Friday, 8 August 2014

This is how the world will end in Essex — not with a bang but a Wimpy…

What is it about Essex and Wimpy restaurants? The brand was created by American Eddie Gold in 1934 and the first 'Wimpy Bar' was opened in the West End by Lyons in 1954. For a time they thrived as Britain's first only fast food restaurants. Indeed some of my childhood was mispent visiting the Wimpy in Brentwood High Street. But then McDonald's arrived in the 1980s and I'd assumed they'd all been closed down. Yet during my recent visit to Upminster I spotted the Wimpy there still prospering. A bit of a Life on Mars moment. I've also come across branches at Barking, Romford, Basildon, Grays, Colchester, Maldon, Witham, Wickford, Braintree and just about everywhere else in God's Own County. Wimpy Mania is something I first remarked upon in my book The Joy of Essex. The Benfleet Wimpy was even chosen as the site of a relaunch by new owners Famous Brands in 2007 featuring, somewhat improbably, Geoffrey Hayes of Rainbow dressed as Mr Wimpy. When Essex falls in love with something it remains incredibly loyal to the brand. In fact I'm sure there's a few Neolithic axehead shops still thriving in the backstreets of Grays…

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Good moos from Havering

Havering Council has made headlines on ITV and Radio London for using Red Poll cattle to graze the 215 acres of Bedfords Park. Apparently they're cheaper and more sustainable than employing humans to cut the grass and free up staff to work elsewhere. And all they need is a Red Bull for refreshment. The placid breed of cows help to preserve the park's 155 species of wildflowers, which suffer from traditional hay or grass cutting. The cattle are also less likely to disturb or kill mice, voles, amphibians and reptiles. Last year Havering used Suffolk Punch horses to clear woodland and it is now claiming to be London's greenest borough. Clearly a bovine triumph for the council's steer-ing comittee.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Tilbury meets Frankenstein

And talking of Tilbury, just discovered that Tilbury Fort gets a mention in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein the scientist (the monster is never named) describes sailing from Rotterdam to England where: "The banks of the Thames presented a new scene; they were flat but fertile and almost every town was marked by the remembrance of some story. We saw Tilbury Fort and remembered the Spanish Armada…" Another monster literary triumph for Essex.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Tilbury: Are you Grimsby in disguise?

Tilbury is doubling  as Grimsby says a report on Sacha Baron Cohen's new film Grimsby in the Guardian. Tilbury might seem a bit run-down and once had what the Sun termed "the hardest pub in Britain", but at least it's not as bad as Grimsby it seems. Tilbury had to have a makeover to increase its Grimsbyness, with extra litter, graffiti and burned types being added.

Nice quote from Tilbury resident Bethany Casey, 19, in the Thurrock Gazette upon finding all the shops now had 'Grimsby' written on them: "I thought I was drunk. I tried to get to the off-licence and thought ‘what’s going on here?’ so I went to the other one further down and noticed a run-down park had sprung up – but I didn’t think anything of it because, if they did put a new park in Tilbury, it would get wrecked straight away.”

Still, I'm sure Grimsby doesn't have any hidden jewels among the containers like Tilbury, such as the superb defences of the thoroughly recommended Tilbury Fort (pictured) or Coalhouse Fort, the Bata building or the famous port terminal where generations of immigr
ants first arrived in Britain…

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

We are sailing at Upminster Windmill

Just spent a very enjoyable Sunday afternoon at Upminster Windmill. Built in 1803 the windmill is one of the best-preserved in the country and is a striking relic of 19th Century Essex. The Friends of Upminster Windmill conducted a free and very illuminating tour up and down the windmill's narrow stairs. 

We learned how hard the miller had to work climbing the stairs around 30 times a day and also what an advanced piece of technology it was. The interlocking giant cogs that turn the quern stones that grind the flour are fascinating, as are the beams, pulleys, wooden hoppers and massive sails. The best white flour had to ground seven times, though the coarser and cheaper wholemeal flour was actually healthier, we now know.

We started off in the cap, that still rotates. From the small windows you can see the City skyline and the more modern wind turbines of Dagenham. The mill was run by the Abraham family and one of the fascinating human aspects is the Victorian graffitti left by their 16 year old daughter on the mill's machinery.

The windmill ceased production in 1934 and then became derelict, with the council demolishing the outbuildings in 1960. It was only the dedication of the Friends of Upminster Windmill that saved it and allowed the windmill to be restored and opened to the public in 1967. 

Several buildings once stood by the mill and the Friends of Upminster Windmill have undertaken some fascinating excavations. We were guided round the cellars of the miller's house, demolished in the 1960s. An ornate blue china floral lavatory basin is one of the star finds.The foundations of the workers' house, and the stables have also been rediscovered, giving an impression of just what a thriving industry this once was. All very Time Team.

All this was followed by tea and cake in the Victorian chapel opposite in St Mary's Lane, which is also worth visiting. If you want to step back to a time when Upminster was an agricultural village then this is a great afternbon out. Click on the link for open day dates and membership details.
The basement of the miller's house

Monday, 7 July 2014

Essex c'est magnifique

“Essex has never looked nicer,” declared the ITV co-commentator as Le Tour De France moved through Essex, before he then eulogised about the “ripening fields full of wheat and barley.” Indeed, ITV’s coverage was one long travelogue for Essex.

Every person in Saffron Walden appeared to be on the streets and its thatched houses, beams and yellow cottages can rarely have looked finer. The helicopter camera gave us great aerial views of Audley End and a long extended advert for Felsted School, where four of Oliver Cromwell’s sons attended and girls were only allowed in the Sixth Form in 1970.

The commentators seemed very keen on churches, enthusing about St Mary’s Church in Saffron Walden (the largest church in Essex), William the Red granting St Michael’s to Great Sampford, and enjoying the tile and lead roof of St Mary’s in Radwinter.

It was great to see a giant Essex flag as the riders entered Chelmsford and credit to the farmer in Rayne who managed to etch “Rayne Welcomes TDF” on his field. We even had the rare sight of a prang on an Essex road without the threat of fisticuffs, as two of the riders at the back had a minor collision but just carried on cycling.

“And the riders continuing their pastoral journey cross Essex,” enthused the commentator as the race neared Epping Forest. The golden fields and hedgerows of Essex looked fantastic and the organisers must have been impressed by the turnout. Not so much Le Grand Depart as Le See Ya, Mate. Never mind Yorkshire, this was a great day for Essex.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Le Tour de Essex

Good to see that Essex is finally being recognised as a world-class sporting venue. The Tour De France comes through God's own county on July 7. It will certainly prove to TV viewers that Essex has lots of nice country lanes to offer in addition to leopardskin and sticks to the prettier parts of Essex, taking in Saffron Waldon, Rayne, Felsted, Chelmsford and Epping. All very scenic, particularly when the four-wheel drives are off the roads, but my mischievous side would like to see Le Tour tackle some grittier Essex roads. Perhaps the subways and avenues of Harlow or maybe have the cyclists riding through the Festival Leisure Park aka Bas Vegas and then whizzing round the Hollywood-style Basildon sign on the A13 before reaching London and taking on the East Ham and Barking by-pass and the East India Dock Road… or failing that a nice jaunt down the Southend Arterial.