Essex, the most overlooked and undersold of counties, is under siege. In the north, it is menaced by the BAA, with its overweening commercial ambitions for Stansted Airport, starting with a second runway that will scythe through the undemonstrative countryside and lay waste to at least two hamlets of venerable buildings, while ensuring that the idyllic ancient deer park of Hatfield Forest – already harassed almost beyond endurance by air traffic – will be made a no-go area, with intensified noise and pollution. And all this despite objections from the budget airlines themselves, who don’t even want the new development (they know they’ll end up paying). In the south of the county, the sirens of regeneration are singing away at the Thames Gateway, an unsustainable development if ever there was one. Tens of thousands of new houses are to be built on land that looks suspiciously like a flood plain; on the Essex side of the estuary, residents will find themselves conveniently close to the proposed new mega-container port, Shell Haven, which will be the largest in Europe.
But who cares about the most derided county in Britain, except those in the stockade? Most visitors to Essex are only passing through, heading for somewhere else. You can see that from the way the roads have been arranged. The M11 makes its way towards Cambridge, shortening the journey to desirable north Norfolk, while the M25 hurtles off through Thurrock to the Dartford Crossing, the choice of name giving the advantage to Kent. Annually, countless thousands leave light, bright Liverpool Street Station on express trains for the airport; they hardly bother to glance out of the carriage windows, except to check for evidence of London 2012, and even when they do, the scenery is pretty inconsequential. Surprisingly, Essex is rather self-effacing.
Nikolaus Pevsner’s introduction to his Buildings of England volume for Essex made it clear that he considered the county tainted by association. Who, he wondered in 1954, would ever want to go ‘touring and sightseeing’ there, after experiencing the ‘squalor of Liverpool Street Station’, its horror compounded by the ‘suicidal waiting room on platform nine’? His hatred, oddly, even extended to ‘the cavernous left-luggage counters behind platforms nine and ten’.
Pevsner died thirty years later, but still too soon to see the dreary old station transformed or to be aware that an insignificant former USAF base would become London’s third airport, crowned by a sensationally elegant terminal, representing just the kind of marriage of function and beauty he most admired. When Pevsner revised Essex in 1965 he wanted authoritative entries on the New Towns and turned to the architect-planners of Harlow and Basildon to write inevitably self-congratulatory entries. No doubt he would have invited Norman Foster to provide one for Stansted.
Pevsner’s own six or eight-week journey around the county was made slightly less uncomfortable than it might have been, and even more economical, by the use of a caravan, loaned by his eccentric editor at the Architectural Review, Hubert de Cronin Hastings. Pevsner’s wife, Lola, always the driver, towed it along the lanes and byways of the county, come rain, ice and snow. As they swung along, the movement of the caravan made the car veer unpredictably. To rule out worse hazards and the misery of midwinter nights spent in lay-bys on trunk roads, Pevsner presciently joined the Caravan Club, which allowed them to move from accredited site to accredited site. Only heavy snowfall slowed his progress.
Pevsner’s successors, currently scouring the country from Cornwall to North Yorkshire as they revise the first pocket-slim volumes of the Buildings of England, take years to complete each hefty replacement. James Bettley, responsible for the new Essex volume, did not even have to bother with Ilford, Romford, Leyton and Walthamstow. With the setting up of the GLC and the new administrative boundaries of 1965, Essex, as the blurb to the Shell Guide quaintly puts it, ‘yielded London a score of her ancient parishes’. The area ‘lost’ to Greater London is safely stowed away in another recent Pevsner, London 5: East.
The relationship of Essex to London is, of course, the key to its character. The county, even though it lies to the less favoured (downwind) east of the capital, has always been a convenient retreat: about half a day’s ride or a long day’s coach journey away for medieval and Tudor kings or, since the mid-19th century, a commute of an hour or less for City workers, not to mention Essex men and girls. After monarchs, ranging from King John, whose hunting lodge was at Writtle, to Henry VIII, who built New Hall at Boreham (still standing), came Elizabethan lord chancellors (one is buried at Saffron Walden, another at Felsted) and Georgian lord mayors and City luminaries (too many to list).
Their families often stayed on, the lofty positions and titles of their ancestors mulched down into generations of Essex gentry, with little to sustain their memory other than nicely lettered monuments in small village churches. The Rev. John Bramston of Willingale was a quiet country parson in the 1780s. His forebear Sir John Bramston had been Charles I’s lord chief justice, and in 1635 he very prudently bought Skreens Park, a few miles west of Chelmsford. There he and his family remained, heads down, for the duration of the Civil War. Following a similar logic, a three-storey-deep indestructible bunker was built between 1952 and 1953 at Kelvedon Hatch, where it remained in readiness throughout the most heated episodes of the Cold War. From 1961 it was a seat of regional government. Now a museum, the gigantic, serviced rabbit warren is announced by brown road signs that read ‘Secret Nuclear Bunker’. Yet until its outing, the entire place was as invisible as the Bramstons’ great mansion, rebuilt and enlarged in the 18th and 19th centuries, sold in 1914 and gone without a trace by 1921.
Tightly corseted by boundaries with Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Greater London, cut horizontally by the M25 and vertically by the M11, A12 and A13, going left to right (in every sense), and bubble-wrapped by the Green Belt against accidental breakage or spillage, Essex has great need of its disorderly coastline as a respite. And it does not disappoint: a ragged sequence of fingers of land, formed randomly like dough after the rolling pin has been over it the first time, amounts to a staggering total length of 350 miles that zigzag along innumerable estuaries and inlets.
For just a few of those miles, everything seems well under control. Once the coastline gets to Frinton-on-Sea, where the ‘no charabancs’ sign used to be displayed prominently at the town boundary (mystifying me when I was a child, brought up to call a bus a bus), it straightens out only to go haywire again after Walton-on-the-Naze. And even Frinton itself, an 1890s middle-class development with strict bylaws against commercial activity (though the worst the enforcers could imagine were fish and chip shops and bed and breakfast signs) has not always been able to hide behind the prim skirts of the grandiose Edwardian hotels and well-kempt beach huts. Hardly a block from the front, where all is trim grass and nicely mannered red brick, comes an outbreak of white rendered and flat-roofed houses with wraparound sun windows – remnants of a failed development, as Bettley reminds us. Nor can the bylaws touch flukes of nature; the last time I was in Frinton the place was plagued by ladybirds, immense clouds of them with pebbly wings beating like fury, lodging in your nostrils, ears and mouth, or crawling to find shelter in your hair and clothes. The only escape from the claustrophobia of their attentions was down by the water’s edge: ladybirds can’t swim.
Frinton has sand – almost too much of the stuff, which means a dispiriting hike to the sea at low tide – but most of the rest of coastal Essex has mud. Pungent, viscous, pockmarked by the feet of birds, matted with hardy, salt-loving vegetation, littered with a wreckage of hulks and rackety houseboats, it is neither exactly sea nor exactly land and no place for the inattentive, let alone the dozy, either on foot or afloat. The mudflats can be inundated or exposed between one instant and the next. The estuaries, with their inlets and bifurcated waterways, are wildlife havens, seafood larders and a twitcher’s paradise. Yet their close neighbours, as the gull flies, are heavily populated, low-lying areas, once the plotlands to which droves of East Londoners headed between the wars and built themselves houses, unconstrained by bylaws or planning regulations: places like Canvey Island, which was the fastest-growing resort in the country between the wars; and Jaywick, which is divided in two – in the ‘better half’ the streets are named after flowers, in the other half after makes of motor car. In 1953, around the time Pevsner was visiting, dozens of people drowned around here, victims of the East Coast floods. Modern residents, corralled behind engineered defences, and now forced to kowtow to the regulations, have long forgotten that back then the water came from behind as well as from the front – and that was well before climate change.
People in coastal Essex are irresistibly drawn to look seawards, unless their line of vision is blocked by an apparently reassuring dyke. The burghers of Georgian Maldon must have wanted (and needed) to count the busy river traffic, incoming barges and other vessels carrying valuable cargo in which they had financial interests, so they topped their townhouses with glazed cupolas, offering views far out to the North Sea. Much earlier, the Marneys of Layer Marney fooled no one when they built a gatehouse up to the height of eight storeys, with four corner towers. This mad, flamboyant structure of tomato-red brick and terracotta offered a glorious prospect through the latticed casements, limitless views over their lands, rolling away to the east. Only a brief, worrying moment in the 1884 earthquake clouded the horizon or dimmed the Marneys’ illusion of effortless superiority.
Essex is always at the sharp end of any national alert, ready for whoever or whatever might be creeping up on England: Tilbury Fort did stout service through many conflicts with neighbours across the North Sea, scattered Martello towers rose to deal with the Napoleonic threat, while among the various versions of 20th-century defences, the ubiquitous concrete pillbox crept inland, sometimes to the most unlikely parts of the countryside, places the enemy would have been hard-pressed even to find, unless their parachutes had chanced to open directly overhead.
Inland, the twin county towns of Essex, Colchester and Chelmsford, are pulling in ostensibly different directions. Colchester, in my teens, provided both Tech and Rep – education and culture. Somehow, the borough’s more important status as the oldest recorded town in Britain (Roman Camulodunum) rather escaped me then, as did the fact that the Temple of Claudius (ad 54-ish) lay directly below the Norman castle, one of the least known and most evocative archaeological sites in England. Since the early 1960s, Colchester has gathered many more attributes, becoming a university town (of the ‘plate glass’ generation) and currently building its own international arts centre, designed by Rafael Viñoly, just behind the modest Minories Gallery, which was until very recently judged adequate for the artistic ambitions of the town.
But Chelmsford is the administrative capital of Essex and, for Dickens, ‘the dullest and most stupid spot on the face of the earth’, a view that Bettley, although an Essex resident, seems inclined to share – it’s his Liverpool Street Station. But a county town that can point to both a handsome new record office and a handsome old town hall, centred on an impressive parish church which has risen to the challenge of becoming a cathedral (just over a century ago), a pair of well-rated museums and a flourishing variety of market stalls, can’t be so easily dismissed.
Chelmsford lies just outside Gormandy (remember Teresa Gorman, ex-MP for Billericay?), the name that Smallweed in the Guardian used for the area around Southend and Basildon (soon to be the heart of the Thames Gateway). At the opposite extremity of the county stands the superb Norman castle of Castle Hedingham. Still largely intact, the turreted keep looms up on an impressive mount to reach almost a hundred feet. It is, quite simply, a thrilling building. Back further west, at the exit from Stansted Airport, brown tourist signs point drivers to another Norman castle, at Stansted Mountfichet. The website for Mountfichet Castle informs the curious that it is ‘a unique all-weather, all-in-one heritage entertainment complex’. While it is not, of course, the business or style of the Buildings of England to offer comment, let alone to be waspish, the late Ian Nairn got away with a fair share of oblique outrage in Surrey and Sussex. But Bettley does the job neatly: he can’t find a castle at all. ‘Destroyed 1215 and not rebuilt,’ he writes. Architectural tourists need not waste their time there. But in Gormandy a reconstruction in concrete and machine-cut timber has its own reality, described as a ‘time capsule’ which combines ‘prehistory, history and nostalgia’.
For its admirers, hunkered down behind the sandbags and ready for a long campaign, Essex is a continual delight, based above all on anomaly and paradox. Take Brentwood, the heartland of the Peniel Pentecostal Church, whose activities on the wilder fringes of the Conservative Party prompted the ex-newsman Martin Bell to take his white anti-sleaze suit out of the cupboard again in the 2001 election. The congregation is still there and keeping busy. But Brentwood’s pride is its Roman Catholic cathedral, astonishingly enough built between 1989 and 1991 and designed by Quinlan Terry, just as if it were in the 16th-century Veneto, despite its handy location for the M25. The architect, whose office is in Dedham (Essex), once a centre of Puritanism, is a hardline classical revivalist who says that the architectural orders were handed down by God. For those of us who take pleasure in the small accidents and ironies of life, Essex is definitely the place to be.