Caught by the River

Essex Appeal: Part Two

17th May 2018

In his second column from the depths of Essex, Tim Burrows cycles from Clacton to Walton-on-the-Naze, and confronts a lifelong fear of heights. 

Essex, or at least its caricature, has more front than Southend. This column will attempt to ask: what’s hiding behind it?

Waves fling over the wall like well-sprung jack-in-the-boxes, the North Sea making pools on the promenade. It is Sunday and I’m pedalling a leaden hire bike through what feels like a gale from Clacton to Walton-on-the-Naze, on a mission to climb to the top of the Naze tower that overlooks the bedraggled cliffside there. I stop and watch as a sandpiper struggles to keep it together against the elements, staggering in a wide arc from the sea wall to some beach huts and back again. I know how you feel mate.

I’ve been here on the north Essex littoral since Friday, exploring what is sometimes referred to as the Sunshine Coast, presumably until trade descriptions get in touch. I have always been that odd thing, an introvert who doesn’t much like his own company, and it’s rare I’m alone for as long as this these days. All weekend I feel at cross-purposes, between the will to explore and the urge to return to Greta, my young daughter, and Hayley, who is seven – going on eight – months pregnant. I have been with Hayley ever since the evening I met her in a pub Southend-on-Sea, my hometown, when I was 18.  Without her I feel lost and self-conscious – a man in his mid-thirties wafting around off-season coastal towns. What’s he up to?

Visibility has been poor all weekend. I keep thinking I’m in Southend, not Clacton, as I look out to sea, the grand windfarm spread out at sea taking the place of the industrial Kent shoreline that faces my Thames Estuary hometown. I keep coming back to these Essex places, exhalations away from the tumult of London where I live these days. In gaps in schedules during the past six or seven years, I’ve headed for flat fields on the edge of estuaries or once-celebrated housing estates, B roads overlooking container ports, or MOD-guarded islands. And here I am again. Perhaps I’m trying to find something – but what?

Maybe I’m following a desire to outpace the assumptions of British culture’s narrow lens. Jaywick Sands’ position as the most deprived English neighbourhood earned it a starring role on Channel 5’s Benefits On Sea. Yet less famous is its friendliness to passersby. Walk up to someone going about their day with a greeting and you might receive a natter in return.

An upstart plotland development west of Clacton, Jaywick was hated by the authorities as soon as it appeared in the 1930s, but has grown into a sizeable community all the same. Bungalows were built on the beach itself, the residents of them told by the council that they weren’t allowed to live there. They ignored that directive and have acted in a similar vein ever since.

Tendring Council’s attempt to compulsorily purchase properties in the early 70s was met with such ferocity locally that councillors only escaped the public consultation via police escort. But the residents are in constant danger from flooding – they have been evacuated twice since 2013 – and the council says it is at the start of a process of rebuilding and rehousing locals within flood-resistant properties in Jaywick, although there is a long way to go.

These seaside towns were always a punt. There was little at Clacton, Frinton and Walton before the Victorian eruption in seaside holidays: they were sleepy places for farming and fishing when the coast was thought of more as a place for defending the realm against the French than a place of mass leisure, as the Martello towers dotted along this part of the world attest.

But decline shouldn’t be inevitable. One resident I spoke to told me wages are lower here than most places in the country, after years of tourism and service jobs. A lot of the people coming into a place like this are either retired or low-skilled and unemployed, sometimes at-risk (drug dependency, mental health issues), and sometimes rehoused by London councils. This might not be as big a problem if there was adequate provision in terms of well-regulated housing and humane benefits provision from UK government, but there isn’t. The resulting abandonment of hope has led many to think the only way forward is a leap into nostalgia, magical thinking about glory days returning that ends up with Brexit.

Another retired beachsider with stiffly swept-back white hair says he used to sing in the pubs and clubs of the East End of London, “and the singers these days just don’t cut it”. I ask about the sign on the front of his beachside bungalow, which depicts the initials TCB with a lighting bolt. “I was a big Elvis fan and he used to have this on his rings,” he says. “It means Taking Care of Business.”

Traces of London are ever present in Essex, even up here in the county’s further reaches. “Kings Cross born and bred,” says the man outside the social club when someone asks where he’s from originally. On Sunday morning I see fans in short-sleeved West Ham shirts wait stoically on the platform at Clacton-on-Sea station, waiting to make the journey to the London Stadium for their weekly penance – this time a particularly grim 4-1 beating by Manchester City.

The walk back from Jaywick along the beach the preceding afternoon had carried me somewhere else entirely. A second-degree hangover left me fumbling and anxious for most of the day, but out on these edges I felt all right. I was reminded of some verse by the New England poet Robert Frost that was quoted to me in the pub the night before.

The people along the sand / All turn and look one way. / They turn their back on the land. / They look at the sea all day.

As I head towards Clacton the hardy grass that characterises the Jaywick coastline makes way for an expanse of flat sand. It’s low tide. A young family are walking with their toddler, smiling in spite of the cold. A man limps with his dog before pausing at the edge of the water.

They cannot look out far. / They cannot look in deep. / But when was that ever a bar / To any watch they keep?

The next day I reach the Naze tower, pay my three pounds, and climb the iron spiral staircase, trying to surmount my lifelong fear of heights. But as I reach the metal door to the viewing platform, the howl of the wind seems to grow until – heavy breathing, palms sweating – I’m on the verge of a panic attack.

The Naze is a bit of land sticking out between the North Sea to the east and the marshland of Hamford Water to the west. It used to stretch for miles further out to sea than it does today, before farms and churches succumbed to the coastal erosion these soft clay cliffs are famed for. The tower was built for navigation and has stood for almost 300 years, but before the Crag Walk sea defence was built in 2011, people were only giving it a few years before it too succumbed to the elements. It’s still not certain how much longer it’s got.

I push at the door and stagger out to the viewing platform at the top of the tower. Gripping the wall, I steady myself, breathing deeply and attempting to focus on the misshapen cliffs below. Before long I can’t take my eyes off the shape of the land torn off by the elements as easily as orange peel, and imagine the bits of our country no one is getting back.