The Joy of Essex: In praise of much-maligned ancient county

In recent years, the ancient county has been associated with fake tan and melodrama. In fact, argues Jonathan Meades, it’s one of the most extraordinary parts of Britain

The Essex I have known all my adult life is grossly at odds with the Essex of popular mythology and hackneyed mediation.

The former, which is hauntingly photographed by Francis Hanly in our show The Joy of Essex, is a place of estuarine ooze, seawalls, pylons, Thames barges with sails the colour of dried blood, sail lofts, hoppers, hulks’ ribs, mussel shells, silos, tidal swell, saltings, epic skies, beached boats, causeways, marine scrap, isolated farmhouses, teetering pallet towers, marshes, ships looming over land and the ghostly vestiges of several utopias.

It is hardly surprising then that, even before it became a mecca for bling-related diseases and vertical tanning conditions, it should not have enjoyed the sort of kudos that attaches to, well, to just about any other county. With the exception of Saffron Walden and a handful of villages in its north it lacks the sine qua non of “true” Englishness: it is bereft of the picturesque.

Its beauty is, on the contrary, quasi-epic; it possesses grandeur rather than intimacy; it incites awe rather than fondness; it is harshly handsome, douceness is a rare commodity; it is often astonishing, seldom pretty. Prettiness has nothing to do with beauty, especially with a beauty that is so evidently mutable because it’s dependent on tides which remake every creek every day. This is a moon-made landscape which is also a waterscape. The ambiguity is potent. To look down on to the Walton backwaters is equally to look down on the Walton backlands. Such a sense of impermanence and of susceptibility to powers beyond our control is rare in these islands.

The semis, the bungalows, the cars and the clothes may be just the same as elsewhere but they do not occlude Essex’s extremism, its primitivism. Elemental change is accelerated here, it’s more apparent. That change serves as an emblem of human powerlessness. No matter how dogged they are, the questionably spiritual and the physically practical are both revealed to be provisional. The sea, formerly known as the German Ocean, is the enemy, the bounteous evil against which all defence is ultimately in vain. The devil apparently used to disguise himself as the sea and would attempt to breach dykes: the frequency of the name grimsdyke derives from grimr, Norse for devil, a quick-change artiste who could appear in manifold forms.

In the early Seventies, driving one Sunday morning from Maldon to Cambridge, I stopped for petrol at a rudimentary garage. From behind its wooden building there came in Indian file three gaunt men in black twill suits and moustacheless beards. A woman wearing a sort of celluloid bonnet followed them. Each carried a book. Plymouth Brethren? Peculiars? Whatever sect they adhered it was far from the social rite called Anglicanism. These were believers. Ascetics. They might have been the inventions of Flannery O’Connor or Grant Wood.

Topographical and climatic extremism obviously foment transcendentalism and religious delusion: witness the Abrahamic systems of superstition. Essex’s perviousness to sects, cults, devotional outreach, interfaith handshake hubs, to a sumptuous gamut of treats for the credulous is akin to that of a desert, a mountain top, a wilderness or, say, the Isle of Lewis, another place on the very  edge which invites the sane to shed rational appreciation of the wonders of geological happenstance and meteorological caprice and get praising. Inshallah. Mercy Lord.

The Joy of Essex is on BBC 4 on 29 January at 9pm. This piece was originally published on the website of the Rationalist Association http://rationalist.org.uk/today

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Junior Database developer (SQL, T-SQL, Excel, SSRS)

£20000 - £30000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Junior D...

Helpdesk Team Leader / Manager

£45000 per annum + pension,medical: Ashdown Group: A successful & reputable gl...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?