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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy