Essex, heritage skills, history, lifestyle, tourism

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.

British industry, lifestyle, music

Retro trends: Keeping it real

The whole retro thing seems to be massive these days.

Fashion has gone distressingly 1970s – a look that’s no better recycled, in my opinion, than it was first time around – with its muddy brown suede, seriously unflattering flares and hippy/cowboy fringing currently all the rage.

Then there are the nostalgia-driven toys appearing all over the place – everything from 1980s cuddly Care Bears to action-packed Thunderbirds play sets and whistling Clangers to entice those of us brought up in the 1960s and 1970s – let alone our kids.

Even the film studios are in on the act. Items on the current remake list range from 1980s comedy classics Police Academy and Ghostbusters to horror movies such as Nightmare on Elm Street and An American Werewolf in London. And then there’s Dad’s Army, an adaptation of the British comedy series of the same name that was massive here in the 1960s and 1970s, and which will be having its time in the sun again next year.

They’re all at it – to the extent you can now step back in time at retro-gaming events to revisit the arcade game favourites of your youth, whether that be pinball or video giants such as Space Invaders. There’s even a Vintage Nostalgia show in Stockton, Wiltshire, where you’ll find everything from vintage cars and antique fashion to old-fashioned sweet-shop sweeties and traditional entertainment, all played out against a backdrop of classic tracks steeped in comforting nostalgia.

Old-fashioned sweeties
Old-fashioned sweeties

Because that, according to the marketers, is what it’s all about. A recent study led by Jannine LaSaleta, a nostalgia specialist who teaches marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France revealed a strange irony – that the feelings of social connectedness generated by nostalgia make most people – no matter what their age – attach less value to money, which in turn encourages them to spend more freely.

In other words, nostalgia sells – particularly in a social media age characterised by false intimacy where we broadcast our communications to the masses rather than chat with a mate, and calculate our popularity based on the number of Facebook ‘friends’ we’ve collected.

But nowhere is the “nostalgia sells” adage more true than in the case of the music world’s so-called “vinyl revival”. In fact, revenues from old-style albums have jumped a huge 69% year-on-year for the first quarter of 2015, while singles rose 23%.

Between them, they made up about 1.5% of total record sales in the UK last year – the equivalent of 1.3 million discs – compared to only 0.1% in 2007, with rock acts, in popular music terms, leading the charge.

And appropriately the top sellers included vintage rock acts such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and that old crooner, Bob Dylan – although Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds was the most popular choice overall.

Vinyl interest

In fact, in what would appear to mark a significant milestone for the industry, high street supermarket chain Tesco even started stocking the new vinyl album from ageing heavy metal boys Iron Maiden earlier in the year to see how it went, with a view to carrying more if it proved a hit. So to speak.

The UK’s Official Charts Company, meanwhile, has also found a way to mark this new-found interest by adding a vinyl Top 40 to its line-up this year, complete with separate countdowns for singles and albums – an endorsement unthinkable even a few short years ago.

The move was, in fact, made to coincide with April’s Record Store Day, an event that originated in the US in 2007 but migrated to the UK a year later. Held on the third Saturday in April to celebrate the existence of independent record stores, it is currently run by the Entertainment Retailers Association.

The idea is that each of the country’s 220 participating shops, often run by the die-hard vinyl enthusiasts who have been at the forefront of fuelling the revival, throws a party and may even be graced with the presence of artists making special appearances or undertaking performances. They are also sent a number of records specially pressed for the occasion.

Independent record shop
Independent record shop

But Record Store Day is not without its critics. Some accuse the major labels of hijacking it, while others complain it is aimed more at record collectors than your average punter – a claim backed up by the fact that an awful lot of the limited releases seem to end up being sold online at jacked-up prices.

Anyway, no matter what the truth of it, it seems that, unlike their vinyl cousins, more modern formats, counter-intuitively, are somewhat in decline. For instance, sales of CDs dropped 6.5% last year, while digital downloads fell by nearly 9%.

So just who is responsible for this surge in vinyl interest? Most pundits agree that it’s a mix. There are the youngsters and hipsters creating record collections from scratch. They buy everything from new releases to classic albums by iconic performers in order to understand the influences on current music.

Then there are the older ones who are genuinely amazed and delighted to see vinyl returning and so dig out their old record players from the loft and continue where they left off 20 years ago.

But there are also others who, like me, bought into the whole experience first time round and are now dining out on the nostalgia of it all. On the pleasure of going into an (ideally) dusty record shop, admiring the artwork on the cover, reading the lyrics on the inside and feeling the physical satisfaction of holding something real. Because no matter how you try, you can’t download that.