It’s been 11 years since I first packed up my things and moved to Essex so I feel pretty well qualified to act as a mole from within. A spy. Someone who will happily shed some light on what it’s really like here, despite what’s on the TV and in gossip columns.
The very word “Essex” has the ability to make people shudder, to evoke a thousand stereotypes and negative connotations. Yes, it’s true that there are people here who are fond of a less-than-natural aesthetic. But don’t tell me that those people don’t exist elsewhere. That’s popular culture, the reality TV generation and not just in this fair county, it’s UK-wide (forget The Only Way is Essex, have you seen Geordie Shore? Desperate Scousewives? The Valleys?)
I’m often asked what on earth I’m doing here, this is the normal reaction when people find out that my real ‘home’ town is in fact Edinburgh. “Why would you move from such a beautiful place to……here?”.
The truth is that it was a bit of an accident. I worked for a very large brewery (how’s that for a Scottish stereotype?) and moved to Brentwood to run a pub. Within months, I had met the man who kept me here and eventually became my husband (despite our first conversation involving him asking for the head office address to write them a complaint…..the romance!).
In 2007, we relocated to Leigh-on-Sea and unless something spectacular happens, this is where we shall stay. The list of reasons as to why we love it here is long but I’ll spare you (I won’t really, I can’t resist). Suffice to say that I have seldom met such a bunch of friendly, creative, hard-working, artistic, house-proud and downright lovely folk. People work hard here and aspire to better lives, something passed down from their families, many of whom survived a bleak East London in wartime. This history also lies at the root of their gallows humour. They are often well-spoken, well-travelled (ie further than Marbella) and well-educated.
A small town within the borough of Southend-on-Sea, Leigh dates back to 1086 when it was first mentioned in the Doomsday Book. In my opinion, it has everything you could possibly want, excellent transport links to London, airports close-by, fantastic schools, award-winning beaches. And the cultural side, wow. We rarely leave the town in the summer months, too busy attending Leigh Art Trail, Leigh Folk Festival, Village Green, Leigh Regatta, Leigh Fishing Festival, wandering in the Old Town, checking out the art galleries, jazz performers and sipping flat whites at Barlow and Fields….the list goes on. But my biggest reason for being so happy here is the people. It’s a wonderful place to raise our daughter. Did I mention that it was voted the 2nd best place to live by the sea? And I’ve been to Christchurch in Dorset and it is splendid, so we’ll let them have number one spot. For now.
Essex is a vast county with so much to offer yet I’ve only just scratched the surface in my decade as a resident. You know those beautiful little villages with cricket on the green, a rustic pub, a duck pond and postcard homes with thatched roofs? Tick! There’s an immense amount of history here. Stepping away from the TV portrayal, the possibilities are endless. Whether it’s wandering through Maldon on a blustery winter’s day, rummaging for treasure in Battlesbridge, fish and chips on Mersea Island, relaxation at Lifehouse Spa in Thorpe-le-Soken, animal impressions at Colchester Zoo, ice lollies on the end of Southend Pier, visits to Cressing Temple and St-Peter-on-the-Wall. With the redevelopment of Southend Airport, you can now whizz through a tiny terminal and find yourself in a whole host of cities in super-quick time.
I don’t exist completely in cloud cuckoo land, of course there are some dire places, deprivation and issues with crime, drugs and under-performing football teams. Essex has its fair share of poverty and social issues, that’s for sure. But show me somewhere that doesn’t.
This is home now and I, for one, am very happy here. I despair that the friends I have made here are judged so quickly the very minute that Essex is mentioned. It’s actually just a lazy joke. I do not have a chihuahua in my handbag. I have never seen a white stiletto. In fact, some of the most stylish people I know live here, people who dance to the beat of their own drum and frankly wouldn’t be seen dead in a ‘onesie’ or a shiny white Range Rover.
But actually, the dreaded TOWIE effect does have its benefits. While the rest of the country mocks us and sneers at our hair extensions and vajazzles (don’t ask), we are quietly getting on with life, enjoying one of the best places that England has to offer.