helped bring the tiny rooms to life, as did some spinning 78s, plus the whine of the All Clear from the bomb shelter recreated in the pony shed outside.

The Plotlands now form a nature reserve on the edge of Laindon, and are still popular with families although only as daytrippers. Many of the orchards planted by the tenants survive, somewhat overgrown, and flowers most usually seen in gardens poke through the scrub and undergrowth throughout. To the east the land rises quite steeply, and where the highest cottages once stood the skyscrapers of the City can be seen lined up perfectly through a gap in the trees like a distant row of grey sawteeth. Today only a ghostly trace of Dunton's backwoods shanty town remains, leaving Jaywick on the Tendring coast as Essex's one surviving development of a similar vintage, and most would argue demolition was the wiser choice.

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