Essex shores, Essex lives

Ken Worpole
24 September 2003

In recent years it has been hard to find someone with a kind word to say about Essex, that obdurate county to the east of London. It has become the ‘badlands’ of the English psycho-geographic imagination. Londoners think about Essex the way New Yorkers think about New Jersey: a tough, ex-industrial wasteland, largely inhabited by redundant blue-collar workers, criminal sub-cultures, and the home of a million too many cars.

The notion of ‘Essex Man’, a rebarbative, right-wing, working-class individualist, was coined in the early 1980s by Tory MP, Julian Critchley (though the journalist Simon Heffer disputes this). At the same time as this put-down flourished, Britain was amusing itself to death with ‘Essex Girl’ jokes, based on the dubious figure of a sexually promiscuous young woman, who lived for pills, thrills and spills of one kind or another. Thus the inhabitants, thus the landscape: vacuous, despoiled, brutal and unforgiving.

It is all nonsense of course. Such views are part of the self-deluding imagery of a deracinated urban culture which no longer knows its ash from its elm-tree. For not only is Essex still a serious agricultural county, with a very strong tradition of self-sufficiency and local identity, it also contains some of the most striking and unexplored landscapes in all of Britain. But not many people know that.

The author, John Fowles, did. In his introduction to a reprint of that strange, atmospheric Essex novel, Mehalah, by Victorian cleric and hymn-writer, Sabine Baring-Gould, Fowles described the Essex marshlands as ‘still a strange terra incognita’ even with London less than an hour’s drive away, a place haunted and cut off from the larger landscape and culture.

The wild sea
The wild sea grasses at the edges of the many beautiful estauries to be found in Essex, always seem to evoke a mood of timelessness. Photograph by Larraine Worpole

Both my wife and I grew up in the county, and have been returning there on holiday every year for more than ten years now. The Essex landscape grows even more entrancing to us than ever, as its cultural isolation actually means it has been less subject to change than many other parts of rural Britain. It is the estuary landscapes in particular – the saltings and marshes which line the rivermouths of the Crouch, the Blackwater, the Colne and the Stour – which remain the principal attraction, relatively unpopulated as they are, except of course for extraordinary numbers of wildfowl, marine birds, and even significant numbers of nightingales, skylarks and lapwings.

Essex possesses over 350 miles of coastline, and has been home to many settlements of peoples who have appreciated a ready supply of shellfish, wildfowl, salt and excellent grazing marshlands for sheep and cattle. Traces of ancient oyster beds, decoy ponds, and ‘red hills’ of Iron Age and Roman pottery debris, from containers used to evaporate brine for salt-making, are found everywhere, marking the landscape with a mournful sense of lives long gone.

Sunset over the Blackwater
Sunset over the Blackwater estuary, home of many wildfowl and seabirds, as well as the site of the first great English poem,The Battle of Maldon. Photograph by Larraine Worpole

This sense is particularly poignant since so little of the coastal fringe is used productively anymore, though salt from Maldon, on the Blackwater, is still famous throughout the world. There was even a thriving ship-building industry in Essex well into the early 20th century; its distinctive products included beautiful red-sailed, coastal barges, a number of which have been thankfully preserved and are still used for training.

For me, summer begins when the back lanes of Essex are covered in hawthorn (may) blossom, and the landscape seems almost too bright with the creamy-white blossom foam which edges every field, lane and roadway. It is then just about warm enough to start swimming in the creeks of the Blackwater, close to the cottage which we rent every year for one, two or three separate weeks.

One of the problems with swimming in and around the salt-marshes and mudflats at high tide is the mud itself. There is no alternative but to slither down the tough grass covering of the seawall into the choppy sea-water. Getting out is a different matter altogether, and involves clambering through a thick, black mud-ooze, emerging like a creature from the Black Lagoon.

Tomatoes for sale
From May until the end of September it is possible to live on produce grown in people's own gardens and sold at the front gate. Photograph by Larraine Worpole

Yet the pleasures of swimming in and between the archipelago of hundreds of tiny outcrops of mud and vegetation which make up the creeks, are countless. In August, not only can one use the samphire grass which edges the sea walls and the creeks to pull oneself out of the black mire, but it can be taken home to eat. There is nothing quite like samphire, washed thoroughly, blanched in boiling water for no more than two minutes, and then served with butter or vinaigrette, to accompany a meal of local mackerel, plaice or crab. Such a meal should also be served with newly-picked potatoes, carrots, marrow and other squashes, bought from the stalls which many people still put outside their front gate from which they sell the produce they grow but do not need. In Essex, from May through to October, it is possible to live on produce grown in people’s own gardens and sold at cost price at the front gate.

Not everything is as it should be alas. Rising sea levels have over the past twenty-five years reduced the 4000 hectares of salt marsh which Essex had to just 1000 hectares. In fact sea walls are now being deliberately breached in Essex in order to recreate more salt marshland. Dutch Elm disease transformed much of the Essex landscape completely when it struck some thirty years or more ago. There is still a lot of elm scrub to be seen, from old root stock, but once it grows above ten feet high, it succumbs to the disease and dies.

Nevertheless, at whatever time of year, a walk along any of the seawalls to be found at the estuaries of the great Essex rivers, is a reflective experience, uplifting on a summer’s evening, sobering on a gloomy winter’s day. The piercing cries of the curlew or the oyster-catcher in particular, strike to the very bone: mournful, resilient, enduring. I could not imagine life without occasional recourse to the Essex estuary landscape: it is rather character-forming, I have heard it said.

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