Friday, 31 December 2010

Good Griff

It’s been an Essex end to 2010. Our family has just seen Griff Rhys Jones star as Fagin in Oliver! at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He made a fine over-the-top Fagin with lots of silly voices and facial contortions. To judge by the encore, Griff really enjoyed himself as he leapt around the stage exhorting the audience to louder cheers.

Rhys Jones is also the author of Semi-Detached, a captivating Essex memoir on growing up in suburban Epping and attending Brentwood school. There’s lots on the bogs of Epping Forest, Harlow’s municipal swimming pool and its terrifying diving board and endless trips with his dad sailing around Mersea and ending up marooned on mud with his snoring snoring family. And it has a whole chapter on 339 bus from Brentwood to Epping. Respect, Mr Jones.

And a fitting end to 2010 has come with New Year’s Eve Desert Island Discs on Radio 4 featuring Sandie Shaw from Dagenham. Sandie actually worked for six months punching cards at the Ford factory in Dagenham and sang the soundtrack to the film Made in Dagenham, a song written by Billy Bragg.

Shaw still had great Essex wit as she took Kirsty Young through her three marriages, blowing a fortune, Buddhism and dancing Hand in Glove with Morrissey while wearing stilettos. Clearly not anyone’s Puppet on a String.

Welcome 2011. The future is Essex.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Camping it up in Loughton

I’m holding a flint flake made by an Essex Man 2,500 years ago. Before the big freeze our family took the train to Loughton and explored Epping Forest. It’s an amazing place when the leaves are falling and the lack of signage means it’s easy to imagine yourself miles from the nearest city.

We picnicked at Loughton Camp, an iron age hill fort on top of a hill in the middle of the forest. There are still huge circular earthworks and ditches, plus pits where flints were mined and worked. The flakes from this early example of entrepreneurial Essex are still easily found.

Loughton Camp is also the place where dandy highwayman Dick Turpin was said to have used it as his hide out after committing highway robbery on the A13. There’s also an unsubstantiated legend linking it with Boudica and her big bundle with the Romans.

We tend to think of hill forts as being at places like Maiden Castle in Dorset, or Old Sarum in Wiltshire. Who’d have thought that Essex has its own version right on the Central line. We’ll be finding our own stone ‘enge next.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The only way is Sugar Hut?

Just been on Radio Essex on the strength of my piece in the Guardian today on Essex's annus mirabilis. Had an interesting debate with presenter Ian Puckey about the merits of The Only Way is Essex.

He was very against the old stereotypes recycled on TOWIE. Fair enough, but my argument was that 20 years on from Essex Man perhaps Essex men and women can laugh at themselves too. And the rest of the country surely realises it's an exaggeration of a stereotype, that like all stereotypes has some basis in truth.

And the stars of TOWIE do represent something of the hunger and desire to succeed that epitomised early entrepreneurial Essex Man. Amy might not know the meaning of certain words like but isn't scared to ask and doesn't seem to be at all worried by her geographically-challenged notions of London/Essex. And we have to admire the ambition of someone who can class herself as an "eyelash technician".

Its stars do seem to be doing such a great job at milking their stardom, having cornered the celeb mags and the Sun's bizarre column, that they might be in the running for young business people of the year.

It might be naff, but it's made me laugh. Merry Essexmas Mark, Lauren, Kirk, Amy, Sam and co.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Essex appeal

Blimey. The vajazzle has gone posh. Harriet Addison of the Times booked in for a vajazzle and recently wrote about in the paper's Body + Soul section. She went to the salon Strip Wax in the City, where it's known by the more subtle term, "the Bollywood". Could the upper middle classes be going all Essexy down there?

Meanwhile Essex's annus mirabilis (available from all top beauty technicians) continues with the news that Jamie Oliver's book of 30-minute recipes is the fastest selling non-fiction book ever and Jessie J from Romford is set to be a huge star too after winning the Brits Critics' Choice Award and her song Do It Like A Dude has had 4.6 million hits on YouTube.

At this rate Essex will soon have to annex Kent…

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Matt goes effing mental

It's Essex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. Matt Cardle has won The X Factor and revealed to the Sun that he was a "boozy, dope-smoking waster".

The painter and decorator from near Colchester told of twice being nicked by the Old Bill: "I was a rebel, drifting about having a laugh and a drink with my mates. I never went mental but I was stupid."

Mental, now there's a good Essex word, non-PC but rather descriptive. Indeed, the other week, with West Ham astonishingly 4-0 up against Man United, the whole Bobby Moore Stand broke into a chorus of "Let's go ***ing mental!"

Is there any other county where mental is still used?

Meanwhile Matt is still going mental - but mainly with the likes of "make-up girl" Lauren Clements with whom he enjoyed what the Sun termed "a liaison moments before going on stage in the semi-final".

Monday, 6 December 2010

Malibu and pineapples all round

Oh my gosh! Essex's annus mirabilis (that's not something connected to a vajazzle) continues with the news that the gushing and rather glorious Essex motormouth Stacey Solomon has won I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! Oh, and painter and decorator Matt Cardle is in the final of X Factor after doing all sorts of Essexian things with make-up girls according to the Sun.

Never mind the Australian jungle. "I can't wait to get back to Dagenham. I'm going to see my friends and go down the pub for a Malibu and pineapple, maybe two," says Stace. The future is Essex.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Essex Man hammers Aussies — Gabba Gabba hey!

Just to complete Essex's annus mirabilis, Essex cricketer Alastair Cook has scored a record-breaking 235 not out at the Gabba in Brisbane. Even Don Bradman's knock of 226 has fallen to a man who once played club cricket for Maldon...

Possibly inspired by the success of The Only Way Is Essex and Mark and Kirk's epic boxing bout, Cook's innings has caused much soul-searching in the Aussie media and the Sydney Morning Herald asked "Has anyone stopped to consider that our cricket side — ahem — isn't particularly good?"

Nice one, Cooky. They'll be dancing in the tanning salons of Chelmsford tonight...

The only way is… cold sores?

"The Only Way is… Windsor," proclaims the current issue of Now, alongside a picture of Mark and Lauren from The Only Way is Essex wearing identical clothes to Kate and Wills when they announced their royal engagement.

Must say they make a fine royal couple when poshed up, especially now Lauren has gone brunette. Might they be a better choice as King and Queen of Britain? It would mean that Sam could be a vajazzler by royal appointment.

The series has been so successful it's being repeated on ITV2 already and is still sponsored by Cymex cream for cold sores.

What is it about Essex and cold sores? Did Cymex's PR people spot a correlation between Herpes Simplex and lots of snogging at Sugar Hut and Faces?

It might not be the most romantic of sponsors, but like Essex itself, Cymex does what it says on the tube.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Come on you Ironworks

This is where West Ham United began. It’s enough to give this Essex boy a frisson of excitement. We’re at the site of the old Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding company at the mouth of the River Lea on Trinity Buoy Wharf. Today it’s all trees, wasteland and warehouses by the choppy grey waters of the Thames.

Back in 1895 the Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding Co owner Arnold Hills and foreman Dave Taylor founded Thames Ironworks FC as a works side. Which is why West Ham are still referred to as “The Irons” and a pair of crossed riveting hammers is used in the WHUFC badge. Five years later, having won a cup and two championships, the Thames Ironworks changed the club’s name to West Ham United FC.

My companion for the day is Bob Gilbert, author of The Green London Way (published by Lawrence & Wishart and the book that inspired the Capital Ring). Best not mention the fact his dad was a Bermondsey docker and he comes from Millwall country. We’re planning to walk the Essex Way from Epping to Harwich, but Bob’s plan is to incorporate into the route old Essex and places that have an emotional attachment to me. Firstly we're walking from East India DLR station to Epping via West Ham FC past and present.

“That’s the South west corner of Old Essex on the peninsula over there,” says Bob pointing across the Lea to where the massive shipbuilding factory of Thames Ironworks once stood.

It’s silent and grey by the water, with hardly anyone around. But once 3000 men or so would have been working here and the place would have been alive with bustle and clanging hammers. So much of London is layers of history and it’s not hard to step back a century to the days when the fiercely mustached Ironworks side played the likes of Crouch End FC.


Standing in front of some rusting post-industrial sculptures there’s a notice board on the wharfside detailing the history of the Thames Ironworks, with pictures of huge warships being launched into the Thames.

It seems that poor old West Ham, bottom of the Premiership, have long been associated with disaster. Three years after the football club was formed, in 1898, the launch of the HMS Albion created a huge wave that caused a viewing stage to collapse, drowning 34 people.

Someone has left an old sofa by the wharf, presumably for all the West Ham fans that arrive here on a spiritual pilgrimage, so we use it for a seated photo opportunity. We’re where the Ironworks’ offices would once have been.

Trinity Buoy Wharf is an interesting place. There’s a “container city” made up of shipping containers stacked on top of each other. They serve as artists’ studios. Two of the lightships built by Thames Ironworks have been restored as recording studios and are moored on the wharf.


While, bizarrely, Fatboy’s Diner has been parked on the wharf. We step inside this piece of chrome-clad Americana and buy bacon and toasted cheese sandwiches and look at the royal engagement coverage in the papers.

Our journey started at East India DLR station. We’d seen the First Settlers Virginia Memorial, marking the spot where pilgrims sailed away to become the first English settlers in the 'New World' of Virginia, and re-erected by Barratt Homes. Indeed, the number of times the plaque mentions Barratt, you’d think they’d built the boat themselves. Then it was past the mudflat and nature reserve of the East India Basin (the dock was filed in) and on to Trinity Buoy Wharf.

After leaving Trinity Buoy Wharf, fortified by an American brunch, we traverse the bends of the River Lea, past a pleasingly Sweeney-esque vista of the A13, DLR flyover and the Ecology Centre on the headland between the river’s meanders. Observing what appear to be bullrushes, Bob describes how the name is actually a misnomer. I spot a heron, only it turns out to be a white plastic bag.

At Canning Town we enter a land of endless fried chicken shops and head down Hermit Lane to the East London Cemetery at Plaistow, just past the Bronzed Age tanning salon. Inside we pass the funeral procession for an old East ender called Stan. Amid the tombstones there’s a sad memorial of an anchor from the HMS Albion and the names and ages — mainly the elderly, women and children — of those swept to their deaths in the disaster at the Thames Ironworks.


From here we take the Greenway walk past Barking Road. We stop for a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer and admire the view of the estates.

“I think I can smell the sewer,” says Bob, ducking down to take a whiff at a manhole. The raised walkway is indeed built over the Northern Outfall Sewer.

Traditionally East London has always been given the crap industries. Bob reveals that much of this was due to the prevailing winds taking nasty niffs out to sea. The affluent could ship their effluent East to Essex without it returning to fill their nostrils.

From the Greenway we turn up Boundary Road to view the statue of World Cup winners Moore, Hurst and Peters (plus Ray Wilson) and the Boleyn Stadium of West Ham United FC.


But first we enter the Newham Bookshop, the best independent bookstore in London. Bob is fascinated by the local history section and astonished when Vivian offers us a mug of tea. It’s so friendly we leave laden with The Little Book of East London and The Little Book of Essex.

I show Bob the essential sights of the Who Shop, the crossed hammers on the castellated exterior of West Ham's Dr Martens Stand, the authentic 1960s greasy spoon ambiance of Ken’s Café and the world’s most sexist sign above the dry cleaners on Green Street that reads “Don’t kill your wife, let us do it”.

“So if you lived here, with West Ham, Ken’s Café, the Newham Bookshop and the Who Shop you’d have everything you could possibly need…” opines Bob. Clearly he’s tempted to relocate from Poplar.

We turn down Plashet Road and discover that Plashet is one of those districts in London that no-one knows exists, caught in the hinterland of East Ham and Manor Park.

We find a walled-off Jewish cemetery, cross over Plashet Park and end up at the Army and Navy crossroads at Manor Park. Here we search for a caff, but can only find yet more fried chicken shops, the self-proclaimed best Somalian restaurant in London, a Turkish fry-up breakfast and in a pleasing piece of Asian/Japanese/British/Norman cultural fusion, Asian karaoke at the William the Conqueror pub.

Like West Ham, we’ve come a long way from Leamouth and across Old Essex. Next stop is Wanstead Flats, where our grand march to Epping will continue in December.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Essex argot

Welcome to the land of the vajazzle. The stars of The Only Way is Essex might be stripping and flaunting their boob work in the pages of Now, OK and Heat, but the real star of the show is the language.

While street Londoners now speak Jafrican, here there’s a peculiar cock-er-ney merged with Ugly Betty Essex argot, babe, even if the young people here have never set foot in the East End, unlike Mark’s Nanny Pat and her sausage plait (an Essex culinary delight).

The vajazzle (crystals encrusted in the bikini line) is the most memorable addition to the English language as is the male version, a pejazzle. While “eyebrow technician” Amy sounds like she should be emerging from Thunderbirds’ Pod 4 to tackle the Hood’s Liam Gallagher-style monobrow.

From my own upbringing in Brentwood, where TOWIE is set, I recall such phrases as “well out of order”, referring to a perceived injustice and “the ‘ump”, aka the hump, referring to someone being annoyed.

However, a new mangling of the dialect emerged with a jealous Kirk asking Amy “Are you mugging me off?”, meaning are you treating me as a mug by chatting to other geezers.

Camp Harry has cornered the glottal-stop free “Shu’ up!" and Amy, who isn’t sure where north London is, loves “Oh my gawd!” and “Obviously!’, obviously.

While in the form of Mark Wright Carry On meets the possible son of Ian Dury in the form of phrases such as “you doughnut!”, “rotters” and the Essex greeting of “Oi! Oi!”,

It’s English, but “not no more” as we know it.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Made In Dagenham

Saw Made in Dagenham at the Romford Vue the other week. It’s been quite a year for Essex films. We’ve had Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll about Ian Dury and then Oil City Confidential, an excellent homage to Canvey Island and Dr Feelgood. Hollywood Romford indeed.

It’s a bit Carry On Striking at times and the young actresses are obviously more glamorous and sixties than their real-life counterparts. But Nigel Cole’s film tells a great story about the Ford strike for equal pay for women in 1967 and it’s astonishing that it was so recently that this basic right had to be fought for.

Sally Hawkins gives a fine performance as Rita O’Grady, a cipher for all the women who fought against the Labour government, Ford bosses and some of their male colleagues.

It’s also the only film to ever mention Warley, where the strikers’ had meetings with the Ford management. When I was growing up I thought it was simply called “Warleyfords”, as that’s what the bus stop was called.

On the way to Ford the corrupt union officials stop at a Berni Inn, then the height of sophistication. Indeed, Sugar Hut in Brentwood was once the White Hart, which was a Berni Inn with steak, chips, peas, mushrooms, Blue Nun, and not a vajazzle in height.

Made In Dagenham
certainly makes you want to go and check out the Ford plant. Billy Bragg wrote the lyrics to the theme song too. You wonder if there’s a modern-day Bruce Springsteen or Eminem around ready to immortalize the land of motors, A roads and blue-collar life?

Dagenham — it’s the Detroit of Essex.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Irony in the soul

Nice to see irony alive on the Epping/Ongar hinterlands of Essex.

Driving down the A414 past Blakes Golf Club we saw signs advertising first spray-on tans and then functions with "a complimentary glass of white wine for the lady".

Al Murray's Pub Landlord would surely approve.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Hail Nanny Pat's Sausage Plait

The scripted dialogue of The Only Way is Essex might be ever more dire, but an unexpected star is Mark's Nanny Pat.

She's up for all Sugar Hut and Faces' events and keeps her self-styled "Mr Essex" grandson fortified with endless sausage plait.

By the end of the series it would be no surprise to see her singing with Lola, signing up for a vajazzle and starring in Essex Fashion Week.

Look Back in Ongar

“I can’t believe Ongar isn’t on the tourist trail,” says the Rev Susan Cooper of St Martin's Church in Chipping Ongar. “When I came here I thought it would be like Dagenham, but it’s a beautiful place.”

We detour to Chipping Ongar while taking the car club car to Bishops Stortford — and what a surprise the place is. It’s full of old Essex weatherboarded buildings, bulging medieval timbers and an ancient church and castle. Although being Essex it does have a beauty salon too.

We’ve stumbled into the church and found Mrs Vicarage on hand to give us the full Rev tour. She points out the 14th century roof timbers standing on stone corbels and an original Norman stained glass window by the altar.

She shows nine-year-old Nell the mysterious tiny hatch in the north wall of the sanctuary. This was for an anchorite cell attached to the church. Here a hermit could live without even an iPod, or if he got really bored open the small window to catch a bit of the service.

There’s a stained glass window commemorating the work of missionary David Livingstone — famed for meeting Stanley in Africa — whom it turns out trained in Ongar.

This early Norman church has brick and flint walls and a white weatherbarded tower with a weather vane perched on top. It’s utterly charming.

Near the church are old timber-beamed cottages with wobbly beams and floor levels.

We go into Grumpy George’s Old Fashioned Sweet Shop and discover low ceilings and more ancient supporting timbers. The building might be old but the young assistants have more modern preoccupations:

“Do you know how to do eyelash extensions?”

“Nah, but my mate does…”

We explore the mound of Ongar Castle, built in the tenth century by Richard de Lucy to compensate for having a girl’s name. There’s still a clear moat although the actual mound is fenced off. And on the far side where gardens run down to the moat it’s been refilled with water.

The footpath from the castle emerges at the Ecclesiastical Church where a plaque marks the room where David Livingstone studied, and a palm tree and blue walls in the evening sun make it seem a little like Livingstone’s Africa. And to top it all you can see the mast of Kelvedon Hatch’s Secret Nuclear Bunker in the distance.

How could I have been brought up in Brentwood but never looked back in Ongar? It’s even got a railway museum where the old tube line ended. London Underground’s loss has been Essex’s gain.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The worst address in England?

Who could have guessed that my old manor of Brentwood would one day appear in lights in the Sunday Telegraph? even if it is described as the worst place to live in England.

In today’s Sunday Telegraph here’s a Hollywood-style Brentwood sign above caricatures of the stars of The Only Way Is Essex alongside the headline “The worst address in England”?” . The ST continues that “Britain’s most maligned county is back — as the set of a TV reality show”.

William Langley’s feature reveals that the Essex Women’s Advisory Group, set up to counter the Essex girl stereotype, is particularly upset by the partially-scripted docusoap. “We’ve got businesses in Essex that can’t attract staff because women feel uncomfortable saying they come from here,” says Daphne Field of the EWAG. (Presumably not an acronym for Essex Wives and Girlfriends?)

Essex County Council claims the show has undone all its good work and numerous Facebook groups have been set up by outraged locals to protest about the Brentwood blingers.

But for all the ire, the first show attracted a stonking two million viewers, reveals the ST. And there’s even a nice piece of philosophy from Kirk: “I’d rather be hated for what I am than who I’m not.”

Meanwhile I’m quoted as “A seasoned chronicler of Essex Life”. Which is about as good as it gets; best go out and buy a £3000 watch and celebrate in the Sugar Hut right now.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Is This The Only Way in Essex?

The Only way is Essex aired on ITV2 on Sunday night and has certainly gone for every Essex stereotype available.

There’s more orange skin than you shake a tanning lamp at. Plus lots of pink beauty parlours, tattoos, gyms, lingerie shoots, BMWs, Frank Lampard look-alikes, £3000 watches, Mark’s East End Nan and the Sugar Hut nightclub in Brentwood. And best of all is Lauren having diamonds encrusted in her waxed bikini line in what is termed a “vajazzle”.

It’s lazy programming and unfair on the county that gave us Griff Rhys-Jones and John Fowles among others, but undeniably entertaining.

Really it’s the diary of a nightclub and you’d probably get much the same thing in Bolton, but minus Essex Girls saying “luverleey”.

My favourite bits included the rather nice and hopelessly lovelorn Kirk telling Amy that blokes will always chat her up because “you have fake boobs and you look really nice”. And when Lauren shows why it’s best not to tangle with the ladies of Essex, eyeing dodgy Mark with Sam and muttering “I’ll f**ing knock her out the door!”. Oh and there’s the gayest man in Essex in that pink beauty parlour to add to the entertainment.

You suspect some of the dialogue is set up for the cameras and you do wonder how they’ve all got so much dosh, but I have to admit I’ll be watching again this Sunday. Although the vajazzle (or whatever the male equivalent is - a pejazzle?) may have to wait.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Chelmsford Cissies?


Is there life in Chelmsford? In 2006 Simon Heffer, author of the original Essex Man feature, wrote in the Daily Telegraph of the “increasingly charmless aspect of the towns of inland Essex, like Chelmsford, whose heart was ripped out by developers in the early 1970s”.

That’s a little unfair, although walking from the station to the town centre you do realise why Chelmsford was designated a “clone town” a few years ago. All the usual chains like Debenhams, Starbucks, HMV and Waterstones are present, plus two rather bland shopping malls and a bar called Decadence. Decadence, in Chelmsford?

My wife recently asked a Chelmsfordian where to go to find somewhere exciting and the self-deprecating local replied, “Anywhere but Chelmsford! But that's because I live here…”

Although thankfully there’s still the cathedral, the Shire Hall, the county cricket ground, a railway viaduct over the park and a little touch of Essex individuality and directness in shops like Nosh and a hairdressers entitled Blow, which must take some interesting phone bookings.


The new marketplace is made of ugly concrete, but does offer Doctor Who videos for £3 and nearby is a rare section of the River Chelmer that is grass rather than concrete-lined.

The Market Square Café offers a fine full breakfast for £3.49 and more margarine than I’ve ever seen on a plate of toast. Inside the caff are three older women who sound like former Eastenders. They’re discussing the poor job prospects of their grandchildren and how terrible it is with these foreigners coming here to claim benefits: “Well, I mean you’d come for free money wouldn’t you?”

They then cheerily hug the waitress as they leave saying “See yer next week darlin’!” She’s black and presumably born of parents who’d emigrated to the UK. This seems to capture a little of the Essex Man/Woman conundrum; sometimes ferociously right wing in their views at the debating table but friendlier and willing to take as they find face to face.

There’s no sign to the museum, but after asking at the Town Hall I’m directed to Moulsham Street. At the end of the High Street there’s Chelmsford’s answer to the Sydney Harbour Bridge travelling over the Chelmer and then a traffic light crossing over a five-lane motorway. Chelmsford’s other problem is it’s dissected by wide A roads.


Moulsham Street shows more individuality and has some old-style Essex weather boarded buildings. There’s a vintage shop with a small Goth section and even an Adult Discount Store. Although this being Essex even here there’s a madly entrepreneurial air — an ad for the same sex shop in The Edge fanzine offers “Over 2000 dvds exchange old for new”. You’d think Essex porn watchers might want to keep their viewing furtive, but no, they’re doing busy deals on used razzle films as if it’s the Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill.

Way down Moulsham Street, past the college and suburban homes, the museum finally emerges in Oakland Park. It’s sited in the rather grand Victorian Oakland house and struggles manfully to make something of Chelmsford. There’s plenty on radio pioneers Marconi and a video of ball bearings on a production line. Yes, the UK’s first mass production of ball bearings was at the Hoffmann factory in Chelmsford.

Chelmsford was originally called Caesaromagus (Caesar’s market place) and was the only town ever to be named after Caesar. There’s a Roman temple here too, only it’s under the roundabout.


In the music section there’s a picture of Chelmsford –born Keith Flint of the Prodigy, struggling to start a fire in his home town. While much is made of the Chelmsford Punk Festival in 1977. There’s a picture of eight rather middle-class looking Chelmsford punks and a description of a wonderfully Spinal Tap-esque festival.

It rained all day, the crowds didn’t turn up, the scaffolders started to dismantle the stage before the concert was over and the Damned refused to play. An inadvertent vision of anarchy in the commuter belt.


But what’s this? A very unlikely Essex Man is Grayson Perry, who hails from Chelmsford. In the pottery room Perry's Turner Prize-winnning vase is on display, and it's entitled Chelmsford Sissies. It has an upturned car crashing into a Chelmsford sign on its top and a picture of a Barrett-style home and parked car on its side. While the rest of it is covered in pictures of bearded men in skirts. This is a reference to a fictitious myth invented by Perry, based on a group of civil war gentlemen who were forced to wear women’s clothing and parade through Chelmsford.

There could easily be a novelty single called It's Hard Being a Transvestite in Chelmsford.

Cross dressing in the commuter belt? That bar sign was right; there really is decadence in Chelmsford.

Big in the Thames Delta

Essex Mania hit after the piece in the Independent. First there was a 5.30 am lift from Mark a BBC radio producer to whisk this Essex Man to Radio Essex's HQ in Chelmsford, Racing down the M25 in a motor emblazoned with a Radio Essex logo as dusk breaks. It doesn't get any better than that.

Yours truly appeared on the Ray Clark show from 7-9am with periodic pieces of Essexology, while a radio car was touring the likes of Woodham Ferrers searching for the opinions of self-made Essex men with electric gates.

Then it was an appearance on BBC Look East and a trip to the Essex Chronicle for an interview and photo shoot with the paper's staff of genuine Essex Men. So this is what fame feels like. For one day I felt like the Chantelle of Chelmsford.

The bonds of Basildon

Here's that Essex Man piece from the Independent in full:

Twenty years ago tomorrow, the term ‘Essex Man’ entered the language to describe a brash new figure on thecultural horizon. But that was just the beginning of the story, argues Pete May

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Essex Man is 20 this week. Wanna make something of it? Well, yes actually. Twenty years on, something strange has happened, and is happening still. Essex still has one |of the most distinctive images of any county in the UK – but these days |its essence is everywhere: from Chantelle Houghton to Russell Brand, via Gavin and Stacey, Phill Jupitus, Alan Davies, Ray Winstone (home bar, gaff in Essex), Alan Sugar (offices in Brentwood) and recent films such as Made in Dagenham and Oil City Confidential. You might even say (or whisper) that the county is in danger of getting well cultured.

For 20 years we’ve been fascinated by the Thames Delta, as Dr Feelgood memorably termed their Canvey Island hinterland. Could there finally be something more than a good joke involved?

The first reference to the term “Essex Man” was in a piece entitled “Maggie’s mauler” on the Comment pages of The Sunday Telegraph, then edited by Peregrine Worsthorne, on 7 October 1990. There was no byline, although we now know the author was Simon Heffer, a right-wing iconoclast who has lived in Essex all his life.
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The Sunday Telegraph profile described Essex Man as “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren”, and of course, “breathtakingly right-wing”. He wanted to own a rottweiler and didn’t like foreigners or books. The accompanying illustration featured a bull-necked young man in a shiny suit standing outside his bought council house with a satellite dish on the roof and a new motor outside.

Essex Man was useful shorthand for why Thatcherism was successful, thought Heffer: “The barrow boy who uses instinct and energy rather than contacts and education... He is unencumbered by any ‘may the best man win’ philosophy. He expects to win whether he’s the best man or not.”

It described a real cultural phenomenon. Aspirational working-class East Enders had made a bit of dosh and moved out to Essex, leaving war-damaged London homes behind for Heffer’s “Stalinist” new towns like Harlow and Basildon. As manufacturing and dock jobs went, the children of the old East Enders had found jobs in the City and the used car lots of the Southend Arterial Road.

Heffer had made his observations travelling home on commuter trains: “When one walks through the City most evenings the pools of vomit into which one may step have usually been put there by Essex Man, whose greatly enhanced wealth has exceeded his breeding in terms of alcoholic capacity. The late-night trains from Liverpool street are not lacking drunks, though Essex Man’s sense of decency means he is usually sick before boarding.” It was a brilliant piece of journalism, snobbish, overstated, but with enough truth for the phrase “Essex Man” to enter the Oxford English Dictionary. And having grown up in Brentwood, it seemed all-too familiar to me, too.

Of course, Mrs Thatcher certainly valued Essex Man. In the event of a nuclear armageddon in the 1980s she even planned to retreat to her bunker in the heartland of the county. As Ilford-born Richard Littlejohn might say, you couldn’t make it up. Today the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch is open to the public, complete with a waxwork Maggie in the studio from which she would have broadcast to an irradiated nation.

Before long, Essex Man jokes became a national craze. And his missus was Essex Girl, blonde, wearing white stilettos, and the subject of gags such as: “How does an Essex Girl turn off the light after sex? She kicks shut the car door.” Today newspaper ran an Essex Man cartoon. In one, our hero asks a fellow passenger on the train if there’s a buffet. There isn’t, so Essex Man declares, “Well, you’ll just have to go thirsty then, mate!” as he sips his can of lager.

The country became gripped by Essex mania. Ten days after Heffer’s Essex Man piece appeared, the broadcaster Phill Jupitus (then known as Porky the Poet), the fanzine editor Richard Edwards and myself made it on to BBC South East News having formed the spoof Essex Liberation Front, whose motto was “Liberty, equality, Tiptree jam!”

Since then, there have been many extensions of the Essex Man caricature, such as Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman, White Van Man. It’s possible that Essex Man made it permissible to laugh at the white working class again and led to chav jokes and Little Britain’s satire of Vicky Pollard. But none of these labels has stuck quite like Essex Man.

The seed of the idea had been germinating for many years. Earlier in 1990 Mick Bunnage (later Loaded’s Dr Mick) described the county as “the Jacuzzi of the soul” in a piece for Arena magazine entitled “Essex, innit?”. This writer also has a claim in early Essexology. In January 1989 my feature “Essex appeal” appeared in Midweek, a free magazine for (sometimes vomiting) commuters. The strapline read: “Darrens, Sharons and the enduring charms of the A13... Essex is to culture what Bob Monkhouse is to sincerity.”

It cited the nightclub Hollywood Romford, stilettos worn without tights whatever the weather, David Sullivan, and right-wing Billericay MPs Harvey Proctor and Teresa Gorman: “Politically most residents of Essex think of Thatcherism as a temporary left-wing aberration that the Tory party will soon discard in favour of public executions and compulsory repatriation.”

A year earlier Harry Enfield had produced his Loadsamoney character, a plasterer hollering: “Oi you! Shut your mouth and look at my wad!” When Loadsamoney drove into the countryside and shouted, “Oi! Get this place developed up!” it could only have been in Essex.

Perhaps it was the great Ian Dury who first identified the Essex Man in 1977 with songs like “Blockheads” detailing “premature ejaculation drivers” and “Billericay Dickie”, on the sexploits of a libidinous brickie: “Had a love affair with Nina in the back of my Cortina/A seasoned-up hyena could not have been more obscener”.

Whatever the origins of Essex Man, he’s no longer seen as exclusively nasty, brutish and short. He’s cuddlier today, no longer exclusively right wing, having flirted with Blair and the Coalition, and also a lot funnier. Self-deprecating Essex humour is in the ascendant. The environs of the A13 (a road immortalised by Barking’s Billy Bragg in a spoof version of “Route 66”) and the conflict between new money and lack of cultural nous has produced many top comedians.

This year, Southend resident Russell Kane won the Edinburgh Comedy Award. His act includes rewriting Shakespeare in Essex-speak – and he talks about his working-class father with “neck muscles so strong he can climb stairs with them”.

Basildon-born Russell Brand – a reformed Essex addict and Billericay Dickie clone – fulfilled the ultimate Essex Man fantasy when he persuaded girlfriend Katy Perry to pose in a West Ham basque at the MTV awards last year.

Meanwhile, Phill Jupitus and other Essex comedians including Alan Davies and Lee Evans are fixtures on our TV screens. Davies recently achieved great comic mileage by returning to his mockney Loughton roots and meeting up with one of the “Debden Skins” who terrorised his middle-class mates. While even Matt Smith on Doctor Who ended up too Essexy for his Tardis, lodging with James Corden and playing Sunday-league football in one episode.

As in so many areas, low culture is infiltrating high culture. You might expect Saffron Walden resident Germaine Greer to be horrified by Essex Girls, but in 2006 she wrote in The Observer: “The Essex girl is a working-class heroine surviving in a post-proletarian world... Chantelle and Jodie Marsh both did the Essex girl proud in the Big Brother house, Jodie by refusing to droop under relentless bullying and Chantelle by winning. Essex girls, who turn middle-class notions of distinction on their heads, are anti-celebrities.” No wonder, then, that in Heat magazine, ITV is advertising for contestants for a new ITV2 docusoap The Only Way Is Essex, offering a prize of an “Essex makeover” for entrants.

While over in the world of film, Essex noir has arrived. Recently we’ve had Sex & Drugs and Rock & Roll (a biopic of Ian Dury), Oil City Confidential (about Dr Feelgood) and, most recently, Made in Dagenham, about the women who went on strike for equal pay at the Ford plant in 1968.

In literature, the hero of David Nicholls’ Starter for 10, which also became a film, is Brian from Southend. These days coming from Essex is almost a standard literary device to suggest an unsophisticated Mr Darcy who drinks too much during Freshers’ Week and then has many comedic moments trying to bed a posh bird with middle-class bohemian parents.

In 2008, the poet Lavinia Greenlaw wrote an acclaimed punk memoir about her Essex adolescence, The Importance of Music for Girls. It featured poetic descriptions of youths in motors driving much too fast down country lanes on their way to Dr Feelgood gigs.

The old stereotype is hard to shake off. Labour MP David Taylor was recently in trouble for asking Tessa Jowell if Olympic events such as “Throwing the White High Heels” and “Putting the Medallion on” might encourage Essex people to participate. Yet today Essex can laugh at its image too. This year Basildon erected a huge tongue-in-cheek Hollywood-style sign on the A127.

Any visit brings some comical “only in Essex” moments. Since the death of my parents, I’ve been revisiting my childhood Essex haunts to test the beer at places like the aptly named Thatchers Arms in Brentwood. Here, there was a man in an Eric Bristow darts shirt declaring: “I tell you when I sell that house I’ll be fucking rich!” While visiting the bluebells this spring at Norsey Wood in Billericay, my wife drove a little too slowly past the gated mock-Tudor properties and promptly received a one-fingered salute from the car behind. She didn’t mind too much as she was born in Chelmsford.

It might be an unsubtle place, but it does seem the wider world is succumbing at last to Essex appeal. Which isn’t surprising, as the sons and daughters of Essex Man now run much of the media. Public school might teach soft skills, but in Essex hard skills such as drive, hunger, humour and a refusal to worry if you call the drawing room the lounge have bought big rewards – and indeed bonuses for turning the banks into upmarket bookies.

And remember, too, that Essex is where the city and country merge. Away from the Thames Delta, Essex has wide skies, sea, marshes and estuaries. It’s possible that the grandchildren of the old East Enders might be getting a little more sensitive too. Simon Heffer put it nicely in 2006 when he referred to Essex’s “down-to-earth people, ex-denizens of the East End and old sons of the soil, who rub along in a remarkably affable way, unpretentious and welcoming. Who could want to live anywhere else?”

Unpretentious is a good word to use for today’s Essex. It’s what viewers liked about Chantelle Houghton on Big Brother. She had the street suss to bluff her way on as a planted “pretend celebrity” but later proved genuine enough to win over the nation – and The Daily Star – through her real emotional turmoil over former lover Preston.

In the hit sitcom Gavin and Stacey, partly set in Billericay, the characters also embody what the public wants to love about Essex. Gavin’s mum Pam, played by Alison Steadman, is blonde and strident, but also welcoming and doing her utmost to expand her cultural horizons with veggie sausages and differentiating between “men gays” and “lesbian gays”. She and her husband eat in an upmarket Italian restaurant rather than a burger joint, although this being Essex there is always the chance they’ll run into Dawnie and Pete trying to set up a “threesome” to spice up their sex life.

Like most Essex men, James Corden’s Smithy has gone slightly upmarket too. When something traumatic happens such as West Ham losing the play-off final or discovering he’s the father of Nessa’s baby, he retreats to the golf driving range. Yet when it matters, Smithy does the right thing and decides that he’s going to be a good father and wants to see his kid even it means dressing up in a Batman suit. Smithy is a bit like Essex as a whole. A bit rubbish, but genuine.

And Gavin and Smithy even hug in public. Today’s Essex Man is a much more subtle beast than the cropped rottweiler-holder of 1990, more Cameron’s cuddler than Maggie’s mauler. Through comedy, film and literature God’s own county is making a real contribution to the cultural zeitgeist – although in Essex you’d probably still get a slap for using such a phrase.

Twenty years on, you might even be able to share a vomit-free train journey home with Essex Man. It seems we’ve learned to love Essex as well as satirise it.

Pete May is author of There’s a Hippo in my Cistern (Collins). He blogs on Essex at

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Happy birthday Essex Man

My piece celebrating the 20th anniversary of Essex Man is in The Independent today.

Radio Essex have asked me to appear on-air tomorrow and a chair in Essexology at Sociology-on-Sea University in Wivenhoe surely beckons...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Just like Essex — but with mountains


Having just returned from the Lake District and a walk around the Coledale Horseshoe, the thought occurs that perhaps my love of the mountains is all due to coming from Essex.

In the original Essex Man profile of 1990 in the Sunday Telegraph, Simon Heffer referred, a little unfairly, to the "bleak tundra of South Essex".

But yes, Essex was indeed flat. Perhaps that's why my A level Geography field trip to the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales was such a revelation to an ill-dressed 17-year-old Brentwoodian in 1976.

It was my moment of Essex epiphany. Here was Wordsworth’s “visionary gleam” of Lake District rock and water, all experienced while wearing my bright blue all-in-one waterproof moped oversuit and cherry red high-leg Doctor Martens boots.

It seems like a different age now. This was a time when back packs had rigid steel frames and no one had heard of Gore-Tex.

My parents were farmers who didn’t do holidays because they couldn’t leave their animals. My home county of Essex was flat, peopled by geezers driving Cortinas with sunstrips on the windscreen. The countryside meant a country club with chicken in a basket and maybe a glimpse of a West Ham footballer. A trip to the mudflats of Southend down the A12 Arterial Road or a hippy bonfire at Mersea Island was my idea of adventure.

But here in the Langdale valley were the biggest mountains I’d ever seen. That dazzling May morning the sweaty scramble over jumbled rocks on the path up to Stickle Tarn seemed to take forever. Muscles never before deployed in the school first X1 were pulled and tweaked. My DMs were perhaps not the best footwear. The weaker members of our party looked exhausted.

Cascading water glistened in the sun and finally we emerged to find the peaceful waters of Stickle Tarn. The giant slab of rock that was of Pavey Ark stood behind the tarn. It was a proper glaciated valley like in my A level text books. They really existed, just like Mr Watts said. We took off our boots and hiking socks and dipped our feet in the cooling water of the tarn, ate white bread sandwiches for lunch and then walked to Easedale Tarn, feeling young and alive. I’d never seen such things before. There was beauty in these isles way beyond Mister Byrite in Romford and the Southend Kursaal.

On the coach back to Grange-over-Sands the cassette player played A Hard Day’s Night by the Beatles and songs from Who’s Next like Going Mobile and Baba O’Reilly. “I’m here in the fields, I fight for my meals!” sang Roger Daltrey as the fields, gullies and stone walls flashed by and it was a moment of teenage liberation from the Who’s
“teenage wasteland”.

We celebrated our hike in the budget hotel by furtively buying bottles of light ale from the residents’ bar and watching Lindsay Anderson's If on the television. At the end the public schoolboys shoot all the teachers, so perhaps it wasn’t that wise to let us watch it. Perhaps Mr Watts, the head of the geography department, had given up on us after he’d announced “Tomorrow we’ll be visiting Hawes…’ This unwitting double entendre caused unqualified and politically incorrect mirth and cheers among us sexually intrigued youths.

Well, we did come from Essex.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Life after Debden

Do the Debden Skins still rule OK?

Who’d have thought it? The Debden Skins are now TV stars. Enjoyed Channel 4’s Alan Davies’ Teenage Revolution, where he revisited the Loughton of his youth. Davies was the public-school educated son of a chartered accountant in a leafy suburb, rebelling by driving a Yamaha moped (I preferred the Honda SS50), listening to the Jam and liking John McEnroe.

The programme showed we’d all come a long way from the 1980s. Back then it was routine for Davies and his crew to routinely bait and nick stuff from the “Paki Shop” — although the adult Davies redeems himself by tracking down the old shop owner and apologizing.

The funniest/scariest section was the bit on the Debden Skins, who came from an East End overspill estate and used to terrorise the local gigs. Debden is today the home of who else but Danny Dyer. Davies tracks down Ian a former Debden Skin, and interviews him outside the Winston Churchill pub. Minus his Crombie, Ian turns out to be a bit cuddlier these days.He’s not as racist as his dad, who votes BNP, which is a kind of progress.

The Independent wrote: “Revisiting one of the skins, Ian, it was difficult to believe he meant too much harm, though the old prejudices are without doubt still there. Ian's dad claimed the family left Hackney because there were "too many coloureds" and will soon move again for the same reason. Curiously, he came over rather bashful before admitting this to the cameras. "I'm not sure I should say this on here," he mumbled, a confession that would indicate either an awareness of his views' inherent wrongness, or a belief that the TV-watching masses exist in a kind of liberal conspiracy against him. Either way, it was all a little disconcerting.”

The Debden Skins also caused a furore in the local press. “Alan Davies’ TV show ‘made Debden look racist,’” wrote the Ilford Recorder, as the pub landlord complained that his was a family pub. While the Epping Forest Guardian wrote of "Loughton landlord fury".

Thirty years on, and the Debden skins are still stirring up aggro.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The name's Kane…

Essex Comedian Russell Kane wows Edinbugh…

Essex is surely Britain's funniest county. Good to see Westcliff-on-Sea resident Russell Kane win the Edinburgh Comedy Award. Kane is on record as saying he will never leave Southend and Essex features heavily in his act.

His Fakespeare had a version of Shakespeare set in Essex, where King Nigellio was a banker contemplating suicide after the credit crunch, along with his mistress, Donna from "Billericoy". In his act he describes his cockney dad who has "neck muscles so strong he can climb stairs with them" and who thinks all Penguin Classics readers are gay and would tell Russell he's proud of him, but he's off to his shed instead.

We can add Kane's name to Phill Jupitus, James Corden, Russell Brand and Lee Evans. What is it that makes Essex people funny? Could it be the self-deprecating banter of the exiled East Ender culture that is instilled from school days, the heritage of Ian Dury and Essex Man, or just the fact there's so much material in the hinterlands of the A13?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Oh I wish I was Brentwood bound…

Why Paul Simon wished he was homeward bound to Brentwood

As a teenager I’d heard a rumour that Paul Simon wrote his classic song Homeward Bound while sitting at Brentwood Station in the 1960s. Back then it was easy to imagine him in the moribund waiting room writing lines about shades of mediocrity.

But in the internet age it’s possible to verify such assertions, and the truth is that Simon penned Homeward Bound in either Ditton or Halebank stations in Widnes, while waiting for a train back to Brentwood, where he was living with his girlfriend. Blimey. Yes, it was Brentwood that made Simon and Garfunkel get all poetic.


He made his UK debut at the Railway Inn Folk Club in Brentwood in 1964 and met Kathy Chitty there, the inspiration for Kathy’s Song and America. She was a 17-year-old Essex girl on the door selling tickets to bearded men in cord jackets. They dated for two years until Paul returned to the US. Kathy now lives in Wales and maintains a diplomatic sound of silence on all Simon-related subjects. Although I can picture her as a slightly folksier version of Celebrity Big Brother’s uber-Essex babe Chantelle.

These days if Simon was homeward bound to Brentwood, he’d walk out of the station, trudge 100 metres up King’s Road and come to the Amstrad headquarters. You wonder what Sir Alan Sugar would make of the wandering folk troubadour:

“Paul, shut up a minute will yer, you’re doing my head in! You took a bloody trip to Widnes to play a gig and all you could do is whinge about yer bleeding girlfriend Kaffy. No sales figures, just lyrics scrawled on a British Rail timetable. I’m not having that. Shut up, I am talking! OK, you can knock out a decent tune, but you ain’t doing it for me. If I asked you to build me a swimming pool you’d be knocking off every time you saw some leaves that are green turn to brown. With regret, Paul, you’re fired!”

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Literary Geezers — Would Mr Darcy now come from Essex?

David Nicholls is channelling Essex for literary success via Southend-on-Sea

Would Mr Darcy now come from Essex? It’s interesting to note that the hero of David Nicholls’ very funny novel Starter For Ten is a character called Brian from Southend. The opening scene sees Brian and his two old mates from school on the end of Southend Pier, drinking beer and contemplating his imminent departure to university.

The novel is heavily autobiographical, but even though Nicholls himself hails from Hampshire he makes Brian an Essex man. These days coming from Essex is a form of literary shorthand for an unsophisticated bloke who drinks too much and then has many comedic moments trying to bed a posh bird with middle-class bohemian parents who walk around the house in the nude. And having to overcome the prejudice against Essex men makes it all the better when he finally gets a girl.

Indeed, Essex characters have a long history in literature. A recent reading of Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841, made me realise that old Dicko had created the Pub Landlord 170 years before Al Murray. Dickens’ character of John Willet, landlord of the Maypole Inn in Chigwell, likes to sit by his fireside boiler ‘tackling’ subjects in his slow-witted boorish manner, surrounded by his barroom acolytes. He would almost definitely read the Daily Express, dislike the EU and insist on a white wine for the lady. Dickens’ enjoys his comeuppance. There’s a very funny and poignant scene where a stunned John is finally rendered speechless as anti-Papist Gordon Rioters smash up his pub.

Hopefully there might one day be a sophisticated Essex character in a novel. But perhaps the comedy of Essex characters is just too good for authors to resist. Indeed, there may well be a PhD to be had studying the role of the Essex Geezer in literature.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Road to Southend Pier

In Southend you can stand in the middle of the Thames Estuary and still keep your feet dry…

We’re eating fish and chips on the gravel beach in the rain. A typical English day trip, but the chips are good and we’re just about sheltered by two deck-chairs. For my nine-year-old daughter Nell it’s a real adventure. And after eating chips she then finds three dead baby crabs and we dip a toe in the sea. It’s hard to believe we were in London an hour ago.

It’s less enjoyable for the Essex family with teenage kids behind us on the front. “What a shit day… only ‘cos you made it shit… move your fat arse… shut up!… but I’ve got a soaking wet arse!”

Still, the weather clears up and it’s pleasing to see Southend, once a solidly white working class resort, now being used by many ‘new’ EastEnders. We spot families who are black, Bangladeshi and orthodox Jewish in 100 metres on the seafront.

The listed domed front of the Kursaal — the world's first theme park — is still there, which brings back memories of Rod Stewart and the Faces and Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel gigs in the 1970s. Today it’s full of fail-to-grab a soft toy machines, ten-pin bowling and staff in electronic illuminated bunny ears.

Nell loves Adventure Island, the fun fair by the Pier. We avoid the chuck a ball at something for two quid stalls and my daughter enjoys the high windmill slide and crooked house. It’s staffed by friendly studenty types and obviously hugely popular with families.

But the real highlight of any trip is Southend Pier — although sadly the nearby Pier Bar where my mate Nick used to bop in his Teddy Boy days appears to have disappeared.

There’s a newly rebuilt glass and wood entrance hall with Matrix-style futuristic lifts. We buy walk there/get the train back tickets (£3 adults, £1.60 kids). The Pier appears to stretch into the sea forever. Nell decides to walk only a little way because she says she’ll be scared walking over water and even more scared on the train. She tackles her fear by crawling on the planks and looking through the gaps at the water below. A splinter in her finger puts a halt to this but at least takes her mind off being scared. I entice her onwards by revealing it’s the longest pleasure pier in the world at 1.33 miles.

Southend Pier has had a battered history, but it refuses to die. It’s suffered devastating fires in 1959, 1976, 1995 and 2005, plus in 1986 the MV Kingsabbey sliced through the pier and left it with a 70 feet gap. But as Sir John Betjeman said “The pier is Southend. Southend is the Pier”. And they just keep on rebuilding it.

It’s calm out at sea after the busy promenade. We wave at the passing train named the Sir John Betjeman. And stopping at the shelters on the way, fortified by a shared Mars Bar at the vending machine half way out, we find ourselves edging towards the pierhead and sensing just how wide the mouth of the Thames is.

“Look, we’ve come a really long way. You can’t see the name of Adventure Island anymore!” says Nell.

It reminds me of my own childish excitement when our family first ventured down the Pier. The Isle of Grain and the Isle of Sheppey are vivid and enticing across the estuary. The sea is flat and on a hot day there’s a pleasing breeze. Boats sail past, tantalizingly close.

Finally we reach the rectangular platform at the end of the pier. There aren’t many places where you can stand 1.33 miles out to sea. It’s much better than say Brighton pier. The tacky amusements have gone and there’s just a reasonably priced café and a new lifeboat station with a RNLI shop and the lifeboats on display through glass windows.

From the café Nell rings her sister: “Lola, I’m 1.33 miles out in the sea!”

People fish from the end of the pier, or sit and gaze at Kent and Cooling Marshes and the mouth of the Thames in the distance. Nell looks through a pay and display telescope and watches the cargo ships heading towards Tilbury.

It’s all rather splendid. There aren’t many places that have a world record anything, yet so close to London we have the world’s longest pleasure pier. And for children and dads it’s a great day trip. Perhaps we should succumb to pier pressure a bit more.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

All Stations to Shoeburyness

Who needs the Settle-Carlisle line when you’ve got Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness?

It’s strange to have reached middle age and never used the Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness line (bar the Barking to Upminster section that my dad used to use to get home quicker from West Ham games).

There was a sort of railway apartheid as a teenager in the 1970s; the denizens of Brentwood and Shenfield used the Liverpool Street line. The Fenchurch Street line belonged to West Horndon and Laindonites and if you travelled too far along it the rumour was you went straight off the end of Southend Pier.

Whatever side you approach Fenchurch Street from, it has great views of either the Tower of London or the Gherkin. And once you’re on the c2c train and past the social housing and building works, it gets really rather scenic beyond Upminster. There’s fields stretching all the way across the reclaimed marshes to the Thames and it’s not dissimilar to Cooling Marsh in Kent where Vinnie Jones-lookalike Magwitch might still be lurking.

On the north side of the railway there’s the ruin of Hadleigh Castle, once painted by Constable. The park here is now going to feature in the mountain biking events at the 2012 Olympics. The land here rises up to wooded hills. In his book Britain BC, the Time Team archaeologist Francis Pryor reckons the Roman invaders mounted a steep gravel ridge between East Tilbury and Mucking and used it as a defensive position in 43AD. You wonder if there might have been the odd bundle on these hills at Hadleigh too as the Romans defended themselves against hordes of Brittunculi armed with satellite dishes and super strength lager.

But the biggest surprise after a glimpse of Canvey Island from Benfleet is when the track starts to hog the coast. There’s the boats and river estuary of Leigh-on-Sea, with a series of Dickensian-looking weather-boarded houses and cobbled streets by the shore in Old Leigh and the Crooked Billet pub. When I interviewed the late Lee Brilleaux over a lunchtime pint or four he recommended the cockles here at Leigh as a great cure for a hangover.

Chalkwell station is right on the beach and through the salt-ravaged station windows you can see nothing but sea. It’s the sort of place you’d rave about were it in Devon and quite a way to start a commute into the City.

Southend Central spoils it a bit by being slightly inland but at the terminus of Shoeburyness you are only a short hop to the North Sea. And I must confess it easily beats the Southend to Liverpool Street line.

Forty-odd minutes from London you can be on a beach via the Thames estuary, boats, beaches and glimpses of Kent. And the Grays and Dagenham Docks loop is yet to come… Never mind the train to Penzance, explore the Essex Riviera line.

Friday, 30 July 2010

A walk in the Woods with Billericay Dickie

Tiptoe through the bluebells and get one-fingered salutes in Billericay's Norsey Wood…

“Had a love affair with Nina in the back of my Cortina, a seasoned up hyena could not have been more obscener…”

Maybe I shouldn’t have played my daughters Billericay Dickie so many times. It’s now their favourite song and as we drive into Billericay from Shenfield, they burst into an Ian Dury-esque chorus. Luckily they’ve not heard Plaistow Patricia yet.

Billericay has gone upmarket since my last visit in the 1980s. There’s delis and gosh, a Waitrose. But some things haven’t changed. It’s back in May and as Her Indoors drives past the gated homes of wannabe footballers down Norsey Road, looking for the famed bluebells in Norsey Wood she’s perhaps going too slowly for the driver behind. He veers off at the next left giving us a one-fingered salute out of the window. Well, this is Essex, where the car is king.

You don’t expect to find an ancient coppiced woodland in the heart of Billericay, but here it is, as featured recently on BBC2’s Natural World. Thankfully it’s now protected and run by Basildon Council. We park up and set off on one of the guided trails with our dog Vulcan. The bluebells are stunning, all over the undulating leafy forest floor and giving the whole place a Narnia meets Ian Dury feel.

We picnic on the fallen trunks of a coppiced hornbeam amid a swathe of bluebells. Nicola spots wood anemones, town hall clock, yellow archangel, wild garlic (ransoms) and sweet woodruff, all overseen by a robin whose territory we are obviously steaming in to, which is well out of order.

There’s plenty to see in the woods as you pass dog walkers in purple boots and pink cagoules; a not very clearly defined bronze age tumulus (found to contain the cremation urns in 1865), a hazel plantation, ponds and trenches dug in both world wars by the London Defence volunteers. Our dog Vulcan goes off lead and makes joyous circular runs up and down the surprising wet valley system, which makes the wood feel more like lush Devon than flat old Essex.

We get hopelessly lost in the valleys, but eventually return to the start, where the warden says he’s only ever had to rescue one person at post number five. Who would have believed you could get lost in Billericay?

It’s a weird outpost of Iron Age woods in Essex and a romantic spot with its May carpet of bluebells. We drive home wondering if Billericay Dickie might have found it an ideal spot to take Joyce and Vicky or indeed rendezvous with Janet from quite near the Isle of Thanet (who looked more like a gannet).

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Armageddon in Kelvedon Hatch

Why was Margaret Thatcher planning to take to her bunker in Essex?

Kelvedon Hatch in the afternoon appears to be a town bereft of inhabitants. We get off the 501 bus from Brentwood and walk up the A128. No shops, no children, it could be an episode of The Survivors. Finally we find a man gardening by his bungalow.

“Excuse me, do you know where the Secret Nuclear Bunker is?”

“It’s down that way on the left, but it’s a long old walk… ,” he says of the not-so-secret bunker, with the bemused look of a man who has never before seen a man and two children attempting to access a nuclear bunker via public transport. And it doesn’t look like he expects us to return.

The pavement soon disappears. It looks like a nuclear strike has already hit Essex. The verges, hedges and ditches of the A128 are full of shattered plastic mineral water and Coca-Cola bottles and rusting lager cans.

Eventually we come across a bunker sign pointing to a long track winding track heading across a ploughed field. There’s just a grassy hill in the distance with a mysterious mast perched on its top.

It feels like a real adventure, a trek into the unknown regions of both history and Essex. The track descends into a gulley where there’s a sentry box and a paintballing shed. We walk on past a stream and wood, post-apocalyptic paintballers scaling ropes in the trees, and eventually find a car park and a path to a suburban bungalow on the side of the hill.

Eerily there are no staff on duty, just hand-held audio guides in a rack. We enter to the left of the bungalow and find it’s a huge steel corridor with bunker plans and Geiger counters hanging on the walls.

It’s square and featureless and designed to defend the government from civilians if they tried to storm the bunker to escape the radiation and perhaps query their MPs’ expenses.

There’s an Armageddon time soundtrack on the public address system; four-minute warning wailing sirens and calls for Captain Palmer to head to the operations room.

Then we move through blast doors that are the weight of four cars each and descend further down to the depths.

We’re 100 feet underground and encased in ten feet of reinforced concrete. The bunker was built in 1953 and decommissioned in 1993 as it cost £3 million a year to run. The family who owned the land, the Parrishes, bought the bunker and now run it as a tourist attraction. The ideal place to fall out with the kids.

There’s no natural light and only circular vents in the ceiling to circulate the air.

We enter the communications area where 1950s switchboards give way to ancient telex machines.

“This is cool! Everything’s grey. These are so old. What are these?” says 11-year-old Lola, banging the keys of a Telex machine.

A uniformed female dummy sits in the incoming messages booth. The bog-roll like print-outs list innocuous towns like Aberystwyth and Luton. Here the 300 self-appointed survivors of a nuclear holocaust would search for signs of life in other bunkers around the blighted landscape.

Panic pervades our party. Static crackles in the scientists’ centre where the fall-out patterns would have been monitored. Red phones stand in a box on the wall.

““I want to leave, I'm scared!” says nine-year-old Nell.

And so am I. It nearly happened. It still could.

In the BBC Studio a dummy of Margaret Thatcher stands headphones-on ready to talk to the shell of a nation.

Lights flash on machines and everywhere there’s great big clunking boxes with dials on them. It all feels like 1970s Doctor Who. The dummies look like Autons and there are gas masks on the walls. It would be no surprise to find Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his chaps from UNIT here, trying to maintain discipline and lay on a cup of instant coffee in an impossible situation. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor would be shaking his head at humanity’s folly.

We move up a flight of stairs to the “floor”, where there’s a map of Britain complete with pointers for military planning.

The children watch a TV playing Protect and Survive. It’s the best CND recruitment video ever. Everyone must stay in their improvised house shelter for 14 days with water and tinned food. The sections on placing your toilet waste in a plastic bag and storing it in a larger bucket fascinate Lola and Nell. “If someone dies wrap the body in plastic or blankets and move it to a separate room,” says the keep calm and carry on voiceover.

We see the giant grey tanks and pipes of the plant room where the life support systems supplied water and pumped filtered air around the bunker.

It’s up another flight of stairs to the sick bay where a dummy lies with a bloody eye. “Look there’s a coffin!” says Nell.

It’s the most surreal kids’ day out ever. We see the bunks where staff would have “hot-bedded” in the dormitory and a large room full of ancient computers that would have been the devolved central government. Although now it’s staffed by dummies with no legs and flapping white sleeves. A sign says “Justice” on the walls. And the controller of this bunker really would have had the power of life and death.

We find our house in the giant laminated map of London on the wall. And in the Gents piped music pays “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Weird. The children try on gas masks and army uniforms in a dressing-up area.

And then it’s up to the canteen where the smell of institutionalized food from stainless steel ovens evokes just how awful the post-nuclear bunker would have felt. And a sign reads that the food may contain nuts, which seems the last thing to worry about after the invisible death cloud arrives. I’m tempted to ask if they do irradiated food.

And finally we find two staff alive behind the counter, although everything has to be paid for in the honesty box.

We admire the nuclear bunker mugs, postcards and pencils and rubber toys beneath the grey tomb-like beams.

“Are these dead?” asks an elderly retainer picking up our coffee mugs and cans. No, but everyone outside is.

And then we take the final exit, walking down a long arced tunnel that finally emerges at a small camouflaged opening in the side of the hill.

Daylight at last. And thankfully there’s no sign of fall out.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Miss Willmott's Lost Garden

Ellen Willmott booby-trapped her daffodils, employed 100 gardeners and brought Alpine Ravines and boating lakes to Great Warley
Collapsed cellars, a ruined conservatory, hidden reservoirs, stone paths, cold frames and boating lakes emerging from the undergrowth. If Warley Place were in Cornwall it would surely be the subject of a Lost Gardens of Heligan-style TV series.

Warley Place was a welcome discovery while visiting my late father’s old farm in Great Warley. As a child I remember scrambling up a huge earth bank in Dark Lane and discovering the Narnia-like ruins of an old house in the woods. It was, in fact, the remains of one of England’s finest gardens created by the formidable Ellen Willmott, one of the top gardeners of her day.

Forty odd years later it’s been renovated by the Essex Wildlife Trust. The entrance is next to the busy Thatchers Arms pub.

Ellen Willmott moved into Warley Place with her parents in 1875 and spent a lifetime developing a sumptuous garden. Numerous plants are named after her (the Eryngium giganteum is still called "Miss Willmott's Ghost) and she once employed more than 100 gardeners. She was a big mover in the Royal Horticultural Society and was awarded the Medal of Honour in 1907.

She died penniless in 1934, perhaps having perhaps spent all her dosh on mail-order seeds, and the grand house was demolished in 1939.

The walk begins along the old main road to Brentwood which medieval pilgrims once used when travelling from Walsingham to Canterbury. Past the old crocus field is South Pond, Great Warley’s watering hole in medieval times. Then it's in to the woods and the ruins of the Willmotts’ old house.

The roofless shell of the grand old conservatory is still standing, an evocative sight in the dappled green light. While around it are drops in to the old basements. You can still see the tiled walls of the kitchen and the overgrown alcoves of the old cellars.

Mosaic stone paths have been unearthed by the Wildlife Trust's dedicated staff and the 17th century walled garden is relatively intact, still housing a palm tree, a ginko tree, magnolias, comfrey and anemones.

The wooded trail continues past wild garlic and the remains of Willmott’s cold frames, greenhouses, and a half-moon shaped pond and a deep reservoir.

Down the hill, the boating ponds are empty but the brickwork is still there complete with a mooring rail. A huge earth bank, now supported by steel trusses, descends to my dad’s old farm workers’ cottages in Dark Lane. You sense the huge effort Miss Willmott went to in taming and controlling nature — a very Victorian philosophy.

There’s still a carp pond with water and past the seven Spanish chestnuts, planted by the diarist John Evelyn who briefly owned Warley Place, there's a viewpoint by a daffodil-strewn meadow. Here you can gaze across the fields of my dad’s old farm, towards the M25 and then in the distance the towers of the City of London. You feel the history of encroachment at Warley Place; of both time and the city of London.

The tour ends with a bridge over a gorge that Willmott created to showcase her Alpine plants. Water used to flow through it and in to the South Pond. The huge rocks in the gorge were lugged all the way from Yorkshire by the company she employed.

Willmott never married and as she grew older she became increasingly eccentric, relying ever more on her faithful butler Robinson (whose daughter was my headmistress at primary school). She was arrested for shop-lifting (the charges were eventually dropped), carried a revolver in her handbag for those late-night walks back from Brentwood station and booby-trapped her daffodil fields to ward off bulb thieves.

Yes, Miss Willmott’s project was the work of a loaded toff. She wasn’t great on workers’ rights, and was said to sack any gardener if he allowed a weed to show. But the scale and ambition of her life’s work is still inspiring. She spent everything on her garden and died penniless.

After her death Warley Place was sold to developers (nothing changes there) but then the Second World War intervened and afterwards the area was designated part of London’s Green Belt.

Ellen’s pristine garden was overtaken by undergrowth, decay and Japanese knotweed, until volunteers unearthed it in the last decade. And the sense of decay makes it even better, within sight of the M25 lies a place to reflect, wonder down mysterious overgrown, shadowy paths and move back in time to an era of grand projects in the shrubbery.