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 CafĂ© 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.


  1. I visited Chelmsford recently too and found that there was a crowd of women (of all ages) trawling each charity shop on Moulsham Street for Halloween outfits. After about the 3rd tussle over the cheapo bins we started exchanging grins. Not sure what my competitors left with but I got kitted up to create a yeti and two zombie alice in wonderlands. With this kind of shopping track record I reckon it'd be easy to be a cross dresser -not just in Essex, but over at that Decadence wine bar too!

  2. Gavin Hadland comments via email:

    "Saw a bit of it - agree with you that it's lazy programming. I suppose you could argue that love of show is a bit Essex (slight connection with Jews who moved from the East End, etc?!?) Brentwood obviously quite different from, eg, Tiptree, Little Dunmow, etc"