When I announced, almost seven years ago, that I was relocating to Essex from my native land, there came a plethora of jokes about becoming an “Essex girl”. My farewell and good luck cards were adorned with references to white stiletto heels, fake tan and trashy earrings. I must confess, having lived mostly in Northern areas until then, I also harboured some preconceived misconceptions about the unfriendliness of the “Southeast”. So, it was with relief and delight, over the coming months and years, that I discovered the real deal and the hidden charms of my new home.
The stereotypical Essex man or woman is well represented on television and the bigger screen. The estuary English of “EastEnders” spreads along the river Thames and creeps Northwards into the county. This mangling of our common language is heard everywhere, but it was on a Norfolk-bound train that I was first treated to the vernacular voice of Essex. The railway announcements were made in a wonderful, warm singsong burr. This soft, country voice, brought to mind the shepherding traditions of old, and the chocolate-box images of pastel-shaded hamlets, dark timbered walls and reed-thatched roofs which can still be found all over the district.
On my first visit to the county, my misconceptions were swept away by the friendliness of staff and fellow diners at a cosy café in which I breakfasted. Unable to afford the more salubrious areas of the South of the County, I made my new home in a more rural corner, near the marshlands where I was to be employed. Here, the ancestral spirituality of the landscape spoke to me of Viking and Saxon, the village society was welcoming and I discovered the magic of this alien land.
Having lived all my life in coastal lands where rolling green hills swept down to craggy coastlines, my first impression of this flat, muddy, wetland was one of emptiness and dearth of colour. Yet as I wandered this terrain daily, with my all-weather canine for company, my eyes were treated to a wonderland of ever changing colours, vast, infinity skies and my ears were captivated by tales of historic smugglers, marshland ghosts and remote, island farmsteads. Birdlife ranged from sentinels of the marshes to majestic harriers. Leggy hares raced away from us, lizards basked on sunny seawalls and the carpets of wildflowers enticed a myriad of butterflies.
In contrast, just a few miles away, suburbia hums noisily. Essex is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Situated just North-East of the capital, it provides homes to a large commuter population, its busy road and rail network feeding the City daily with those trapped in the metropolis rat-race. Alternatively, many of those with wealth have made their names in local trade. This area fosters an entrepreneurial spirit, labourers thrust through the lanes in shiny-chromed pick-up trucks and the golf and sailing clubs witness builders rubbing shoulders with stockbrokers.
Sporting life is equally varied. The attractions of racing dogs, bikes or cars sit comfortably with the more physically active venues for Olympic level cycling and swimming and the region is regularly interspersed with rivers whose waters provide for those wishing to get afloat, in a seemingly endless variety of vessels. These waters have recently become home to my very own such craft, a Dutch sailing barge, retired to the local waters from a century of haulage. This writer’s retreat and the landscape surrounding her has become my daily inspiration and nurtures my sense of well-being.
Those of you reading this who know Essex will ,no doubt, regale me with the county’s many attractions not included in this piece. For there are many and various days out on offer, from the beauty of Constable Country on the Suffolk border to the adrenalin rousing Adventure Island in Southend-on-Sea. Real Essex is so much more than you might imagine. But don’t take my word for it, come and see this jewel for yourself!