Thursday, 21 December 2017

The changing face of Tilbury

Check out this excellent video on Tilbury by BBC Newsnight's Jack Shenker. It sums up a lot of what is happening in Britain today, with pubs and old jobs going to be replaced by a giant Amazon warehouse with insecure jobs. Shenker looks at he history of Tilbury from the days of the SS Windrush arriving at the port, to the Sun's notorious expose of "aggro Britain" with a piece on the town. He talks to an old docker, a kick boxer and councillor and looks at Thurrock's flirting with Ukip and Brexit. A sad look at the economic changes in Britain and it all ends with footage of the old power station chimneys by Tilbury Fort being demolished.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Great grapes of Essex vineyards

Just completed a great tour of Essex vineyards. My first stop was New Hall Vineyards founded in 1969 and set in the farmland of Purleigh. It’s an ancient wine growing area. Purleigh wine was drunk by King John and during te signing of the Magna Carta, says enthusiastic manager Lucy Winward. 

We tasted a number of wines and the New Hall Bacchus and Signature were really excellent. It’s a good area for white wine thanks to the mild climate around the River Crouch. So the Crouch Valley might soon rival the Loire Valley. It’s also worth checking out New Hall’s giant barn turned into a Christmas grotto.

Then it was on to West Street Vineyard in Coggeshall. Jane Mohan went to France aged 17 to learn the language but came back with a love of good wine. Her first attempt at making wine ended in disaster, “it was foul and we had to turn it into brandy!” But Mohan, who sold her house to fund the vineyard in 2009, persevered and now makes fantastic wines including West Street’s crisp white wine, rose and sparking wine. It’s a full-time business being a wine grower and Jane told us about one cold spell in April when she was out all night lighting fires to try to save her vines.

Jane’s used her Australian ancestry to bring a bit of Aussie style to Essex, where visiting the vineyard is a relaxed informal experience in a modern building with large windows. You can have an award-winning meal overlooking the vine fields. We enjoyed a fine veggie lunch of fried Camembert and risotto (with battered egg on top), followed by an array of puddings.

Our final stop on the wine tour was Dedham Vale Vineyard in Boxted, close to Constable country where he painted The Haywain. Again it’s an ancient wine hotspot, with the Romans having grown vines there. The restaurant overlooks a lake and manager Simon Ward had just seen a kingfisher when we arrived. Top wines here included the Colchester Oyster. It also hosts a walnut festival and is a tranquil setting for marriages. Dedham Vale produces 32,000 bottles a year and until three years ago, when it expanded, it was entirely self-sufficient in energy.

Lovers of the film Sideways, where two old friends tour California wineries, can now be reassured that a similar Bacchanalian pilgrimage can be made in Essex. Check out the Visit Essex website for more details of Essex food and wine.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Brentwood's brewing

Brentwood is now synonymous with beer rather than Towie. The Brentwood Brewing Company was the result of, "a drunken evening in the pub in 2006 when we decided we could brew better beer than what we were drinking," according to co-founder Roland Kannor. He set up the company with Dave Holmes, who has now retired to Spain. The brewery has made remarkable progress, with Brentwood Best being declared Camra's champion bitter of East Anglia in 2007. Britain's Beer Alliance has also judged it to be the best companion beer for pickled eggs.

Roland Kannor is a man who clearly believes that the pun is mightier than the sword, as exemplified by the Beer Grylls snack bar outside. Beer names are sometimes dreamt up while sampling the product. "You don't think up a good name in the office. Carol our accounts lady came up with Good Elf." Other great names for beers include Chockwork Orange, Frosty Baubles and Elephant School Mellowphant stout, so-named because there was once an elephant training school at the site of the Ford offices in Warley. Hope and Glory is named after Roland's daughter, who is apparently called Hope Ann Gloria.

We also meet Ethan, who is possibly the youngest head brewer in the country at 26. He likes to brew in shorts and talked us through the process of brewing with complex tanks that are basically, "giant saucepans and kettles." His beers have won prizes from as far afield as Northern Ireland.

Brentwood Brewing has also boosted international relations, with three German brewers arriving with German beers for Brentwood's celebration of Oktoberfest. Roland says that, memorably, his German guests were refused admission to Sugar Hut for wearing lederhosen, presumably on the grounds that such gear would make the punters, "well jel."

If you want to sample the friendly charms of the Brentwood Brewing Company then there's a Christmas Beer Festival on December 9 at the brewery at Calcott Hall Farm off the Ongar Road, from 10.30am-5pm. Check out the Brentwood Brewing website or Visit Essex for details of Essex's burgeoning range of food and drink.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Barking bard Billy Bragg woos Islington

The revolution is just a tea-towel away…
Great to see Billy Bragg at the Islington Assembly Rooms, along with my daughter and a contingent of Brentwood Bragg fans enjoying the beers in the Highbury Brewhouse and Kitchen. Thirty years on he still ends his set with "My name's Billy Bragg, I'm from Barking, Essex. Good night!" So I think Mr Bragg has sided against the pedants who insist that Barking is now part of a London borough — spiritually it's Essex. There were several requests for A13 Trunk Road To The Sea, but sadly Billy said he only plays it in Essex. He did play much of the soundtrack of my youth, a brilliant body of work including Greetings To The New Brunette, Must I Paint You A Picture, Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards, Sexuality, St Swithin's Day, The Man In The Iron Mask and of course New England. Bragg managed to mention everything from Victor Hugo to climate change and bring West Ham's departed gaffer Slaven Bilic into the intro to Accidents Will Happen. A great gig and do check out Billy's new mini-LP Bridges Not Walls

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Jam gin at Tiptree

Just enjoyed a great gin tasting session at the Wilkin & Sons factory in Tiptree. The purveyors of legendary Essex jams and marmalades have now expanded into fruit gins. The gin liqueurs are a combination of Witham-based Hayman's Gin and fruits gown by Wilkins & Son. The tasting session was in the factory's museum where we were surrounded by old jam-making equipment, vintage jam jars and pictures of the Wilkin founders and the current "Mr Peter" Wilkin, who still runs the old family firm.  

First we tried Little Scarlet Strawberry gin made from the unique strawberries grown at Tiptree. This really was excellent, like drinking sweet alcoholic jam. Next it was English Raspberry and then English Damson. Credit to the member of our party who tried Damson gin with Prosecco (aka Fruit Gin Royale). Finally we sampled the Rhubarb gin, which unmistakably merged hints of rhubarb crumble with a string gin kick. All would be fine bases for cocktails. As the great Dr Feelgood might have sung, "you've got me on the jam and alcohol…" After the tasting we went to the tearoom's shop to buy Blood Orange marmalade, Little Scarlet jam (buy while stocks last after a poor summer for fruit) and some Tiptree Lemon Curd. 

Wilkin & Son offer some hope of how we'll survive Brexit as they already have 11 tearooms in Essex and export all around the world. Another plus is that when Mr Peter retires it will become a worker's co-operative. Lovers of Wilkin & Son should also check out the chapter on Tiptree jam in my book The Joy of Essex. Thanks to Visit Essex for organising the tasting. Gin and jam — it doesn't get better than this.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Essex and drugs and rock'n'roll

Enjoyed seeing the Ian Dury musical Reasons to be Cheerful at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. Based on the songs of Mr Dury, who was from Essex in case you couldn’t tell, the musical is based on the story of a group of fans in Southend trying to get tickets for Dury’s gig at the Hammersmith Odeon. Paul Sirrett’s script has Essex mentions aplenty, with a neon Billericay sign on stage, a memorable performance of Billericay Dickie and scenes on the A13 and Thorpe Bay beach. Dury contracted polio after swimming at Southend swimming baths and performed with a withered left arm; he would have been proud of the way the show gives roles to actors who are one-amed, deaf and in a wheelchair. Hence their emotive performance of Dury’s empowering anti-charity ode to disability, Spasticus Autisticus. Having the lyrics dislayed above the stage also allows us to remember just what a great wordsmith Dury was. It’s a riotously entertaining romp back to the punk era. As Ian himself might have said: “Oi! Oi!”

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Homage to Canvey Island

The Essex Liberation Front has finally happened. Never mind Catalonia. There's a big piece in the Guardian about the Canvey Island Independence Party. Angered by plans for more housing, Canvey Island is seeking to escape the yoke of Benfleet, Thundersley and Hadleigh and establish a council that is separate from the mainland borough of Castle Point. At this rate of Essex separatism there could soon be one almighty struggle over the jam fields of Tiptree. Click on the link to read.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

The only drink is Essex

Seems like Essex is the place to drink. Beer-wise there's Billericay Brewing, purveyors of the excellently-named Billericay Dickie and Rhythm Stick beers. The micro-brewery and beer shop produces craft ales made from natural ingredients. Every second and last Sunday at 2pm they have brewery tours and tastings, explaining the brewing process and ingredients used. You can also be a ‘Brewer for the Day’ and return 2-3 weeks later to collect your pints.

Wine-wise, New Hall Vineyard in Purleigh is one of the oldest and first vineyards in the UK to grow the Bacchus grape, which is now one of their most popular wines and very drinkable. Essex’s newest vineyard, West Street in Coggeshall, won the gold award in the International Wine Challenge 2017. It's got a restaurant serving local produce, and of course lots of wine-tasting. 

While close to the Essex Way in Constable country is Dedham Vale Vineyard, where you can grab a bicycle and tour the great Essex countryside, before returning to try some of their wines and cider. It has guided tours and tastings and you can have a glass of wine overlooking the lake, or hold parties and weddings there. 

If ever they remake the great wine-tasting road move Sideways it will have to be in Essex.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Bog snakes in Leigh

No, they're not taking the hiss. Sympathy to Laura Cowell's five-year-old son who found a three-foot long baby python down the family toilet in Leigh-on-Sea. It seems the royal python had escaped from some neighbours who had left old vivariums in their garden and then travelled up the u-bend. It was left to heroic Leigh-on-Sea pet shop Scales and Fangs to rescue the bog snake and then nurse it back to full health after some scale-rot. Indeed, fangs can only get better. Pints of snakebite all round for the rescuers. There could be enough in this story to give fellow Leigh-on-Sea resident Phill Jupitus a whole new stage act. 

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Chateau de Essex

My daughter's pal Katy, who grew up in Brentwood, has just presented our family with some Essex wine as a thank you for holidaying with us. Bacchus 2016 Reserve is brewed by New Hall Vineyards in Chelmsford and is a fine fruity wine which we enjoyed drinking. Proof that Essex is very much the Bordeaux of England…

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Essex Yeoman goes up the Junction

Visiting Upminster the other week I was surprised to find the Essex Yeoman pub by the station has now has changed its name to the Junction. The change happened back in 2015, but it's still a shame to lose Essex from a traditional pub name, even if Upminster is now in the London borough of Havering. As described in my book The Joy of Essex, I used to go in to the Yeoman for a pint with my dad after returning from West Ham games, before driving home to Great Warley. Where are the Essex Yeomen now? Probably all on Love Island, I guess.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Tiptree jam today in China

The Chinese are in love with Tiptree jam. BBC News' 'Tales From The New Silk Road' features footage from Wilkin & Sons' factory at Tiptree and an interview with Chinese brand ambassador Tingting He, who sells Tiptree products to Chinese hotels. In China they're developing a taste for British cream tea, scones and lashings of jam. Twenty five years ago the spoof Essex Liberation Front (namely Phill Jupitus, Richard Edwards and myself) predicted a UK economy based on Tiptree jam — and now it might just be the post-Brexit future. Click on the link to read the whole feature.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Walking class heroes in West Horndon

Just spent an afternoon walking in a sun-drenched West Horndon. After lunch and a half of IPA at the Railway pub we went under the railway bridge and straight out into the countryside. Here there are more than enough wheat fields for Theresa May to run through and within a few hundred yards of the station you're in a world of isolated farms, old barns, combine harvesters and huge tractors – the first real fields beyond East London. We ended up on China Lane and turned left for Bulphan (pronouced 'Bull-ven' by locals) where there's a very distinctive old wooden and flint church. That stretch of flat agriculture land stretching from West Horndon to Orsett and the Thames is another of Essex's underrated charms.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Canvey Island Wife Swap

                                                              Picture: Channel 4
Not too much to see of Canvey Island in the recent Brexit Wife Swap. There was one shot of Brexiteers Andy and Pauline at the Labworth Cafe and some scenes of Remainer Kat working at a Canvey Island social club, but the big trip out was to a Polish restaurant in Lewisham. 

Still, the programme did reveal that Remainers can be a tad patronising and that Brexiteers Andy and Pauline had genuine (if mainly ill-founded) fears of rapid racial change in the East End and homeless families from other nations in B&B hotels, born of their own experience. As ever it was the wives who seemed to make better progress at understanding different viewpoints. And there was comedy value too, watching Andy's look of horror when it was suggested he remove his Cross of St George bunting from his Canvey Island castle.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Working glass geezers find White Gold

The Inbetweeners meets Essex Man via Life on Mars. There’s a lot to admire visually in White Gold, set in 1983 and created by Inbetweeners writer Damon Beesley: the double-breasted shiny suits, Carol’s frizzed blonde perm, James Buckley’s Eddie Shoestring moustache, the motors, the clunking great videos and camcorders, giant computers with green typefaces and lots of stonewashed denim. Plus a soundtrack that includes Ian Dury, the Fun Boy Three and lots of disco.

Vincent Swan played by Ed Westwick is too brash and predatory to be a likeable rogue and sometimes the show lapses into caricatures, but White Gold has certainly captured the era of Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney and Simon Heffer’s depiction of Essex Man. Stanford-le-Hope-raised Beesley knows his white stuff, as his dad was indeed in double glazing, selling plastic windows to people who had bought their council homes. Indeed, my school reunion in the 1990s sill had plenty of double-glazing salesmen.

There’s always going to be plenty of entertainment from the blokey dialogue between Inbetweeners stars Joe Thomas and James Buckley. It’s also packed with filthy language and filthier sex. For the Essex aficionado we've already seen a trip to Southend with chips on the beach, a school trip from Basildon, a CB radio meet-up at Thorndon Country Park, a dogging session in the Essex woods, a Ramada hotel awards ceremony on the edge of Chelmsford and a Cachet sales room that is probably in Billericay. Minder did eighties rogues better, but it’s still nice to hear words like “dipstick” again in a show about working glass anti-heroes caught up in the Thatcherite dream.

White Gold is airing on BBC Two and the full series is available on iPlayer.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Tilbury Fort gets the superhero treatment

Tilbury Fort features in the film Wonder Woman, released this week. Several scenes on the parade ground of the 17th century fort appear in the film, starring Gal Gadot. Indeed, the fort is becoming something of a media luvvie. It also featured in the BBC drama Taboo, shown earlier this year. 

Tilbury Fort is one of Essex's hidden delights and features in my book The Joy of Essex. The fort is built in a distinctive star shape, known as a bastion fort, and has lots of old artillery guns, atmospheric officers rooms, tunnels to the magazines (told you we had magazines in Essex), cells that once housed Jacobite prisoners and great sweeping views across the river to Gravesend and Kent. Another Wonder Woman Queen Elizabeth I also made her famous if not very feminist speech there as the Spanish Armada approached, declaring, "I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman, but I have the heart of a king!" More than enough to keep Gal Gadot happy as she flies over the Thames.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

White Gold in Essex

Promising new trailer for the forthcoming BBC2 comedy series White Gold, set in Essex in 1983. It's written by Essex-born Damon Beesley, the man who gave us Inbetweeners, and is a comedy covering the antics of Vincent and his set of double-glazing salesmen. Looks worth watching just for those double-breasted shiny suits. Beesley refers to the programme as a, "glorious opportunity to recreate the Essex of my youth — a time before the invention of 'Essex girls' jokes, fake tan or Towie. A time when having double-glazed patio doors installed meant you were winning at life."

Friday, 7 April 2017

Phill Jupitus goes underground

Proof that Essex Man can do art. Check out this video on Eduardo Paolozzi by Leigh-on-Sea's favourite son Phill Jupitus. Paolozzi is not West Ham's latest loan signing, but the Scottish geezer who designed the 1984 artwork at Tottenham Court Road tube station and is featured in a retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery

Phill takes us through London and explores Paolozzi's industrial-sized sculpture of steam-engine inventor James Watt's (you Watt?) head and his his sculpture of Isaac Newton in the style of William Blake. Phill ends up at Tottenham Court Road station where he's previously only seen the brightly-coloured Eastbound platform artwork when drunk and heading back to Essex. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Essex Girls fight back

Interesting article on whether the term Essex Girl is at all relevant to 2017 from BBC Essex's Jodie Halford. Like Essex Man, it's a stereotype that had some basis in truth when applied to Estuary Essex (just look at Towie), though there was always more to the county than the media image. Indeed there was a campaign to have the term removed from the dictionary last autumn.

Dr Terri Simpkin of Angia Ruskin University points out in the feature that there was certainly an element of snobbishness to the Essex Girl stereotype: "Essex became a corridor between dormitory towns and London, so we saw a rise in people having social mobility. Out of that came a level of snobbery and a disparaging view of people who had become more aspirational and affluent. But with women, there was gender discrimination as well, because so-called Essex girls weren't wilting wallflowers - they were more overt as sexual beings, they took control of their own sexuality." 

And perhaps Southend playwright Sadie Hasler has it right when she argues: "If you could take every negative stereotype about Essex girls, and turn them into positives, it would be amazing to see Essex girl come out and say love your body, make the most of what you've got, own it, don't take lip from anyone, say what you think, defend yourself and don't be a wallflower. The thing about Essex girl is she actually represents lots of positive messages for women - but they're currently dressed up in the most hideous way." Click on the link to read the whole feature.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Richard Madeley recalls leather-clad Philip Hammond in their Shenfield School days

Just seen a tweet with an interview with Richard Madeley on Newsnight (originally shown in Nov 2016) talking about his days at my old school of Shenfield, where he was in the same year as Chancellor Philip Hammond. Madeley recalls of Hammond: "He used to wear quite a long black leather coat and black leather boots and he had very long jet-black hair that hung down like crow's wings. He was tall, striking and super confident and that had an impact on the girls. He always finished his class work before everybody else. Then he'd put his big boots on the desk and start reading the Telegraph and swapping political dialogue with our history teacher who was a Guardian reader. This was a 15-year-old schoolboy!"

Hammond was a few years older than myself, so there are no distinctive memories, apart from him running a mobile disco with Graham Norton (not that one) and the fact his parents used to play bridge with my friend's parents. Shame he ditched the long leather coat and boots though, could have have livened up his Budget no end. Click on the link to view the full Newsnight profile of Hammond. While Newsnight again visited Shenfield on Budget night, talking to Hammond's old neighbours and even stopping for a chat with  the landlady of the Hutton pub.