Some years ago, the writer, essayist and filmmaker Jonathan Meades decided to produce an achingly intellectual televisual riposte to the ‘The Only Way is Essex’. Determined to demonstrate that there is more to Essex than fake tans and diamond geezers, he set about exploring its more sophisticated aspect. Motoring through the flat countryside, Meades purred in languid tones about the radicalism of those nineteenth-century idealists who sought to build a socialist utopia, or a ‘New Jerusalem’, in Essex. For Meades, Essex is an idiosyncratic county full of muddy estuaries, pre-war modernity and worthy social experiments. He visited Frederick Charrington’s Temperance Colony on Osea Island and Francis Crittall’s forlorn but once splendid model village of Silver End, with its Art Deco houses for glass workers. Indeed, there is a splendid website dedicated to ‘Radical Essex’ and it shines a fascinating light on this most varied of counties.
I am proud of my roots and as much as I enjoyed Meades pontification upon modernity and radicalism, the Essex of my childhood was much less lofty. In the late 1950s, my grandparents moved to Brightlingsea, a small fishing town along the coast from Clacton. It was already in rapid decline and this was accelerated due to the closure of the branch line to Colchester in the early 60s. By the early 1980s, the town was famous for little more than Reg White, the gold medal winning Olympic legend, who owned a boat building yard down by the quay. The devastating East Coast floods of 1953 had cost many lives and many people still had markers in their living rooms and kitchens to record the height that the deadly waters had reached. The town would have been all but forgotten had it not been for the infamous ‘Battle of Brightlingsea’ which lasted throughout most of 1995. The ill-fated plan to use Brightlingsea as the UK’s last remaining live export port catapulted the town from sleepy obscurity into the dazzling spotlight of the world’s media. Animal right activists blockaded the narrow streets thus bringing an end to the cruel trade. Just as Haussmann’s wide boulevards of Paris were designed to give the army and police the upper hand against potential revolutionaries, the streets of Brightlingsea gave the local townspeople the advantage against the heavy trucks with their payloads of pigs.
More recently, the dockside has been redeveloped with uber trendy and pricey apartments that reflect the gentrification of what was fast becoming a rundown, economically disenfranchised coastal town, like so many others around the UK. The shipbuilders and oyster fishermen have gone and the open top trucks which used to collect the women who worked in the herring processing sheds have long since disappeared. In their place are wine bars and smart restaurants. Nevertheless, Jaywick, a few miles up the coast officially remains the most deprived area in the country
After an extensive search that took in Canvey Island and the Isle of Sheppey, my grandparents purchased a shop on the corner of New Street and Francis Street. My grandfather was a police officer who had sustained a head injury and with fading eyesight and four children to feed, running a general convenience store seemed like a good idea at the time. Thankfully, he never did go blind, but my mother was not thrilled at the prospect of moving away from Worthing and the beautiful South Downs. The claustrophobic backstreets of Brightlingsea must have seemed like a real disappointment by comparison. Nevertheless, she went to Colchester Girls’ High School and that must have provided an escape from the small town provincialism of Brightlingsea itself. My uncles were not so lucky and they caught the bus to the secondary modern in Clacton where expectations were depressingly low.
If I am painting a grim picture of Brightlingsea then it is worth noting that, as a small child, I was absolutely enchanted by the place. Many of my earliest memories are of summer visits spent next to the boating lake up by the caravan park. Despite being more estuary than seaside, there were sheds selling jellied eels to cockney visitors who were on day trips from the East End. We went blackberry picking along the old railway line and dug castles with our cousins in the mud/sand. This was an era before budget airlines and in the summer months, Brigthlingsea retained the semblance of a seaside holiday destination. It was a happy place and there was a strong sense of community. In 1981, it was still possible to glimpse a cosy world that, in hindsight, was fast disappearing.
My grandparents’ shop was an Aladdin’s cave of delight for children. Giant glass jars filled with colourful sweets were on display in the windows. The crowded, wooden interior seemed to contain absolutely everything and I remember the excitement of going to the wholesalers in Colchester to buy new stock. I liked to sit on the stool behind the counter and play with the till. I would open and shut the cash desk delighting in the sound of the bell until such a point as my Grandmother would implore me none too gently to stop. She used to reach items on the higher shelves with her walking stick and there were any number of handwritten credit notes in the till – it was all rather chaotic. My grandparents were popular and kindly figures but the fundamentals of running a commercial enterprise had somewhat passed them by.
I remember the evenings crowded into the living room behind the shop. I remember sitting astride my uncle’s motorbike in the tiny backyard and playing with his alsatian Ruddles (yes, he really did name his dog after his favourite beer). I remember meeting my baby cousin for the first time in the same room. Trips to Colchester Castle or the beach at Frinton, where we used to fly kites and play in our rubber dinghy, were much loved highlights of our summers.
When I look back on my early childhood, these are the memories that count. Yes, we did go to Denmark and Austria but as my mother had an aversion to flying, that meant lengthy train journeys and cross channel ferries. Many of the most precious summer holiday memories, especially those with my father, took place in a sleepy backwater of Essex that some would consider ordinary or even dull.
This year, it is likely that many of us will not be able to travel abroad. That might seem like a disaster for us adults but I would suggest that many of our children will not be remotely bothered. Through the eyes of a five year old, Brightlingsea was an exciting prospect.
I love being close to the sea and it is not lost on me that some parts of Fleetwood look almost identical to Brightlingsea. When people say to me that I must find Fleetwood ‘very different’ it often strikes me that they would be surprised to know that it is almost entirely familiar and perhaps underlines why I have developed such an affection for the place. The friendliness of Fleetwood people and the rhythm of life in the town taps into my earliest memories.
This summer will be different but do not fret about your children missing out – they will most likely be just as happy pottering around on the sand behind school as they would be reclining on a sunlounger in the Maldives. Alas, we will not be taking up Boris’ generous offer of a holiday in the Falkland Islands or Tristan da Cunha but I might just take a trip down memory lane to that muddy but familiar creek in Brightlingsea.
Don’t get me wrong, I want a foreign holiday as much as anyone else but if this pandemic has taught us anything, then it is that our children are endlessly adaptable and, as such, a UK based holiday holds infinite possibilities for fun and enjoyment; even if the weather cannot be guaranteed. So I will be making memories on the Essex Riviera and hopefully getting over to County Galway once July comes. Incidentally, I am not someone who believes that children should attend endless ‘catch up’ classes during the summer and this is not just because of our outstanding teaching provision throughout lockdown. It is because this summer we should do everything within our power to ensure that we reconnect with our families and enjoy all those activities that have been put on hold since March 2020. We all need a little FUN!
My Essex owes little to TOWIE and/or Jonathan Meades. It is the stuff that childhood memories are made of and, for that, I will always love it.