There's more to this overlooked county than Gemma Collins. Gillian Darley reveals the eccentric, rural, and eclectic side of Essex
Like Boudicca of the Iceni, Gillian Darley vigorously defends her native homeland, Essex: ‘England’s most misunderstood county’.
I’m cynical of the title, but Darley pre-empts me. ‘When I began telling people that I was writing a positive book on the county I got plenty of flak’, she writes. ‘This is an upbeat book about Essex, somewhere many people would prefer to overlook, or demean with a handful of tired clichés’.
Broadly thematic chapters transport us via lesser travelled byways and by-the-byes. ‘Over-growne and sudainly moneyed: spending it in Essex’ debunks the stereotype of Essex man as ‘young, industrious and culturally barren’, giving him more balanced treatment in economic history. ‘All the fun and most of the sun: playing in Essex’ covers leisure pursuits, including cycling, cricket and dog racing. Arthur Leggett unsuccessfully raced cheetahs at Romford track in 1937. The cats were uninterested in the mechanical lure; we are not told what became of the greyhounds.
If the Essex terrain is flat, Darley’s writing certainly isn’t. Darting back and forth between decades and districts, it left me reaching for a map. This seems apt, given Essex’s shifting boundaries and changing geographies. In particular, it has been physically shaped by its relationship with London, not only due to infrastructure. Both there and in Colchester, an archaeological layer marks the destruction wrought by the Celts. Later, Colchester fed oysters to London which shipped waste back, creating a place called Mucking.
Arthur Leggett unsuccessfully raced cheetahs at Romford track in 1937. The cats were uninterested in the mechanical lure; we are not told what became of the greyhounds
Cut off from its neighbours on four sides, large parts of Essex feel remote. To the south is the Thames, and to the north, the Stour. To the west is London with its encroaching suburbs and the M25. In 1965, London County Council took over several Essex boroughs, including Barking and Dagenham and Waltham Forest, resulting in a sense of ‘severed identity’. To the east is yet more water – a marshy, tidal landscape and the North Sea.
Despite this, ‘outsiders’ have always flocked here: East-enders abandoning city slums, political dissenters, minority religious groups (Quakers, Puritans and now Sephardic Jews from Stamford Hill), Roman, Saxon and Viking invaders, Huguenots, immigrant Dutch engineers, refugees from eastern European pogroms and children from the Kindertransport. Yet Essex’s EU referendum results were resoundingly euro-sceptic, suggesting an insular position. As Darley writes, ‘perhaps geography is fate. Perched on the eastern edge of the nation, Essex people have long felt marginalised; a sense of being out of step which has sometimes led to extremes.’
The material culture legacy of these ‘peculiar peoples’ (Darley’s words) includes a varied architecture. Ove Arup’s modernist café at Canvey Island (1933), Foster’s high-tech Stansted Airport (1991), 17th century Dutch cottages and Napoleonic-era Martello Towers compete for attention among ubiquitous post-war housing-developments.
Another recent addition to Essex’s architectural catalogue is Grayson Perry’s and FAT Architecture’s A House for Essex (2015), an idiosyncratic structure resembling ‘a cottage for Rapunzel, illustrated by Arthur Rackham’. Other notable design histories include the Great Barfield set, started by Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious in 1925. William Morris (born 1834) was a Walthamstow boy.
Darley brings us from the built environment into the wild with poetic observations: ‘Go deeper into Essex, as the year progresses,’ she says, ‘and you find cornfields shading from soft chalky green to pale ash blonde. Add a harvest moon and the world turns upside down, the ground paler by far than the sky.’ These glimpses of a remote and rural Essex are a world away from industrial Dagenham or the decommissioned nuclear Bradwell A.
Is Essex excellent? My Kentish origins prevent me from agreeing. But Darley’s account of an eccentric, eclectic and extreme county is excellently delivered.