07 July 2024

Farage embodies all
the reasons Betjeman
dismissed Clacton as
‘a cheaper Worthing’

The Fish and Eels by Dobbs Weir, close to the Greenwich Meridian Line … a quiet corner of Essex and Hertfordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Essex is the county that has elected the most MPs from the Reform UK party – Nigel Farage in Clacton and James McMurdock in South Basildon and East Thurrock. Perhaps I am being too unkind to Essex when I allow these results to bring to mind the observation by the poet John Betjeman that Essex is ‘a stronger contrast of beauty and ugliness than any other southern English county.’

Betjeman says, ‘Most of what was built east of London in the 19th and 20th centuries has been a little bit cheaper and a little bit shoddier than that built in other directions. Southend is a cheaper Brighton, Clacton a cheaper Worthing, and Dovercourt a cheaper Bournemouth.’

I’m sure we all had our ‘Portillo Moments’ late on Thursday night and into the early hours of Friday morning. I certainly had mine – but these two results in Essex are the most disappointing and among the most worrying and disconcerting.

On the plus side, Betjeman says Essex ‘also has the deepest and least disturbed country within reach of London … flat agricultural scenery with its own old red-brick towns with weather-boarded side-streets.’

For Betjeman, ‘The flat part of Essex … is part of that great plain which stretched across to Holland and Central Europe.’

Later this week, I am attending in Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, close to the borders of Hertfordshire and Essex, attending the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Previous conferences in High Leigh have provided me with opportunities over the years to visit spart of Essex that are less desolate than Clacton, including Newport and Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford, which is on the borders of Hertfordshire and Essex. Betjeman describes this part of England as ‘undulating and extremely pretty in the pale, gentle way suited to English watercolours. Narrow lanes wind like streams through willowy meadows, past weather-boarded mills and unfenced bean and corn fields.

‘From oaks on hill-tops peep the flinty church towers, and some of the churches up here are as magnificent as those in neighbouring Suffolk – Coggeshall, Thaxted, Saffron Walden and Dedham are grand examples of the Perpendicular style. Thaxted, for the magnificence of its church and the varied textures of the old houses of its little town, is one of the most charming places in Britain.’

Essex is often – and wrongly – regarded as a poorer sister of neighbouring Suffolk. But I agree with Betjeman that Essex looks its best in sunlight, ‘when the many materials of its rustic villages, the brick manor houses, the timbered ‘halls’ and the cob and thatched churches, the weather-boarded late-Georgian cottages, the oaks and flints, recall Constable.’

‘Near Essex of the River Lea’ (John Betjeman) … boats on the River Lea dividing Essex and Hertfordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Essex, by Sir John Betjeman

“The vagrant visitor erstwhile,”
My colour-plate book says to me,
“Could wend by hedgerow-side and stile,
From Benfleet down to Leigh-on-Sea.”

And as I turn the colour-plates
Edwardian Essex opens wide,
Mirrored in ponds and seen through gates,
Sweet uneventful countryside.

Like streams the little by-roads run
Through oats and barley round a hill
To where blue willows catch the sun
By some white weather-boarded mill.

“A Summer Idyll Matching Tye”
“At Havering-atte-Bower, the Stocks”
And cobbled pathways lead the eye
To cottage doors and hollyhocks.

Far Essex, – fifty miles away
The level wastes of sucking mud
Where distant barges high with hay
Come sailing in upon the flood.

Near Essex of the River Lea
And anglers out with hook and worm
And Epping Forest glades where we
Had beanfeasts with my father’s firm.

At huge and convoluted pubs
They used to set us down from brakes
In that half-land of football clubs
Which London near the Forest makes.

The deepest Essex few explore
Where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers
And out of elm and sycamore
Rise flinty fifteenth-century towers.

I see the little branch line go
By white farms roofed in red and brown,
The old Great Eastern winding slow
To some forgotten country town.

Now yarrow chokes the railway track,
Brambles obliterate the stile,
No motor coach can take me back
To that Edwardian “erstwhile”.

‘At huge and convoluted pubs’ (John Betjeman) … the Coach and Horses, a large 17th century inn in Newport , Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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