Frinton-on-Sea: last outpost of a long-forgotten Empire

It's residents campaigned against the pub, banned ice cream on the beach and support the UKIP in droves. <i><b>Michael Collins</b></i> on the seaside town that time forgot
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Indy Politics
At first sight, you could mistake it for a Tory heartland. Famously, many of Frinton's residents are in their dotage and adhere to a sartorial decorum and a social etiquette of a bygone age

"We lost out to the pub, I suppose now we'll lose the pound." They are the words of an elderly woman who's discussing Europe in between talking about D-Day. She's talking to a queue in the local bakers, where she's buying "a small, uncut tin" loaf. Her fears and reminiscences are echoed by those in earshot. This is Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, where sterling and sovereignty are big talking points.

At first sight, you could mistake it for a Tory heartland. Famously, many of Frinton's residents are in their dotage (a phrase which gets short shrift locally is "Harwich for the Continent, Frinton for the incontinent") and adhere to a sartorial decorum and a social etiquette of a bygone age. In fact, visiting Frinton is a little like being in a play, directed by David Lean and starring Celia Johnson. Indeed, Noel Coward used to holiday in Frinton and it was home to Ursula Bloom, a novelist in the style of P G Wodehouse who described a genteel café society.

But the residents of Frinton are those recently dismissed by Michael Howard as "extremists" and "gadflies". This quiet seaside town has a groundswell of support for the United Kingdom Independence Party. Mr Howard is not the first high-profile MP from the main parties to take potshots at UKIP. Since the party gained momentum at the previous European election, many have tried to taint it with accusations of racism that have proved unfounded. A Liberal Democrat MEP was forced to admit: "They're not fascists, they're not corrupt and they're not morons. Some of their members are headbangers, though."

In Frinton front gardens, the boards of support emblazoned with a huge "No", in which the "o' is that starry symbol of the European Union, grow between the lupins. The town is regarded as UKIP HQ, the home of the "Little Englanders" the party reputedly represents. The term itself first became part of common parlance in the 1890s, as a means of dismissing those opposed to further expansion of the British Empire.

These days, it is brought into service to round up those opposed to the expansion of European power, as determined from Brussels. Writing in the wake of the 1999 European elections in which UKIP became the fourth biggest party in Britain, and the only one calling for complete withdrawal from the EU, Matthew Engels suggested that UKIP was attempting to bring "Frinton's world view" to Europe.

One of its MEPs and the former party leader - and, before the inauguration of Robert Kilroy-Silk, the most press worthy - is Jeffrey Titford. An established Frintonian, he is the man behind the town's most prominent funeral service. Before retiring and eventually taking up the reigns of UKIP, his work rarely took him further than Harwich. Because of the demographic in this patch of East Anglia, death is big business.

For a long time, Frinton was described as "the town of temperance" because of its refusal - largely due to the strident activism of its resident's association - to allow a pub to open "within the gates". "The gates" refers to the level crossing that separates Frinton's main stretch from the rest of the world. Inside "the gates" exist rows of monied avenues reaching towards the golf and tennis club - where you'll find "the Happy Valley set", as one resident describes them - and, at its other extreme, a peppering of exquisite art deco houses so picturesque they warranted a feature in Country Life in the 1930s. These were to be the first of many similar properties, intended to transform the neighbourhood into a monument to that mode of architecture. The plans were thwarted by the war.

The battle against the arrival of the pub was lost in 2000 but with some appeasement to local wishes. The Lock, Stock & Barrel is housed within the town's former, expansive hardware store and much of the exterior has remained intact.

The pub is on the town's central shopping street, Connaught Avenue. It is here that all the shops within the gates are assembled. Once known as the "Bond Street of East Anglia", it retains a touch of that faux continentalism that owes more to a Victoria Wood sketch than the European community. Above the door of one hairdresser, hangs the name Renée Leonard, and, until recently, a boutique held the title of "Snaffles featuring Madame Baldwin". The boulangerie and the delicatessen however, are part of more recent developments within Frinton. They are considered symptoms of creeping Europeanisation and are frowned upon by some.

Certain larger houses facing the greensward - a thick grassy margin between Frinton's suburban aspect and its beach huts and sandy shore - are being demolished, as their older, wealthier inhabitants die, or depart for foreign climes (Gibraltar and Florida are favoured by Frintonians). Property developers are moving speedily to knock-up apartments and retirement homes. The splendid, sprawling, white colonial-style home "Hollywood", once owned by the actor Douglas Fairbanks, is in the process of having such a structure erected on what was previously the house's front lawn, with its bird's-eye view of the sea.

Back at the bakery, the elderly woman is leaving with her loaf of bread and voices her criticism of the changes. "It was always self-contained here and you didn't even need to go beyond the gates. Now there's the pub, and a fish-and-chip shop, and all these new buildings in every spare garden. We used to have only daytrippers here. Now they arrive in coachloads'.

Frinton remains self-contained, with its main shopping stretch relying on local family businesses, and with scant sign of the superstores that have colonised so many high streets elsewhere. It is that untouched local culture which is part of the attraction for a new generation. More are remaining in Frinton after they leave school and many are moving in from elsewhere, downsizing, taking on smaller houses and working close by instead of commuting.

The old-fashioned strictness of the place hasn't put off a younger populace. Frinton is notorious for its numerous bylaws including rules that ban hawkers and ice-cream vendors from the beach and promenade. And you can forget about picnicking on the greensward. The last thing Frinton wants is to turn into the same kind of seaside town as it's tackier neighbour, Clacton. There was a fuss when signs were changed from imperial to metric and, when locals walk their dogs, they always carry a small bag to clean up after them. The gardens and borders of Frinton are well looked after, bursting with flowers and hanging with tumbling baskets. You'd never think that a place like this could also be home to a thriving swingers scene - there's a website dedicated to wife-swapping in the district - but that's the only blot on Frinton's landscape.

"Frinton, has always been the place where you can walk around with your head up your arse", says part-time gardener Liz Gregory who has lived here since she was 10. "It's as though the world outside doesn't exist, and, within the gates, it's 1959."

During the school run, a neighbour accompanies her, and adds: "It's a great place to be until you're 13, and somewhere to return to when you're close to 40. It's got things that you can only appreciate when you're very young or middle-aged. The little trouble there is comes from teenagers with nothing to do."

That tallies with a recent development that has caused consternation. A couple of years ago, a teenage gang calling themselves the Hubcaps were living up to their name by stealing hubcaps from cars, and spray painting their moniker on the immaculate shelters on the greensward. Increasingly, "hooded youths" have become a problem - some blame the pub, which reputedly brings in teenagers from Clacton - and there are now measures to find a solution or a palliative. The Spar supermarket has a security guard. The train station plays classical music, fortissimo, from the platform speakers. It is intended to have a sobering effect on the young, and placate the elderly.

But with its youth, attuned to the modern world outside the gates and in the confines of the European parliament, with UKIP support expecting to result in a protest vote in Thursday's elections, and with more than 50 per cent of the nation reported to favour withdrawal from the EU, or be against the euro, Frinton-on-Sea may not be the only pocket of the island that votes to remain red, white and blue.

The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class by Michael Collins, will be published by in July.

HEROES OF MIDDLE ENGLAND: UKIP'S MEPS

Nigel Farage, MEP for the South-east

A commodities broker from Kent and the driving force behind the UKIP, he was a founding member in 1993 and party chairman from 1997 to 2000 before being elected to the European Parliament in 1999.

Graham Booth, MEP for the South-west

A former deputy party leader, Mr Booth, 64, is a lifelong resident of Paignton, Devon, who left school at 16 and ran his family holiday business for 40 years before going into semi retirement in 2000 "to devote more time to UKIP". His hobbies include water skiing and coin collecting.

Jeffrey Titford, MEP for the Eastern Region

A retired undertaker and former UKIP leader, he was elected an MEP in 1999. A former Conservative, he also campaigned for the Referendum Party in 1997.

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