In the north-eastern corner of the Dengie peninsula, bordered by the Blackwater and Crouch estuaries in the county of Essex, is the village of Bradwell-on-Sea. Go a little further east from the village and you will reach Othona. This is where I’m living and working for the next seven months, the final stop of our ‘purposeful adventure’ in intentional community that began last August. We’re beginning to settle into a rhythm of work. Adrian has made himself at home in the office, taking naturally to the role of administrator. I’m flitting about between different tasks, doing a bit of gardening here, a bit of cooking and cleaning there. If I was to have a job title, I’d want it to be ‘community life’, as the spiritual, pastoral wellbeing of the core community, the nature of welcome we provide to guests, and the daily rhythm of prayer and worship are what interest me most. There’s such a lot to write about, and less time to write than ever before. If there are specific things you’d like to hear about, leave a comment and let me know! For this first post from Othona, I’d like to give you a feel for where Othona is situated, a flavour of the landscape and how the community fits into it.
A local leaflet misleadingly describes ‘the beautiful, unspoilt countryside of the Dengie Coast’. Whilst the area may at times be very beautiful, it has certainly been tampered with over the last few thousand years. This flat, perhaps bleak landscape, containing acres of industrialised farmland, is littered with historical flotsam and jetsam and shaped by conflicts ancient and modern. ‘Pillboxes’, shoreline defences built during World War II, stud the coastal path. Disused RAF aircraft hangers and Nissen huts squat in the fields. The dilapidated wooden hut on stilts at the edge of the Cockle Spit Nature Reserve is the ghost of a MoD shooting range. The strategic importance of this marshy outcrop was recognised by the Romans, who built a fort here and named it ‘Othona’. There is a long military history here.
The land speaks of another conflict, the grapple between humans and their environment. A line of dark barges along the Dengie Mudflats form defences of a different sort. These hulks, along with groynes and the recently repaired sea wall, attempt to hold back the coastal erosion that may one day submerge the whole area. When the tide is out you can see rows of black stumps, the splintered, petrified remains of mediaeval fishing traps. This stretch of coastline is dominated by the Bradwell nuclear power station. Built in the late 1950s and in decommissioning since 2002, it employs more people now that it ever did when active. To the south, standing as if in defiance of the nuclear facility, are huge white onshore wind turbines.
St Cedd, a Celtic monk and bishop from the Northumbrian community of Lindisfarne, founded a monastery within the ruins of the Othona fort in 653. What now remains of both constructions is the cavernous chapel of St Peter-on-the-wall, the Roman imported stone still to be seen in the brickwork. I’ve heard that a young Douglas Adams, writer of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, frequented the chapel. The forty-two panes of glass in each of the chapel windows may or may not be of significance. Beyond the chapel is a copse of trees, hiding a bird observatory, and the wooden ‘Linnet’s Cottage’, which dates back to the Napoleonic wars.
Nestled amongst all this, the Othona Community is a product of its surroundings, a fruit of the soil it’s planted in. It was founded in 1946 by Norman Motley, an Anglican priest and RAF chaplain, as a place of reconciliation both within the church and between nations. The nearby presence of the contemporary military industry is still made known by the boom of weapons and munitions testing at Shoeburyness. The force of the blasts make the community windows rattle, reminding us our work isn’t over. Like Cedd’s monastery, the Othona Community attempts to build a place of hospitality and prayer on the ruins of empire and in the shadow of military power. Caught in between the nuclear facility and the wind turbines, Othona experiments in treading lightly on the earth. With electricity provided by solar panels and a small wind turbine, as well as a backup generator, a reedbed filtration system for sewage, and gardens for fruit, vegetables and herbs, you can’t live at Othona for long without becoming aware of your own individual environmental responsibility.
The first mark of a New Monastic community is ‘relocation to the “abandoned places of Empire”’. The area is certainly inhabited, and the industrial and military elements of Empire are ever present, but there is an air of isolation about the place. The peninsula is distant enough to be earmarked as a site for a new nuclear power station. And here is Othona, amidst the bird-filled marshes and the wartime leftovers, providing rest for the weary and challenge to the comfortable.
- The robin who patrols the compost heap hoping for bread scraps, and can be tempted to eat out of your hands
- A flock of yellowhammer
- The green woodpecker eating ants on the grassy quad
- A wren on the grapevine every morning searching for insects
- A brilliant white little egret flying over the marshes in the snowfall