Sadly, Essex has a reputation for being a bit of an unsightly place lacking in culture or good taste and for a long time it has continued to bear the brunt of some of the nation’s poorest jokes. I have known all along that huge tracts of this much maligned county are incredibly beautiful and that many of the people who live there are very warm and very friendly. This weekend I went there and was given a reminder of this as I saw some of its best bits in all their majestic glory.
Bradwell-on-Sea is probably most famous for its nuclear power station. Now in the decommissioning stage of its life this is now a silent skeleton of the former sinister structure that threatened to pollute and contaminate our island. It was never popular in a society that has always preferred to pollute and contaminate in the more conventional ways with the likes of coal or oil fired power stations, carbon monoxide from our far too many cars, discarded McDonald’s packaging, millions of gallons of wee and poo and, worst of all, the stuff that people like Will.i.am pump out mercilessly into the atmosphere to poison our ears and minds. So, now that it has laid down its spent fuel rods, I have forgiven Bradwell for its nastiness in the past as long as it promises to be a good boy and not to do it again.
Despite being tarred with the Essex brush and the nuclear reactor brush, when I think of the village of Bradwell-on-Sea, I can only think of really, really nice things. The landscape, although very flat, has a certain element of beauty as it is peppered with coves and inlets from where the River Blackwater flows into the Thames Estuary, which make it a playground for wild birds, badgers, seals, fishermen, twitchers, historians and people just out on a bit of a sightseeing mission like me. My friends Mike and Angie live there and during my weekend stay with them, as well as showing me some fine home-made curry and some fine shop-bought bottles of lager, all of which we enjoyed in their magnificent sun-drenched garden, they took me for a walk to see their lovely surroundings and hear the sounds of a place where there are no human made sounds.
The War Memorial at R.A.F. Bradwell, Essex.
They took me to their local beach via a Roman Wall and the chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall which dates back to the seventh century. They took me to the now abandoned World War II airfield at R.A.F. Bradwell with its unique war memorial cast in the shape of a De Havilland Mosquito and for which Mike has gained a reputation locally for touching up (with paint). They took me to lunch at the Bradwell Marina where we wined and dined as we watched members of the yachting fraternity go about their business in their expensive craft while the sun blazed down on us. For me, Bradwell today was the French Riviera with the outrageous French accents replaced by outrageous Essex accents and Brigitte Bardot replaced by my friend Angie. For me, that corner of Essex today was Paradise.
During my stay Mike and Angie also took me to a place called Bahir Dar in a remote part of Ethiopia. They spent most of Saturday night telling me about the voluntary work they have been doing there for two or three weeks of every year for the last ten years. They told me about the immense kindness and hospitality of the people who live there in abject poverty and how much they need help from the outside world. Things in their world cost so little for us (e.g. £250 to build a house or £100 to send a child to school for a year) but mean so much to them. As well as going there to work, my friends spend a lot of their spare time doing fund raising at home. They do all this out of an enormous need to help people who have nothing. They were close to tears sometimes when they described the hardship that the people of Bahir Dar have to endure and the immense appreciation that they show when someone goes there to help them. I must admit that I was close to tears too and in the back of my mind, amongst all my plans for the future, the seeds of a plan to go somewhere in the world to help people much worse off than me were sown.
Mike & Angie's Project at Bahir Dar
Late on Sunday afternoon I set off in my car for home. Ian Dury’s voice filled my mind as soon as I saw a signpost for Burnham-on-Crouch. I had to go there. Ian told me to, or had it been Billericay Dickie? He said, “Oh golly, oh gosh come and lie on the couch, with a nice bit of posh from Burnham-on-Crouch.” I couldn’t find a couch or a bit of posh when I got there so I had a drink at a pub on the harbour wall and thought about the orphanage at Bahir Dar.
Another little musical moment took place in my mind as AC/DC’s song Highway To Hell came on the radio just as I turned onto the M25 motorway. How very apt! I sang along for a couple of minutes but soon my thoughts returned to Ethiopia.
I stopped to buy some petrol on the way home too. A tank and a bit of fuel had cost me a fair few quid but I thought it was worth every penny as I had had such a good weekend away. And then I thought to myself what the people in a poverty stricken African country could do with the money it takes to buy a tank and a bit of unleaded. My outlook on life had changed a bit in Essex this weekend.
Desperately Seeking St Peter-on-the-Wall