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

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
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

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin