The hidden gems of Essex

Essex has got a bad reputation, unfortunately.

As soon as you mention to anyone that you live there, out come the unkind stereotypes about “Essex girls” and, should the perpetrator be of a certain age, their fake tan and white stilettos. Or if they happen to be a bit younger, vajazzling and TOWIE.

Which is all a bit unfair really. Because, although some of the more deprived areas that many people over-identify with the county such as Dagenham and Harlow leave a lot to be desired, the same could be said of any post-industrial or new town anywhere in the UK.

And I can’t say that the majority of people I’ve met since moving here are any louder, brasher or more promiscuous than anywhere else either – although I must confess that I’m not that taken with the local form of Estuary English, which, like the grey squirrel, has now more or less supplanted its more traditional rural counterpart in the more urbanised south of the county and is starting to wend its rather whiny way to the green and pleasant lands of the north.

Saffron Walden, North Essex
Saffron Walden, North Essex

Anyway, the problem with stereotypes is that they tend to mask the hidden charms of a place (or person for that matter) under layers of prejudice and misunderstanding – and that’s definitely the case here. But to fail to see Essex for what it really is means that you end up missing a trick, not least due to the diversity of its landscapes.

There’s little similarity, for example, between the nature reserve-protected salt marsh and mudflats of Wallasea Island near Southend-on-Sea, with its native oyster community; the ancient, former royal woodland of Epping Forest on the outskirts of London, and the charming, rural, rolling north, with its tiny, innumerable picture-postcard towns and villages.

But that’s Essex for you – ram-packed full of unknown, or underestimated, little gems. And I was lucky enough to discover one of them on a Sunday afternoon jaunt to Coggleshall, a pretty, antique little place between Braintree and Colchester –incidentally the oldest recorded town in Britain – in the company of my mam a few weekends ago.

Coggeshall lace

We’d decided to make a visit to Paycocke’s house and garden, a National Trust property that was built by wealthy clothing merchant, Thomas, in 1509. The aim of this sojourn was to observe a lace-making demonstration for Coggeshall Lace Week as we fancied seeing how it was done.

Paycocke's House
Paycocke’s House

But it wasn’t necessarily quite what we’d expected. For one thing, Coggeshall lace isn’t actually lace in the classic sense. Instead it’s net that’s been decorated in chain-stitched embroidery using cotton or silk threads, and even beads in some cases.

This style of “tambour lace” – so-called because workers in the Far East where it originated, used a round frame like a drum that they gripped with their knees to stretch the net in order to work it – was brought to Coggeshall by a French emigre called Monsieur Drago along with his two daughters in 1812.

They taught the craft to the good women of Coggeshall and surrounding villages, albeit on a rectangular rather than round frame, who in their turn sold it on to dealers and manufacturers as a cheaper alternative to the more traditional bobbin lace being made in places like Nottingham.

It was at the time used for everything from handkerchiefs; collars for blouses; frills and flounces for dresses, and even wedding veils – and in its heyday was stocked, among others, by the upmarket Liberty department store in London.

Interestingly though, the industry was given a bit of a boost by Derbyshire-born inventor and entrepreneur, John Heathcoat. He had pioneered the bobbinet tulle net-making process in 1808 and set up a factory seven years later in a converted mill in Loughborough, Leicestershire to mass-produce it.

Which was great for the Coggeshall lace ladies as not only was this kind of net a lot cheaper than the more traditional “pillow lace” – so-called because of the pillow used to create it – but its octagonal rather than round holes also made it much less likely to sheer when worked.

Unfortunately for the domestic workers of south Nottinghamshire though, this very same innovation massively undercut their hand-produced goods – and so the Luddites paid Heathcote a visit and wrecked his precious machines. At which point he scuttled off to Tiverton in Devon, taking what was left of his inventions with him and turning the town’s fortunes around in the process.

Strange but true

In fact, his factory still exists to this day in the form of Heathcoat Fabrics, which sells engineered textiles to industries such as transport, aerospace and the military and employs more than 400 people.

Anyway, after this little blip with Heathcoat, the market for machine-made Nottingham lace took off and continued to thrive until the First World War when global trade was hammered, a scenario that the industry never really recovered from.

Coggeshall lace production, on the other hand, had started suffering as early as the 1860s, when the first chain stitch sewing machines began appearing on the market. An already difficult situation was made even worse 20 years later, however, when the first of the Anglo-Boer Wars kicked off. The big problem here was that the fabric on which the lace was based ended up being used to manufacture mosquito nets and so became really scarce.

Old Lace Shop, Coggeshall
Old Lace Shop, Coggeshall

By the 1930s, things had got so dire for the lace makers that they made a last desperate attempt to secure royal patronage in a bid to revive their fortunes. This led to three handkerchiefs being specially created for Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark when she married Prince George, the Duke of Kent and fourth son of King George V, in 1934. Dresses were also made for their subsequent child, Princess Alexandra, as well as the current Queen and her sister Princess Margaret. But to no avail – the financial return was simply too meagre.

As a result, the only person left in Coggeshall making lace these days is a lady called Sue Game. She still teaches the craft to anyone in the area who’s interested but, happily for tradition, it’s also possible to gain instruction as part of a City & Guilds vocational skills course in lace making apparently. It’s an art that’s also practised by a few members of the Lace Guild so it’s not quite over yet.

Anyway, a final thought on the wonders of Essex – or at least my top three favourite facts about the place:

1 The first crocodile was brought to the UK in 1701 by Richard Bradley who kept it in the lake at his home in Braintree

2 Paper Lace’s 1974 hit pop song “Billy don’t be a Hero” was written in the lounge bar of The Old Dog Inn, Herongate Tye near Brentwood

3 People living in Essex are 38% more likely to be hit by falling aeroplane parts than anywhere else in the UK.

What more can I say.

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Heritage skills: Looking backwards, moving forwards

I’ve never been entirely convinced by the term “progress”. It’s one of those weasel-words that politicians wheel out when they’re trying to convince you to buy into something controversial like fracking because it’s ultimately “for your own good” – even if you can’t quite see it yet.

It’s also the kind of word that companies like Monsanto employ to reassure you that their genetically-modified products won’t have environmental repercussions on an epic scale.

That’s despite the obvious risks in terms of generating monocultures and reducing biodiversity (a case in point being the Irish Potato Famine, where dependence on a single “lumper” variety of tuber made the spread of blight much worse than it otherwise might have been).

Then there’s the creation of almost-impossible-to-manage Frankenstein-like superbugs and superweeds. Not to mention the totally immoral issue that farmers are unable to harvest and sow seeds from last year’s crops. This means, of course, that they’re subject to the expense of having to buy new ones each year – something that can and does cause real hardship among people in the developing world.

TraditionalFarming

So anyway, as I said, I’m not entirely convinced by the well-worn notion of “progress”. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am, if anything, something of a Luddite, a characteristic that frequently causes my Beloved to shake his head in despair over my unwavering ineptness in the face of even the simplest of electronic tasks.

The other side of this seeming inability to master life in the 21st century though is my attraction to all things heritage – an interest that was rekindled recently by applying for an editor’s job for the in-house magazine of a little charity called the Small Woods Association.

While unfortunately I didn’t actually get the position, at least they had the decency to inform me of the fact by email rather than just leave me to hang as so many organisations seem to do these days. An old-fashioned courtesy much appreciated.

Anyway, the Association’s remit is, as its name suggests, to represent the interests of the owners of, and workers in, small woodlands, which apparently make up 25% of all forest cover across the country – some 422 hectares in total.

The value of trees

While this may sound a lot, according to the Woodland Trust charity, of which I’m a member, in reality it means that a mere 13% of the UK is covered in trees, which sadly is less than almost every other country in Europe.

And this despite the untold benefits that forests provide in terms of offering rich habitats for wildlife, filtering and cleaning our polluted air and giving sanctuary to many a city dweller from the stresses and strain of modern-day living.

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But this leads me on to what I found particularly appealing about the Small Woods Association. Although it’s certainly not the only one to do so in the UK, what it offers is a series of so-called “social forestry” programmes.

While there’s no official definition for what “social forestry” actually means, it could loosely be described as a way of managing and protecting forests that also supports social, environmental and rural development.

So what the Association does, among other things, is to run health projects in both Wales and Telford, Shropshire, for individuals with recoverable mental health issues, obesity and long-term cardiac problems.

It also offers people who are on probation, repeat offenders and youngsters who aren’t in education, employment or training three or six-month structured training programmes in practical forestry management skills such as planting, coppicing and felling.

The aim here is help people rebuild their confidence by connecting both with each other and with nature. But it is also about trying to pass on traditional expertise and encourage new entrants to take up an increasingly rarified career path.

The problem is that most woodland workers are now ageing and all too few young people are joining the sector to replenish numbers as they retire, despite the option of taking part in paid apprenticeship schemes.

Heritage skills

But the same, it seems, is true of all heritage skills these days, not least in the built environment. And it’s an important issue as, astoundingly, England alone has more than five million so-called “traditional” buildings that were constructed before 1919, with 20% of the country’s domestic dwelllings falling into this category.

But whether you’re talking about dry stone walling, thatching roofs or being a steeplejack leaping around church spires and clock towers, all of this traditional expertise is sadly in steep decline.

And in Saffron Walden where we live, a market town with one of the highest proportion of listed buildings in the country, this situation can undoubtedly cause problems.

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For example, many of the houses in the town itself, including our own, are rendered with old-fashioned lime plaster. Which, because it’s made from natural ingredients and is very durable, makes it much better for the environment than the new-fangled concrete-based stuff. But just you try finding those skills in the Yellow Pages – and if and when you do, you’ll find that they certainly don’t come cheap.

But it really does make you wonder why the availability of these skills has ended up in freefall – particularly when rates of youth unemployment remain so stubbornly high at about 16% compared with 5.6% across the population as a whole.

Presumably a lot of people, including careers advisors, simply don’t know anything about them much, despite attempts by bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Heritage Craft Alliance to up their profile and fund more training places. Or maybe they just look boring or less well paid than allegedly more glamorous careers in investment banking or the media.

Then there’s the fact that, despite government plans to create three million apprenticeships by 2020, they still don’t appear to have quite the same kudos as going to university after years of such tertiary education officially being pushed as the only way forward.

But despite all of this, there does, thankfully, seem to be at least a rising, if grudging, recognition that the country will always need its skilled craftsmen whether that be joiners or blacksmiths. And maybe that is progress, of sorts.