Jonathan Meades‘ recent BBC4 programme ‘The Joy of Essex‘, replete with characteristic provocations, utopian visions and other little known eccentricities, inspired me to relive some of my own joys of Essex, searching out paintings and photographs and taking advantage of an opportunity for some biogeography, or topography of the self. Not difficult as I was actually born there, or at least in what used to be Essex, as was everything east of the River Lea at one time.
Although my birth certificate says the London borough of Redbridge as that was where the hospital was, in fact my parents were living with my grandparents in Buckhurst Hill, in the Epping Forest district of Essex. Appropriately, as it was where my father’s family had ended up, it is not far from Hale End (on the map between Walthamstow and Chingford). Incidentally there is now a new Hale village next to Tottenham Hale, not that far away from Hale End and not far from where I now live – a pleasing circularity. ‘Hale’ apparently means ‘a hollow place’ in Old English so I think there are plenty around.
The Hale side of my father’s family migrated to urban London from Hampshire in the 19th century, progressing East to Barking, and meeting my grandmother’s family who had migrated into East London from Suffolk, then Loughton (where my father was brought up), then Buckhurst Hill. Having moved away shortly after I was born it was only when I returned to London to go to university that I rediscovered my Essex/London roots.
Interestingly in view of recent attitudes, my ‘Little Guide to Essex’, first published in 1909, says in the preface
‘There is a heresy current, among not a few persons who ought to know better, to the effect that Essex is a flat and uninteresting county. It is to be hoped that this little book will do something towards freeing a county, brimful of attractions both natural and artificial, from the aspersions of such a libel.’
Twas not always so as this quote from the poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) in the same guide shows
‘For Essex is our dower which greatly doth abound
with every simple good that in the Ile is found.’
John Betjeman predated Jonathan Meades in rehabilitating Essex, focusing however on more traditional aspects
‘The deepest Essex few explore
Where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers
And out of elm and sycamore
Rise flinty fifteenth-century towers.’
Robert Macfarlane has more recently lauded wild Essex, with a TV series Wild Places, featuring Essex, following his book Wild Places, which included a walk around the Dengie peninsula.
It is the coastal areas and in particular the marshes, that I find most aesthetically intriguing though, flat maybe but never boring. Bordered by the Thames estuary in the south, and with the estuaries of the rivers Crouch, Blackwater, and Colne in succession, and finally the Stour as the northern border the coastline is in fact one of the longest of any English county. This, together with more edgelands from islands such as Canvey Island (not strictly an island but anyway the home of the wonderful Dr Feelgood), Two Tree Island, the former rubbish dump of Southend, Foulness and Mersea Island, means an excess of winding creeks amid marshy landscapes. I love the minimal reduction of land, sea and sky, the strong horizontals and the ever-changing tide and light.
It needs to be remembered though that marshes are susceptible land – threatened by airport builders and others who cannot see their beauty. They can also mean disaster and death for those living nearby, when high tides inundate the land, as the floods of 1953, 60 years ago this week, showed.
- The Joy Of Essex saw Jonathan Meades eloquently reclaim the county (metro.co.uk)
- Essex: the only way is up (guardian.co.uk)
- New Humanist Blog : The joy of Essex (rationalist.org.uk)
- Great Flood anniversary marked (bbc.co.uk)