The Essex Coast – Where There’s Brass

When the sun shines unexpectedly and the English find themselves with a free day, the coast calls. For a Northwest man like myself, this means Blackpool, Morecambe, New Brighton, or even Rhyl. For the Londoner it might be Brighton, Broadstairs, Southend, or Clacton on Sea.

Clacton called to me. I dreamed of returning to my boat with the traditional boatman’s trophies of a day at the sea, a stick of rock with ‘Clacton’ written through the middle, and a new lace plate to hang in my cabin, hopefully bearing the legend ‘A gift from Clacton on Sea’.

I was accompanied once again by my friend Kate, who having already helped me with a run through London besides having broadened my mind with a trip to the ballet, shared with me the thrill of the prospect of a brisk stroll on a sea wall and the greasy, gaudy atmosphere of a classic seaside pier.

Clacton pier was hibernating. The main run into the sea was either derelict or mothballed for the summer. From attraction to attraction, it was hard to tell which. The tattoo artist had a sign that said, ‘Open at 10am’. It was 10.30am, the door was fast, and so we remained untattooed.

The aquarium was open, having no alternative, fish not easily furloughed until summer, so we bought our tickets from the bored lad in the refreshment stall. A short and irritating voice message played on a loop, informing us that this was ‘Edutainment’, delivered in plummy mock Attenborough. The fish mouthed along in their tanks, having learned every word.

The main tank was very large indeed and contained around 50 shimmering bass. When we turned our backs, they gathered nearby, staring at us, and when we turned to face them, they gently swam away. We repeated this a few times to prove it was really happening. We were clearly the highlight of each other’s weeks.

The coast here is littered with Martello towers, built to keep the French out, and as far as I could tell still performing this function flawlessly. We had a short walk that took in three of them. Two were largely abandoned, whilst the third had recently been a children’s petting zoo simply but was now boarded up, overgrown, and exuded a truly sinister atmosphere, like the final petting session had gone horribly, horribly wrong and the fleeing staff had nailed the doors shut and never returned to address the darkness that roamed within.

On the main street, a beautiful building dominated the 5-way junction.

“What do you reckon that was? A corn exchange?” I mused.

“I’m not sure there is very much corn to exchange in a seaside town.”

“Ok then, a whelk exchange?”

It proved to be a bank that had become a bookmakers, which was definitely a metaphor for something. We walked on. I was able to buy some sticks of rock with ‘Clacton on Sea’ written through them from a confectionary stall and was well pleased with my morning’s work.

Clacton was everything I’d expected. Sleepy, awaiting the summer season where thousands will head in from London, a resort no longer glamorous but instead thriving on being easily achievable in a day without the need to plan ahead. Clacton can be visited on a whim, and sometimes, that’s all you need. You wouldn’t boast about coming here, but when the sun shines and the day is clear, why the hell not?

But out of season there didn’t seem a great deal else to do. A van drove by, advertising ‘Beserk Security Services’. The crazy golf was closed for maintenance, most of the pier attractions were shut, we couldn’t get a tattoo, and the children’s petting zoo had been transformed into the set of a horror film. We drove to the next town along, Frinton on Sea and had some lunch.

Ready to spring into action

The café we chose had a range of soft drinks on the menu, all with the suffix ‘Dude’ in the name, no doubt a gimmick imagined up by a middle-aged manager in the mistaken belief it would make their establishment much cooler. We sat outside and awaited our lunch. A retired couple and their dog sat down at the next table and ordered two flat whites and a cold sausage which they then sliced ​​up and fed to the hound. The teenage waitress came out and announced Kate’s drink with a glorious lack of enthusiasm, visibly embarrassed at having to name it.

“Who ordered the Grapefruit and Passionfruit Dude?”

We sat with our Dudes and invented seaside towns that sounded like they might be fun to visit.

Outfall Bay

Cokehead Sands

Cockle-on-the-Brow

Much Crumbling on the Cliff

Sourmouth

Fritton was smart, rather better off than Clacton. Every gaudy seaside resort has a slightly more upmarket cousin just along the road to which people graduate as they age and find they now prefer the antique shops and tearooms to arcade games, air hockey, and infinite varieties of pink sugar. Collectibles and vintage clothing dominated the economy, and in a particularly dusty second-hand porcelain shop I wondered if I might find my lace plate.

The proprietor was an elderly lady and she gingerly limped out from some mysterious hinterland beyond the kiosk at the back of the shop after we entered. She was nearly deaf and clearly could not see all that well.

“I’m looking for a lace plate.” I ventured, hoping to put her at ease.

“A what now?”

“A lace plate.”

“Ah. Well, you look around, take as long as you need.”

And she sank into a chair by the kiosk, weary and frail.

I carefully Sifted through piles of plates, failing to find what I was looking for. Feeling rather guilty about wasting this old lady’s time, I grabbed a dirty old pint glass, unremarkable and generic, as a means of at least paying a little something back. He did not have a price tag, a fact that was to prove my downfall. I took it to her corner and handed it over. Her eyes cleared, her physical presence swelled, her stride grew confident and powerful as she carried it to the kiosk, suddenly fixing me with laser precision, weighing exactly how much she could rinse me for. It had been an act of such brilliance that I could only marvel as I found myself handing over my high denomination bank note, trancelike. She wrapped the awful glass in sheets taken from last week’s thumbed and spent edition of the Clacton, Frinton, and Walton Gazette as if it was every bit as valuable as the price she’d invented. Three sheets, counter wrapped, expertly sealed in tape from a dispenser. Kate stood at the back of the shop, watching the performance with amusement, enjoying my minor misfortune as only a true friend can.

“I liked her.” She said, as we walked away from the scene of the robbery.

Frinton’s main street also featured a vintage shop brimming with memorabilia, a Dad’s army vibe that reduced what had been the prospect of imminent Nazi invasion to a cosy nostalgia of a mythical, simpler time. I hated it and left as quickly as I could, keen not to end up with any more expensive pint glasses. We walked the cliff, a wide grassy park. A dog barked once, drawing his owner our way.

“Excuse me. Would you like to buy a poetry anthology?”

“Absolutely.” I replied.

“They’re only £3.” He continued, not yet having realised I was already sold. He tried to remove one from his little stack but dropped it on the grass.

Whoops! There it goes!”

He bent down very slowly, and it was clear he was a very old man indeed. Recovering it, he handed it over to me. The cover was a picture of the field we were in, and it was titled ‘Poems’. I handed him £3, and he continued to propose its merits, unwilling to waste a well-rehearsed speech.

“It’s all about what I call instances of life. It’ll always be relevant. Five years I’ve been selling it now. I never thought I’d sell a dozen, but I’ve sold over 1200 now. I wrote them all, and my friend encouraged me to publish them, and well, here I am today.”

We wished him well and continued on our way. He meandered aimlessly, his little dog scouting potential marks, giving a single bark when one came into range.

Later, alone and unobserved, I read the poems. They were a mixture of devout Christian prayer and somewhat misogynistic pieces combining both his unfulfilled longing and also disgust for Essex girls, all in unrelenting rhyming couples. It was all terribly sad, a window into a lonely, introspective, insular life.

I hoped at least that getting his words down and selling them like this provided him with some measure of comfort. Perhaps it was a vital cathartic exercise, in much the same way that I believe the laminator to have saved more lives than nearly any other of humanity’s inventions. Angry, pedantic, passive-aggressive people, who might easily bottle it all up until they violently rupture, instead write little notices, laminate them, and affix them in offices, doors, and windows, releasing the pressure from within and in so doing avoiding murderous thoughts. “There! That’ll show them!” they think. A lonely old man wanders the cliffs of Frinton, happy to know his feelings on fake tans, short skirts, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ are finally being read and understood by a growing army of over a thousand poetry lovers.

We completed our tour of the coast at Walton-on-the-Naze, modest terminus of the railway. The pier was an overpowering presence, an enormous windowless block of broad corrugation balanced on so many unequal wooden limbs, sea-bleached yellows and grays. It was undergoing heavy surgery, a last desperate attempt to breathe life back into it. Workmen in high vis milled around the cordoned off entrance and the sound of drilling came from within. We walked down onto the beach and beneath this sleeping leviathan.

May Walton pierce rise again

Walton pier, 3rd largest in the country, is mostly built on the remains of older piers. Stumps pierced the sand, some tall and not quite connecting to the structure, others eroded and ancient, square timbers becoming round again as the water and sand works into the rings of the tree, abrading away at the exposed endgrains. The tide had retreated as far as it felt able, and we hung around on the low water line in the darkness of eclipse, kicking against a scatter of fallen concrete slabs and seawood, between ungeometric rows of posts, stretching out haphazard into blackening water. The sound of power tools from within the space above carried clear on hard, wet sands, transmitted down so many soundposts into the diffusion of wavelets and pier flakes, amplified and hidden beneath this undercarriage of cheap thrills. It was a powerful space and we let it dominate us for a while.

Elsewhere on the beach, thrown up sand was evidence of dogs performing handbrake turns whilst chasing balls. Numerous banks of brightly painted beach huts lined the small cliffs like a rainbow shanty town. I bought a large rubber duck with a hairy chest, scars, and tattoos from an assortment bin of rubber ducks in an otherwise deserted shop on the sea front, my enthusiasm for the purchase not remotely rubbing off on the bored youth within. I’d given up on the lace plate. Such trinkets have fallen from fashion. We no longer bring gifts back from the coast, it’s just not remarkable enough anymore. Gifts from foreign shores perhaps, but who cares if you’ve been to Skeggy or Lowestoft?

“I went to Minehead, and I’ve brought you back this impractical, ornamental plate.”

“Why?”

The Naze is the final spit of land projecting into the Orwell estuary, and we walked along to the end, overlooking the industrial mega-landscape of Felixstowe and its overshadowed cousin Harwich, where I’d once had an infinite espresso incident in the docker’s café . They found a Megalodon tooth here a while back. That fitted. Walton-on-the-Naze felt like the sort of place to which one comes to lose a set of dentures.

I returned to Spey with my mementoes. Five sticks of Rock, a dirty old pint glass, a book of awful poems, a tin of Brasso from a hardware shop, and a large rubber duck. On the train, I placed the duck on the seat opposite and was yet again miraculously untroubled by other passengers for the duration. As I rolled through the Essex night, I imagined myself a new lace plate, bearing the picture of a rubber duck with tattoos, scars, and a hairy chest, and the motto “My friend went to Clacton-on-Sea, and all I got this lousy plate.”

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