The chalet colony, through which I walked with Anna on that bright morning, was larger and more cheerful than the neighbouring villages. Nobody needed an expulsion order to move in.
‘Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project’ – Iain Sinclair
I was alerted to the existence of the river chalets near Farndon by Psychogeographic Review reader, Rob, who wrote about them in his response to a piece I wrote after one of my River Dee walks. The chalets at Farndon are an expression of the ‘plotlander’ movement of the inter-war years whereby city dwellers acquired small plots of land in rural areas and built their own country retreats, largely free of any planning constraints. The movement effectively ended with the onset of the Second World War and the tighter town and country planning regime that was introduced in its aftermath.
So this week, as part of my odyssey to walk the full length of the River Dee, from sea to source, I walked the section between Aldford and Farndon in Cheshire. The most engaging thing about this section of the Dee Way is that the path closely follows the meandering course of the river, rather than making use of paths some way away from the river as in other parts. The highlight, however, was the stretch of river just north of Farndon where numerous plotlander chalets line both banks.
Many of these dwellings are simply static caravans, often with the addition of a terrace and lean-to and, sometimes, modified and extended to the point where the original caravan is all but hidden from view. Others take the form of huts and cabins of various types, while some are little more than glorified sheds. But the point is that they are the owner’s shed; self-built and designed to meet his or her individual vision. This is the kind of humble architecture I take real delight in seeing whenever I pass an allotment: improvised, organic, making use of odd bits and pieces that come to hand. The result is something charming and cosy, but with a whiff of the post-apocalyptic to prevent the overall effect becoming too cloying.
I’ve since read that the actor, Ricky Tomlinson, owns one of these plots near Farndon. The first political demonstration I ever went on, as a student in the 1970s, was to demand the release of Ricky and a number of other jailed pickets. If I’d known which was the right door on which to knock while I was walking, I’m sure that would have earned a cup of coffee with the man himself, even if I had to confess I’d never actually seen Brookside or The Royle Family.
Dwellings of this sort are not, of course, a uniquely British phenomenon. Every small town in the south-western United States, for instance, has its halo of improvised shacks clinging to every road out of town. Driving from Twentynine Palms to Baker a while back, I was particularly struck by the flat-pack wooden dwellings with attendant SUVs in the yard which seemed to go on forever along the desert highway before we reached the true emptiness of the Mojave.
The definitive work on the plotlander movement is Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward’s Arcadia for All. Hardy and Ward chart the growth of the movement in the early part of the twentieth century; a coming together of small farmers willing to rent out or sell small plots of marginal land and urban-dwellers eager to get away from the cramped conditions of the city and to recapture a dimly-remembered or perhaps imagined pre-industrial past. The homes the original plotlanders created were often constructed from discarded materials and, in some cases, from converted former railway carriages.
These were mainly a phenomenon of south-east England and the dwellings were initially weekend and holiday retreats, but some owners eventually opted to occupy them on a permanent basis, subsisting on local casual work or retirement pension. The phenomenon also drew in numbers of ‘artistic types’, particularly those with a wealth of creative drive but a paucity of ready cash.
Farndon’s chalets comprise a mix of those used as holiday homes and others that appear to be permanently occupied. Many of them lack mains services, but there appears to be no shortage of satellite dishes and four-wheel drive vehicles. Also, given their location, several of the chalets have landing-stages and boats.
Local councils, of course, tend to dislike this type of development intensely. Using planning laws and building regulations they have succeeded in closing down many plots over the decades since the Second World War. Other developments, like those at Farndon, mercifully still remain. Many plotlanders have, against the odds, succeeded in making very comfortable homes on increasingly valuable portions of land whilst, at the same time, retaining a spirit of independence within a community of like-minded souls.
Our overwhelming impression was of the way that the plotland self-builders, who started with very little, over the years turned their own labour and ingenuity into capital, with no help at all from local councils, building societies or any other financial institutions.
‘The Hidden History of Housing’ – Colin Ward
Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward, Arcadia for All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape(London, Mansell Publishing, 1984)
Colin Ward, ‘The Hidden History of Housing’, History & Policy, 2004, http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-25.html#plot
With grateful thanks to Rob and the extract from his notebook he so generously provided