A lit­tle lost par­adise

A strange tale from Es­sex.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: NICK HAL­LIS­SEY

Hid­den on a lit­tle hill­side be­tween the London-Southend rail­way line and the Thames Es­tu­ary, you’ll find the re­mains of ‘Dodge City’. That’s what some peo­ple called the Dun­ton Plot­lands in their hey­day. Oth­ers sim­ply called it ‘ heaven’.

To­day a quiet wood­land among the rolling Lang­don Hills, the Plot­lands can tell a re­mark­able story of tran­si­tion from Utopian hol­i­day idyll to wartime refuge, be­fore they were killed off by the march of the New Town. Al­though pre­cious lit­tle re­mains of this lost par­adise, most of the pioneers who lived on that hill­side last cen­tury look back at it with the very fond­est mem­o­ries.

The Plot­lands be­gan life as a hol­i­day in­vest­ment. In 1924, with the London to Southend rail link boom­ing, a group of in­vestors bought a par­cel of land at Dun­ton Farm, near the vil­lage of Lain­don. They di­vided the hill­side into a grid of av­enues and sold it off in square plots of 20ft by 200ft.

The buy­ers – who turned up to glitzy ‘cham­pagne auc­tions’ – were op­ti­mistic East-En­ders, ready to buy into the dream of a ru­ral es­cape for sum­mer week­ends. A to­tal of 183 plots were sold, at an av­er­age cost of around £6 each.

A fran­tic con­struc­tion rush fol­lowed, as the new ten­ants gath­ered up what­ever build­ing ma­te­ri­als they could and headed for their newly-ac­quired plots.

They gave their hand-built bun­ga­lows ele­giac names: Nyasa, Iona, Edo­ran, Hawthorn, The Haven, Charlesville. They had no roads, no elec­tric­ity, no run­ning wa­ter and no sewage sys­tem; just one well and one stand­pipe. The soil was poor – a scrubby clay that dried out in sum­mer and flooded in win­ter. But for more than a decade, the green av­enues of Dun­ton be­came a sort of Elysian ex­per­i­ment, a com­mu­nity proud of their veg­etable patches and or­chards.

Most lived there for much longer than just the week­ends. Legally, as long as you spent one month of the year out of your bun­ga­low, it was con­sid­ered a hol­i­day ten­ancy, but the rule was barely en­forced, so many fam­i­lies stayed in their ru­ral idyll for as long as pos­si­ble.

Ex-Plot­lander Al­lan Young sums up his child­hood like this: “We filled the long sum­mer

days with­out any trou­ble. We took our lit­tle fi­fish­ing nets and jam jars to the ponds to catch tid­dlers. We flflew kites, played Cow­boys and In­di­ans, rounders, hot rice. We sat on the bench at Hen­der­son’s store, eat­ing liquorice boot laces and choco­late to­bacco, and suck­ing sher­bet from a tube.”

Then came the Blitz. Sud­denly, any route out of the East End be­came a po­ten­tial life­line. Whether they had lost their homes al­ready or sim­ply feared that fate, the Plot­land fam­i­lies de­camped whole­sale to their gas-lit bun­ga­lows, and the oc­cu­pancy rules went for a Bur­ton. Dun­ton be­came London-on-ahill, with ev­ery­one muck­ing in to help each other.

But even here it was hard to es­cape the hor­ror. In Novem­ber 1940, the cot­tage Veron­ica was hit by a stray bomb, killing two mem­bers of the res­i­dent Sim­mons fam­ily.

But Dun­ton rode it out. The Plot­landers lived, farmed and thrived through the war years, their spir­its undimmed. Af­ter the war, the Plot­lands con­tin­ued to flflour­ish, and many cot­tages were oc­cu­pied through into the 1970s. But big changes were afoot. Nearby Lain­don was re­de­vel­oped with bold new homes, and an even big­ger New Town sprang up be­yond it: Basil­don.

Over time, the res­i­dents drifted away, of­ten re­luc­tantly, driven by old age or com­pul­sory pur­chase. Cher­ished cot­tages were aban­doned, pulled down, and swiftly re­claimed by na­ture.

Which brings us to the Plot­lands to­day; an ex­tra­or­di­nary place for a walk. Th­ese days it’s the Lang­don Na­ture Re­serve, cared for by the Es­sex Wildlife Trust and home to 60 species of breed­ing birds and 28 species of but­ter­flfly. But the skele­ton of par­adise re­mains: the grassy av­enues are all still there, and if you look deep into some of the denser thick­ets you’ll find more ev­i­dence: tum­ble­down walls, hearths and gas fit­tings; fruit trees and the re­mains of air raid shel­ters.

The best me­mento of all, though, is The Haven: a per­fectly pre­served Plot­lands bun­ga­low which the for­mer res­i­dents had the fore­sight to keep in­tact as a me­mo­rial to their ex­tra­or­di­nary story. At week­ends the Haven is un­locked and opened up by lo­cal vol­un­teers; you can wan­der in­side, touch­ing the 1940s as if they never left.

The Lang­don Hills them­selves are a de­light to walk, with their woody sum­mits and un­ex­pected views over the Thames and the dis­tant cap­i­tal.

But walk among the re­mains of Dodge City and you’ll meet the ghosts of a fron­tier town that be­gan as a land of op­por­tu­nity, but thrived as a place of refuge.

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