John Betjeman’s Essex

This September marks my 25th anniversary of arriving in Essex via the leafy (and not-so-leafy) suburbs of S’rf London.  Having reached a landmark birthday in July, I can now say that I’ve spent exactly half my life living and breathing Essex air – but I am still considered an outsider to those living within its more rural areas.  To say Essex is an “interesting” county is an understatement with its reputation as being one of England’s brashest and loudest counties – a reputation actively encouraged by television programmes such as The Only Way Is Essex. But, more positively, its long history is fascinating with a curious mix of influences from its neighbouring counties, alongside the local impact of monarch-enforced policies during the medieval and early modern period.

In 1958, John Betjeman (who became the Poet Laureate in the 1970s) complied a book on the churches of England.  He personally wrote the introduction to the chapter on Essex’s churches.  50 years later, much of his observations on Essex still hold true today.  Here are his pithy words, accompanied by my selection of images from vintage postcards and my own photographs, which I think perfectly encapsulates his words.  John Betjeman wrote about my Essex.  He wrote about the good, the bad, and the ugly (although not the beautiful Essex village of Ugly).


“Essex is a large square with two sides water.  It is a stronger contrast of beauty and ugliness than any southern English county.  Most of what was built east of London in this and the last century was a little bit cheaper and little bit shoddier than that built in other directions.  Southend is a cheaper Brighton.  Clacton a cheaper Worthing and Dovercourt a cheaper Bournemouth.  Over a million Londoners live Essex.  Leyton, Canning Town, Silvertown, Barking, Ilford and West and East Ham are all in the county.  Only the Norman parish church of East Ham and the scant abbey remains of Barking and Leyton parish church tell us that these were once country places.  Our own age has added the planned and sad dormitories of Becontree and Harold Hill.  Along the Thames bank factories and power stations can be seen for miles over the mud flats and the hills of Kent on the opposite bank look countrified by comparison.

East Ham Church

The 12th Century St Mary Magdalene, East Ham in the early 1900s

Barking Abbey 1818

Remains of Barking Abbey in 1818

Bradwell Power Station, 2012

Bradwell Power Station. Unsurprisingly, as it was built in the 1950s/1960s, I could not find vintage postcards of it. However, even modern postcard publisher didn’t think it worthy of a postcard. So, here is one of my own photographs taken in 2012 during one of our many walks around the banks of the River Blackwater.

But Essex is a large country and the ugliness is only a part of it.  The county has the deepest and least disturbed country within reach of London.  Between the Stour, Blackwater, Crouch and Thames Estuaries is flat agricultural scenery with its own old red brick towns with weather-boarded side streets like Rochford, Maldon and Georgian Harwich, the first named the headquarters of the Essex puritan sect, The Peculiar People.  Colchester is, as Dr. Pevsner says in Essex (Buildings of England Series), more impressive than any town in England for ‘the continuity of its architectural interest.  It began before the time of the Romans and lasted through to the 18th century’.  The flat part of Essex has not the man-made look of the fens.  It is wild and salty and its quality is well described in Baring-Gould’s novel of Mersea, Mehalah.  It is part of that great plain which stretches across to Holland and Central Europe.

Heybridge Basin

Heybridge Basin in the early 1900s. It is very much the same today with its weather-board clad cottages.

Maldon on the Mud

Maldon in the early 1900s. It is for valid reasons that the town is unkindly known throughout Essex as Maldon on the Mud. But, putting the oceans of mud aside, it is one of the nicest locations in the whole of Essex.

Osea and Northey Island from Maldon

Osea Island and Northey Island from the rooftops of Maldon town centre. Two of the beautiful but wild islands within the Blackwater Estuary. Osea Island has a Roman-built causeway which is exposed twice a day at low tide. It has been much used by film-crews needing a desolate and bleak island. Most recently it was used in 2012 as the location of Eel Marsh Island for Daniel Radcliffe’s Woman in Black. Northey Island also has a twice-daily uncovered causeway, and is the alleged site of the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD when the Vikings invaded England.

Most of inland Essex, east and north of Epping Forest, is undulating and extremely pretty in the pale gentle way suited to English water-colours.  Narrow lanes wind like streams through willowy meadows past weather-boarded mills and unfenced bean and corn fields.  From elms and oaks on hilltops peep the flinty church towers, and some of the churches up here are as magnificent as those in neighbouring Suffolk – Coggeshall, Thaxted and 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.

Thaxted Town Street

Town Street, Thaxted in the early 1900s

Thaxted Guildhall and Stony Lane

Thaxted Guildhall, with Stony Lane running along its side. The second house in the lane is known as “Dick Turpin’s House”, although there is no evidence that this notorious highwayman lived in the town.

Chiefly, Essex is a place of varied building materials.  “It would be interesting study from an antiquary of leisure to trace the various sources of materials employed in Essex church-building, and the means by which they were brought to their destination.” (G. Worly, Essex, A dictionary of the county, 1915).  To build their churches, the East Saxons and the Normans used any material that came to hand, Roman tiles, split oak logs, as at Greensted, pudding stone taken from the beach deposits and flints.  The 15th century tower of South Weald was made of ragstone brought across from Kent on the opposite shore.  But chiefly Essex is county of brick which was made here as early as the 13th century.  There are many brick church towers with unexampled beauty, red as bonfire; there are brick arcades and brick porches and brick window tracery.  And when they left off building churches in this beautiful red brick, moulded into shapes and patterned with blue sanded-headers, the Essex people continued it in houses until the past century.

Layer Marney Tower

The beautiful Tudor red-brick building of Layer Marney, where I was married.

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 elms and flints recall Constable.  The delightful little town of Deham and one half of the Stour Valley, be it remembered, are in Essex, and were as much an inspiration to Constable as neighbouring Suffolk, where he was born, and to which Essex is often so wrongly regarded as a poorer sister.  It may be poorer in church architecture, but what it lacks in architecture it makes up for in the delicacy and variety of its textures.”

© John Betjemin, Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, 1958

John Betjeman’s Essex is my Essex – full of textures that change from village to village, town to town.  And Essex is at its most beautiful bathed in the sunlight…

Beach Huts in Heybridge

Old wooden beach huts at Mill Beach on the River Blackwater

Sailing boats in Heybridge

Sailing boats by the Blackwater Sailing Club.  The red sails of a Thames Barge in the distance.

Saltcote Maltings

The sun setting over Saltcote Maltings.


Christopher Sexton, 1576

Christopher Sexton, Essexiae Comitat’ Nova Vera ac Absoluta Descriptio (1576)



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You may also be interested in
– Bishop’s Stortford Through Time
– The hidden treasures of Essex by Fred Roe
– The only way is Essex: A is for arsy-varsy

© Essex Voices Past 2014.



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