I had better tread carefully today.
For I tiptoe gingerly around the hallowed subject of Essex.
Do you even know where I mean? How far does this county’s reputation travel?
Essex. Most ancient county: older than England, even. It used once to be known as Ēastseaxe, the Eastern land of the Saxons: sitting on the north bank of the Thames as the old river surges down to Gravesend and the sea.
Served by the Misery Line to the City, that accursed rail link which keeps men in perpetual commuting hell, this is nevertheless a county of great natural beauty, when it is not busy being industrial.
And whenever I meet a citizen of Essex they spend some considerable time assuring me that they are both completely normal and moderately intelligent.
Britain labours under the most monstrous misapprehension: that those who live in Essex are a certain ‘type’.
For a definition of Essex Girl, I turn to Time Magazine, and Michael Elliot’s Smitten With Britain(2007).
He writes: “In the typology of the British, there is a special place reserved for Essex Girl, a lady from London’s eastern suburbs who dresses in white strappy sandals and suntan oil, streaks her hair blond, has a command of Spanish that runs only to the word Ibiza, and perfects an air of tarty prettiness. Victoria Beckham – Posh Spice, as she was – is the acknowledged queen of that realm.”
Essex Man does not get a much better deal. He was a popular stereotype in Margaret Thatcher’s time: a working class bloke with just enough wealth to be flash, who voted Maggie every time.
Many explain the Essex phenomenon by saying a large swathe of London slumdwellers travelled out from London to be rehoused, after the bombing of their homes, in the new towns of Harlow and Basildon in the old Saxon Eastern Kingdom.
So, they argue, the character of the Essex people was changed forever.
But I have news for those who hold this view.
For they can never have heard of the little village deep in the heart of Essex, named Coggeshall.
Oh, pearl of the East: a village of almost four thousand, perched on the Roman Road, Stane Street, at the meeting of some fairly hefty ley lines, with almost 300 listed buildings; Essex’s Best Kept Village in 1998 and 2001-3, and Eastern England & Home Counties Village of the Year in 2003.
Yet folklore holds it has always- for centuries- been a village of abject bunglers.
So much so, that in our language we have a saying for a ‘poor or pointless piece of work’: a Coggeshall job.
There was grass growing on the church roof, so the fairy tale goes. And the villagers had the perfect way to solve this problem: they winched a cow up on to the church roof to crop the grass.
Once – the storytellers add – a rabid dog bit a wheelbarrow, and the villagers took fright, and chained the wheelbarrow up, in case it went quite mad. When there was not enough wind for the village’s two windmills, they would relate, the people of Coggeshall knocked one of them down.
Pshaw, you retort. This is pure legend. Just supposition.
But just look at what happened during the Napoleonic Wars.
Just like other villages, Coggeshall was ordered to raise an army of volunteers to help the national effort. This it did, dutifully. But it consisted of 20 officers: and three privates.
The school’s teacher, Thomas Harris, wrote a very funny play about it. He lampooned the whole business wickedly: but the Coggeshall villagers had the last word. they took their children away from his school.
I’ll say no more. I have said quite enough about the dwellers of Ēastseaxe, and in particular this rather lovely little village, with the oldest brick-built Roman structure in England, a place which has given Christ Church College, Oxford, one of its Deans, and Harvard University one of its presidents.
Reputations are easily gained and difficult to shake.
But it’s so hard to ignore a good yarn.