The River Severn at Bewdley, Worcestershire, circa 1960. (Photo credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Save this Severn heaven

A property developer has an idyllic and precious plotland development in his sights

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Plotland developments exist in many forms: virtuously green, asbestos rich, “sustainably” recycled, joyously untutored, madly ad hoc, inventive (former rolling stock, often from Cohens of Kettering, gliders that no longer fly, boats that no longer float). Many of the earliest were converted from chicken huts — which prompted W H Colt to move into bodge-it-yourself timber houses. They are self-expressive, optimistic in the face of sometimes desperate poverty. 

They exist in many places: the coast near Grimsby, on the plain near Andover, the Gower peninsular, Sheppey, in the Thames valley, at Carbeth north of Glasgow, at Jaywick and all over south Essex, for many years represented by Bernard Braine, a Tory of a type that no longer exists. He quite properly said: “The wholesale demolition of substandard dwellings cannot be contemplated. However inadequate, every shack is somebody’s home.” 

Bewdley is on the Worcestershire/Shropshire border: Hill Farm, just outside that lovely town, is a delightful place of deep roots stretching over a century. An air of permanence and settlement hung over it when I filmed it as Severn Heaven 30 years ago. There were several third- and fourth-generation inhabitants who knew the whole history of the place, who were proud of their forebears for having chosen this sylvan, unpolluted riverine spot.

A Top Vulture called Michael Wenman has bought Hill Farm

It was as far as they could get from Birmingham and the Black Country into the Green and Pleasant without a car. They carried components of what would be their huts and bungalows on the train. They camped out under tarpaulins in the idyll they were creating. They were, according to Anthony Barnett and Roger Scruton, “obeying an instinct or a natural law in seeking out a place where they could build for themselves”. That spirit is still manifest in Tony Harrold’s Hill Farm and the Story of Bewdley Plotlands (Ebrook Press).

The first thing you can be certain of with plotlands is that there is always some officious jobsworth from the local authority incapable of acknowledging that natural law and seeking to impose a lesser law. 

The second thing you can be certain of is that there’s usually a photographer, often the excellent Stefan Szczelkun, or a filmmaker, or a sociologist like Iain McNab, recording these purest manifestations of folk architecture, and the people who have loved them, still love them, have lived in them, often in a state of fear about what might happen next, about the fragile security of their tenure. 

The third thing you can be certain of is that vulturing around the place there’ll be a lowlife property developer, a backwoods Rachman, who wishes the inhabitants ill, who has not a shred of sympathy for these houseproud people, many of whom have slipped through the frayed welfare net. They are old, poor, valetudinarian, confused. They are prey. 

At the moment there are problems in paradise. A Top Vulture called Michael Wenman has bought Hill Farm. He has not bought the splendid and variegated hutments but the land beneath them. That ownership of the land gives him control of comings and goings at the site. If he so wishes he can effectively maroon inhabitants in their homes then offer them derisory sums to move. 

Likewise he could potentially dump scrapie or slurry within feet of their doorsteps in an attempt to make them worthless. It’s a coarse form of menace. So is letting dangerous dogs loose — they have killed 12 sheep at Hill Farm — and uprooting hedgerows at night under glaring floodlights.

Wenman struts about the site issuing eviction notices. If this bully gets his way these marvellous buildings will be torn down and replaced by “park homes”, characterless immobile caravans. The rare subculture of Hill Farm will be extinguished. People of limited means will be refugees in their own country. 

Wenman has demanded a 300 per cent rent increase. And, of course, he has a team of lawyers, big on small-print and dissembled threats. They know the 1983 Mobile Homes Act back to front. They know too that many of Wenman’s elderly victims are largely ignorant of it. As for estate agents, even supposedly upmarket ones such as Savills are only too keen to broker deals for “park home” proprietors, lending the sort of reputability only a drastically cutaway collar and an Eton-ish accent can confer.

Wenman has form, stretching back 20 years to when he bulldozed a property belonging to a nonagenarian inhabitant of his site at Bordon near Hindhead. How planning permission was granted remains a mystery. 

The inhabitants of the Hill Farm houses have done what Wenman’s previous victims have not done. They have banded together and have hired lawyers in the hope of obtaining a court order to prevent Wenman prosecuting further abuses. 

This is their only recourse. The local constabulary adopt the same shameful attitude as they do to “domestics”, claiming that it’s a civil matter. The same might be said when squatters recently occupied an oligarch’s houses in Eaton Square. 

But on that occasion, the fawning filth unastonishingly decided that it was a criminal intrusion. 

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