The original, archaeological site of the Garden of Eden is believed by the members of the Panacea Society to be at 18 Albany Street in Bedford. This is so obviously a delightful idea I hardly need to expand on it; God and Adam arguing on a suburban lawn, sprinklers twitching over the grass. Then the Fall and the Exile, or more specifically the beginning of life at no's 16 and 20. As cults go, the Panacea Society seem like quite nice people, they take their creed from an 18th Century 'prophet', Joanna Southcott, who, like some other very interesting ranters, shakers and jumpers who formed a religious subculture in the 18th and 19th centuries, believed she was receiving messages directly from God, and that the end of the world was close. Jesus would re-enter triumphantly through the streets of Bedford. I can very vividly imagine this, perhaps cos there is an early Peter Blake painting of a similar scene, called Christ Entering Venice:
He painted it while studying at the Royal Academy. Much later, after Sgt Pepper and the swinging 60s, Peter Blake becomes part of the Ruralist Brotherhood, and his paintings take on a beautiful folkloric feel. He reaches back to the art of Samuel Palmer and William Blake, tapping into a sense that the land itself is sentient in some mysterious way. I love Samuel Palmer's eerie paintings of fields at night with the harvest moon hanging over them, ghost-figures walking through the furrows. Seeing an exhibition of his work at the British Museum a few years ago, I was struck how hugely ahead of his time he was. Sadly, the death of his son, Thomas, chastened him, and he abandoned or lost his original ecstatic vision and ended up as a Victorian academic painter, forgotten for many years after he died.
18 Albany Street, The Site of The Original Garden of Eden, was eventually bought by the Panacea Society, and is now rented to non-religious tenants, apparently kept on two months notice should anything of a millenarial nature happen. A Channel 4 documentary crew recently filmed the inside of the house. Alas, God's signs and wonders kept themselves under wraps. But I love the idea of people still re-imagining the English suburbs and countryside as a kind of sacred, prophetic landscape. It's part of the Blakean tradition still alive in 2009, however eccentric it seems, however ironically distanced from it we've become. This magical sense of symbols being hidden in the everyday: symbols of the ancient, of the sacred agrarian, old as history itself. You can find them in the corners of suburban cul-de-sacs as much as in the fields themselves. Our forgotten Gods waiting for us in the long grass, just behind the forecourt of the empty shopping centre, as a long evening begins to fall.
More on this in England's Lost Eden, Adventures in a Victorian Utopia by Phillip Hoare.