Go Away! - to East Anglia
popular with the combustible cocktail of dog walkers and kite surfers
When John Peel appeared on Room 101 in 2002 he put forward an unusual range of items he wanted to banish. Among them were men with beards, colds, shopping for clothes, death, and driving through Essex. Keen to dispel the reputation of this much misunderstood county, our plan was to start in Maldon on the Blackwater Estuary and drive north, exploring Essex's coastal landscape.
The A12 starts in East London and ends in Great Yarmouth, and is characterised by the lorries that monopolise its inside lane on their way to the International Ferry Terminal at Harwich. During the first part of our journey we became caught up in the road's heavy flow, in the hope of being washed up on some unfamiliar beach by way of one of its tributaries.
On the remote Dengie peninsula (Dingy peninsula? - ed.), the characteristically flat landscape is amplified. The simple forms of Bradwell Power Station sit comfortably on the horizon between the sea and the sky. Much of the land was taken from the sea, but is now under threat of being taken back. The power station sits as a fine but guilty monument between earth and sea, past and future. The sea walls look on nervously as you imagine the soldiers did who kept watch from the concrete pill boxes around here. This is a landscape of considerable beauty, but it is not a cover star, often overlooked for petrified images of coastal vernacular. We visited the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-wall at Bradwell-on-Sea. Built by St Cedd in 654AD, it is a calm space in which to shelter from gusts of wind blowing in off the sea.
Accessed via a causeway susceptible to flooding by spring tides, Mersea Island is the unlikely home of a vineyard; its rows of vines basking on a south facing hillside give a strangely continental feel to the landscape. No doubt the owners of the surprisingly up-market beach huts at West Mersea enjoy a glass or two of white with their locally caught oysters. This impression of decadence is in stark contrast to the vulnerable, more remote East Mersea. More ruined pill boxes - damage caused by the erosion of the cliff face - lie fallen behind a system of silt traps, providing a constant reminder of the cause for which they are fighting.
A detour to Silver End uncovered the 20th century's earliest example of a planned village and garden community. We feasted on the art deco architecture, although it soon became clear that it is no museum piece. Rather we found a hard working collection of houses, a quality which no doubt their creator, the industrialist Francis Henry Crittall, would have approved of.
Walton-on-the-Naze out of season. The amusement arcade on the pier is eerily quiet, the beach deserted and its tiers of huts in hibernation. We buy some sticks of rock and flick through the stands of naughty old postcards.
At Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast we hit a rich seam of one of the UK's best raw materials: fish & chips on the beach are followed by a lucrative visit to one of the fish huts (also on the beach), selling fresh local catches.
We arrive at Dunwich to find it being nibbled at by the North Sea. It is a mysterious place, the essence of which is captured by Brian Eno on his album Ambient 4: On Land. Part of the town has already gone to a watery grave, where it was lying with nothing to betray its final resting place on the calm sunny day we visited.
We cut inland and headed for the classic good looks of the North Norfolk coastline, re-surfacing first at Blakeney, where seals can be spotted beyond the expanse of salt marsh off Blakeney Point. At Wells-Next-The-Sea a pine forest provides a dramatic background to the line of beach huts and white sandy beach. The elegant sand bars create beautiful variations in water conditions: still lagoons give way to the turbulence of the open sea. On the vast beach at Brancaster leisure pursuits prevail, and it is particularly popular with the combustible cocktail of dog walkers and kite surfers.
What we discovered in East Anglia was a landscape whose marriage with the sea was at first part of its charm, although a little probing revealed some strains. In Essex the coastline was often engineered and scarred, but ultimately more beautiful for these imperfections. As we travelled further north the blemishes began to heal, although the same abiding expanses of open space and big skies were ever-present throughout. Without wishing to be too heavy handed about it, a holiday in East Anglia is a great way to explore your own spaces and coastlines. With enough by way of revivifying pub stops along the way, it's also a whole lot of fun.
A maroon 2001 Ford KA. Or take the train: change at Peterborough, Birmingham, Derby, or London.
T - 01485 210256