To Winchelsea Beach on the Sussex coast for Sunday lunch in one of the ‘plotlands’ houses built here, and elsewhere along the coast of Essex, Kent and Sussex – in the 1930s, just before effective planning legislation arrived in England.
The story of how these marginal areas came to be built on is told in Arcadia for All - The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape by Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward (1984). Colin Ward described the plotlands in a 2004 article as ‘those places where, until 1939, land was divided into small plots and sold, often in unorthodox ways, to people wanting to build their holiday home, country retreat or would-be smallholding. It evokes a landscape of a grid-iron of grassy tracks, sparsely filled with bungalows made from army huts, old railway coaches, sheds, shanties and chalets, slowly evolving into ordinary suburban development.’
The story is a quintessentially English one, with all the tensions of today’s planning system present in embryonic form, overlaid with themes of town vs. country and middle class vs. working class (East Enders buying plots from farmers and upsetting the settled communities nearby with their sometimes ramshackle buildings). Although the pressures to regulate were presented as mainly to do with roads and drains, there were also objections to the generally untidy look of the strip development that resulted, and to the unsuitable type of person who came to live in them. But even in the 1930s, there were those who defended what was being created as having an interesting and distinct character of its own.
Colin Ward’s anarchist sensibility let him to sympathise with the plotlands pioneers, who without being hampered by regulation, created environments that are, of course, highly sought after today. Now there is development pressure, and at Winchelsea Beach, at least – which I suspect has always been at the more salubrious end of the plotlands spectrum – the original shacks, some by now more or less collapsing, are gradually being replaced with slightly larger architect-designed replacements, most reflecting to at least some degree the spirit of the originals. But taken together, in their newness and conformity with regulations, these new houses are resulting in a change to the character of these remarkable places - the suburbanisation referred to by Colin Ward. And it can't be long before the money being invested leads to pressure to replace the potholed gravel tracks with proper roads (though come to think of it, perhaps the excuse to get one's Tonka-toy-style SUV muddy is part of the attraction?)
Time to declare a few conservation areas to recognise the special character of the plotlands? What an irony that would be.