In need of some ‘self-build inspiration’ I set off looking at various models in England and Wales. What I found was a huge variety of examples – from the individualistic to the communitarian, from shacks and sheds in Essex to roundhouses in Pembrokeshire. Throughout my trip I was always looking for connections to the informal self-build architecture I saw in Albania, as well as thinking through how these examples might inform our self-build for rent project in Newcastle. Some reflections on this are included within each of the posts. The first post looks at informal self-build at the Dunton Plotlands in Essex. Self-build at the Dunton Plotlands, Essex Like other plotland sites, Dunton near Basildon in Essex was originally farmland, but the heavy clay soil made it unproductive whilst cheap grain imports from the US in the 1920s pushed farmers here out of business. A development corporation saw the value of the land as a site for weekend retreats for the industrial working class from the east end of London. They divided Dunton into around 200 plots which were mapped on a grid, marking out ‘avenues’. They varied in size depending on their location, but were generally 20 feet wide and anything from 150 feet to 200 feet long. Individual plots were advertised in pubs, local papers, on the backs of tram tickets in London, persuading people to buy up a plot for a fair price, buying into their own countryside haven and escaping the smog and the overcrowding of London. In the 1920s and 30s Londoners arrived in their hundreds to buy plots here and on other sites in Essex.
With little money the ‘plotlanders’ used their ingenuity to build weekend homes in an incremental fashion. Many would first set up a tent or a garden shed to sleep in over the weekends whilst they set about building more permanent chalet-like, timber-framed structures: “Planning and building regulations hardly existed in those days, so every bungalow was as different as the owners could make it, what their skills and money would allow. Most of the bungalows were timber frames, clad constructions, with simple pitched roofs. There were odd exceptions. One owner, I remember, was a stone mason and most of his place was built of Italian marble no less. Some owners were not too ambitious and put up little more than over-grown beach huts, just somewhere to sleep and cook for the weekend and to store garden implements. Here and there people somehow obtained old railway carriages and buses and put these on their plots” (Young, 2000).
The above quote reflects the varying nature of dwellings according to taste, time available and level of skill. Without doubt this quote could have been written about Bathore in the early years of the settlement. When migrants first arrived they ‘marked’ the land by putting stones around it and then built a shack, or a ‘barrack’ made from wood and clay, then built more permanent houses, step by step, incrementally, building and dwelling at once and together. Yet without running water, electricity, paved roads and sewerage systems life in the plotlands was basic, yet the community were self-sufficient and were a close knit community where people helped each other with building and daily domestic duties.
People moved there permanently during the war, but the 1960s saw the demise of the community due to increasing levels of crime and deteriorating conditions leaving the community fragmented. Faced with the need to improve infrastructure and services at Dunton the authorities compulsory purchased the area in order to develop permanent homes. The plotlands and similar developments (I also visited a chalet community on the Gower Peninsular in South Wales who are effectively squatting on the land in the face of the landowner who has repeatedly tried to evict them) offered a chance for the urban poor to go ‘back to the land’, offering the freedom to build which is so often denied to urban dwellers owing to planning policy, land availability and a commitment to the preservation of heritage or nature – all hinderances that are all very pertinent within the self-build project I am initiating in Newcastle: “A combination of cheap land and transport, prefabricated materials, and the owner’s own labour and skills had given back to the ordinary people of the land, the opportunity denied to them for over two hundred years, an opportunity which, at the time, was still available to almost half of the world’s non-industrialised population: the freedom for a man to build his own house. But this freedom was to be short-lived” (King in Ward, 2002: 155).