A little lost paradise
A strange tale from Essex.
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.