I have spent the last decade and a bit living in Manchester1, but I am not a Mancunian. I’m not sure when, or if, that will happen. My husband has been here since 1994 and he still wouldn’t describe himself as such. I got married in Worsley and my children are definitely Mancunian but despite loving my city (yes it’s mine) I am not native. My accent marks me out for starters, all long ‘A’s and glottal stops. I still have trouble pronouncing Altrincham and everything north of the Manchester Ship Canal is a mystery.
Recently, my cousin posted a beautiful photograph on twitter which made me a tiny bit homesick for the Essex countryside. At the same time I was reading a book2 which was set a stone’s throw from where I grew up and it got me thinking about my corner of England.
In the 14 years that I’ve lived in the north, plenty of people have asked me where I’m originally from. Sometimes I say Colchester, as that is where I was born. Sometimes I say Harwich as that is the closest place to where I grew up that anyone might have heard of. Usually though, I just say Essex because it’s easier. But this is not the TOWIE wastelands of Romford and Harlow we’re talking about here, this is the Tendring Hundred. A corner of north east Essex, bordered by the river Stour to the north and the river Colne to the south. It has a coastline of, let’s just say, varying beauty and affluence and at its corner, acting as a gateway to the rest of the country, our oldest record town, Colchester.
Everyone knows someone from Colchester. It’s just big enough that everyone knows where it is. I could talk all day about it, about the ruined priory or the Roman wall or the strange house I lived in for a while which used to be a morgue. But I’ll save it for another day. Instead, I want to write about the expanse of countryside to the east, with the archaic name and the quilted fields.
Essex isn’t known for its countryside, I don’t think. Norfolk and Cambridgeshire have big skies and far-as-the-eye-can-see Fenland. Suffolk has pretty market towns and timber houses. Essex, to the public consciousness, seems to be a grey sprawl tacked onto the edge of London. But here’s the secret. Essex is gorgeous. And the Tendring Hundred, my little corner, is of course, the most gorgeous part of all.
I’m from the top bit, close to the Stour estuary. From the shore at Wrabness you can look out across the Stour to the Suffolk coast at Holbrook. As a child I would look out at the clock tower at the Royal Hospital School and, never bothering to ask what it what, imagine that it was some far off and exotic place. I’ve just checked the distance on Google maps, wanting to fact check my memory and it’s less than two miles as the crow flies. When I was a kid it may as well have been another continent. We would walk along the beach past the beach huts perched on stilts, laughing at their names, then up the cliffs and along the tops, through the woods, past the haunted house… and the smell of estuary sticks with me. Rock pools and crunchy seaweed. Now Wrabness is best known as the home of Grayson Perry’s ‘Julie’s House’ which sits perched on the edge of the land like a little sprinkle of glitter.
Head south-west from here and at some point you’ll see the water tower at Horsley Cross3. For the first 18 years of my life I could see it from my bedroom window and now, when we’re travelling home for visits, it’s the point at which my children stop asking if we’re nearly there, because they know that we are. I’ve just googled the water tower and it turns out it was built in 1952. Which is preposterous. How could that piece of landscape ever have existed without the tower as a centre point? Surely it was built by the Saxons? Or hewn out of the earth during the days of Pangea? To think it only just predates my parents is a ludicrous idea.
From Horsley Cross you could travel north to Manningtree but we’ll do that another day. You could travel east to Harwich and catch a ferry to Holland. Or a better idea. You could travel south to the seaside. And what a wealth of choice. You could visit so-strange-they-made-a-documentary-about-it Frinton. Or so-deprived-they-made-a-documentary-about-it Jaywick. You could go to UKIP voting Clacton on Sea (I said it was variable, ok?) and get a tattoo on the pier just like I did on my 18th birthday or you could spend the day in good old middle of the road Walton on the Naze. Walton has a tower too, which seems to be an unintentional theme here, the Naze tower perched on the crumbly and windswept cliffs overlooking the North Sea. The octagonal tower was built in 1720 and coastal erosion means it now feels perilously close to the edge of the world. From this point, you can see pretty much forever. Well, back along the coast to Frinton anyway.
Heading back inland, probably on the way to my parents’ house for a brew and hopefully in the sunshine, there will be field after field of golden oil seed rape. Excellent for bees although it makes their honey taste a bit cabbagy. Eventually, we’ll head home to sunny Manchester waving to the water tower on the way past. There’s nothing quite like moving away to appreciate where you’re from.
A few years ago my parents were visiting me int’ north and we were walking in the Peak District. We met another couple sitting on a bench about the same age as my parents and we struck up conversation. It was like the scene in Shaun of the Dead where the group meet their opposite numbers coming in the other direction. My mum said they were lucky to be surrounded by such lovely hills. The other woman said that hills were boring and she would rather live in Essex which was nice and flat. You can’t win.
- More specifically, Greater Manchester. We defected to just outside the city limits 3 years ago although if I stood on my roof I reckon I would be able to see the Beetham Tower, so ner.
- Hiding From the Light by Barbara Eskine. I love a good ghost story and this is a great ghost story.
- The picture of the tower on the front page, and the picture at the top were taken, by me, with a pinhole camera and were first posted on my other blog, the one with the pictures instead of the words, which can be found here