Essex is much misunderstood, a cliché lodged somewhere between suburbia and the green belt, thought to be a little bit shouty, a little fly-by-night, its edges nothing but mud flats and flotsam. But it’s time for a rethink. Because Essex, both the county I knew as a child and the one I’ve got to know so well since, can be reticent, and so it’s continually springing surprises.
West Mersea sands
To start at the beginning, St Peter-on-the-Wall, on the tip of the Dengie Peninsula, dates from the seventh century, one of the oldest church buildings in the country and, easterly as it is, a Celtic foundation. Utterly ancient and isolated. It’s a jigsaw of materials – a lot of them Roman – repurposed from the fort that was there first. The best approach is via the sea wall, an undeviating route towards that minute pinprick of a structure, watching it grow. Nature writer Robert Macfarlane pitched his tent on the water-facing side and wrote about it for The Wild Places. This is the nearest wilderness to London. Sea lavender, marsh and waves of migratory birds hog the view, all tonally between dun, silver and mauve, although I’ve seen a kingfisher flash by, momentarily electrifying the colour spectrum. Inland lies an ocean of farmland below sea level, much of it growing marrow-fat peas which go to the Far East before returning home covered in wasabi.
The Dukes Seafood
The remoteness attracts those trying to find peace, an alternative life and even obscurity. In the 1890s, a handful of Tolstoyan anarchists chose Purleigh, near Maldon, for a smallholding experiment. They welcomed Russian visitors as well as bemused locals, but soon moved west to a colony at Whiteway in the Cotswolds (it’s still there). However Tolstoy’s English editors, Aylmer and Louise Maude from Moscow, stayed behind in a dacha near Chelmsford, their son driving a goat around in his motorcycle sidecar. Where they’d lived became known as the Russian fields – though people had forgotten why. South Essex was home to an extreme Protestant sect, the Peculiar People, leading John Betjeman to write about their chapels and others about their grim lives. Recently, and with more cheer, Haredi Jews moved to Canvey Island from Stamford Hill for fresh horizons and more space.