Visitors find the only way is the Other Essex
The white-stilettoed stars of ITV2's reality show have boosted interest in the county's more natural attractions
Sunday 20 March 2011
For a television show to depict Essex as a world of white stilettos, vajazzled women and monosyllabic men is hardly revelatory; after all everyone has heard the age-old jokes about the mental aptitude of the county's female population. Which means many of the scenes in tonight's opening episode of The Only Way Is Essex should hardly come as a shock.
What might surprise anyone catching the small-screen inhabitants of the reality drama for the first time is the effect that the show, which returns for a second series this evening, has had on the coastal county. Far from reinforcing stereotypes, the show has sparked something of a rush for hotel beds, prompting optimism among local tourist chiefs about the region's prospects for this summer.
Granted, the subtleties of The Other Essex – a land of rolling countryside, brilliant birdlife (in the true sense of the word "bird") and one of the longest coastlines of an English county – may have escaped the producers, but locals can at least seek solace from the fact that visitors have broader minds.
Since The Only Way Is Essex first aired last autumn, the travel website hotels.com reports that bookings have soared by 140 per cent. Towns across the county are sharing in the boom, which tourist officials attribute to the area's natural beauty – in direct contrast to some of the distinctly unnatural beauties in the show.
And as for the myths about the intellectual abilities of half of the county's population, Dee Gordon, a longstanding champion of The Other Essex and author of books including Infamous Essex Women and Essex's Own, answers: "It is a shame that national television is undermining Essex in this way, and that such a shallow group of individuals have been singled out for attention. There are more reading groups in Essex than in any other county." She points to scores of people who smash the stereotypes seen in the ITV2 show, ranging from the actress Dame Maggie Smith to the scientist Joseph Lister to fellow authors and Dodie Smith and Tony Parsons.
Anyone doubting her has only to take a visual tour of the county, starting with the green hills and moody low skyline that inspired the painter John Constable: some of his best-known landscapes depict areas of Essex. Then there are the Essex marshes: ornithologists and nature lovers flock to the vast area in the Thames Gateway that proves such a magnet for migratory birds, which use the wetland as a pit-stop en route to warmer climes. And that's not to mention the many other binocular-worthy creatures, from marsh frogs and muntjac deer, also known as barking deer because of the noise they make.
And, for those who prefer books to walking boots, Essex boasts an annual literary festival in March, which attracts writers including Andrea Levy, David Baddiel and Will Hutton.
Then there's the art. Old masters line the walls at Southend's Beecroft art gallery, while co-operatively run galleries thrive in the fishing town of Wivenhoe and in picturesque Leigh-on-Sea. Factor in the many Victorian gardens, sculpture trails, medieval castles and vintage fashion fairs, and the trash-tag quickly peels off this much maligned English county.
The crime writer Martina Cole, who grew up in Averly, Essex, is infuriated by shows that perpetuate stereotypes. "It's an insult to all the hard-working people in Essex. If [producers] bothered to do their research properly, they would find that Essex girls have a higher-than-average pass rate in exams."
Others are annoyed that the TV Essex relates only to a small, urban area within the M25, which bears no relation to the broader, rural county. "There is a selfishness and brashness in parts of metropolitan Essex that is not in the rest of the county," says Bob Russell, Lib Dem MP for Colchester.
Essex facts: History, castles, stately homes, wildlife and walks aplenty
The coastline 350 miles of it, one of the longest of any English county, and featuring the world's longest pleasure pier at Southend.
Naze tower, Naze Panoramic views of Essex from the octagonal top of this landmark; work by the region's best artists line the walls of a gallery inside.
Medieval castles Take your pick, the area's full of them. Hedingham and Mountfitchet are recommended, as is Colchester's Norman keep.
Stately homes English Heritage's Audley End House, near Saffron Walden, with its Capability Brown designed grounds, is a high spot.
Essex Marshes Bracing walks with tremendous bird- and wildlife-spotting potential.
Walk the Essex Way Starts at Epping and ends at Harwich, winding its way through ancient woodland and historic villages as it goes.
Constable country Flatford and Dedham – inspiration for the Romantic painter's famous landscapes.
Wivenhoe An attractive fishing town that has become an artistic and bohemian centre.
Parks aplenty Including the Weald and Hadleigh country parks.
History If archaeology is your thing, Essex has ruins all over the county. Colchester, Britain's oldest recorded town, has more than a mile of Roman walls still intact.
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