Thursday, May 14, 2015

Flatford to Clacton (or From Hay Wain to Hey Wayne)

Why is 'The Hay Wain' so popular in Britain? There are better and more interesting paintings, but, for some reason, Constable's famous scene used to be more common in suburban homes than dry rot.

I once went to a house that had two 'Hay Wains' - a large one in the living room and a smaller one in the hall (but not a single book, sadly).

They were owned by a plumber called Frank, who lived in a grim, terraced council house on one of England's roughest estates. Whether Frank particularly liked the scene or had simply bought a job lot, I don't know, but I suspect that many people responded to the depiction of a lost rural idyll.

Until today, I'd always assumed that the scene in 'The Hay Wain' was now consigned to oblivion, replaced by a housing estate or supermarket car park, but I was wrong. The lost rural idyll still exists in a place called Flatford.

This is the house that Constable painted, almost 200 years ago:

It's probably less idyllic in the height of the tourist season, when crowds of people in garish leisurewear amble round the grounds, but yesterday I barely saw a soul:

After taking a wrong turn, I went for an unintentionally long walk and found myself in a sort of paradise, with butterflies flittering in and out of the cow parsley and nettles.

Away from the sounds of traffic and other human activities, I became aware of just how loud nature is: 


It was particularly noisy, as I had inadvertently stumbled onto a private bird sanctuary and was probably ruining things for anyone who was sitting in the 'hide' that I could see, 100 yards away. I didn't want to be angrily pursued by someone called Colin, so I decided to make a break for it.

On the way back, I found something rather disturbing - the remains of a dead rabbit, hanging from the branch of a tree. Suddenly, I could almost hear the banjos.

By the time I returned to Flatford Mill, the coach parties were arriving. One man in his 60s was dressed like a Californian surfer, with a pyschedelic t-shirt that said Venice Beach. I thought he might a Hunter S Thompson figure, but then he opened his mouth and said "I'm just popping in the gift shop, Val, to see if they do that nice fudge."

I should have driven home, but, like a moth to the flame, I couldn't resist the temptation to make a diversion to Clacton-on-Sea - the only place in Britain to elect a UKIP member of Parliament (if you live in the USA, UKIP are similar to the 'Tea Party').

But first, I began with Jaywick which, in addition to sounding like an air freshener, is the poorest place in England:

With housing that is only marginally better than the favelas of Rio de Janiero, Jaywick feels as if it has been abandoned and disowned by the rest of the UK. It began promisingly enough in the 1930s as a holiday resort for working-class Londoners, with plots of reclaimed salt marshes being sold for as little as £25.

The cheap, jerry-built houses were never designed for year-round use, but a postwar housing shortage saw many people make Jaywick their permanent home, even though the developer had failed to put in some of the most basic infrastuctures. Today, you can buy a one-bedroom bungalow in Jaywick for £25,000.

On average, 15% of the UK population receive social benefits. According to the Guardian, the figure in Jaywick is 62%.

I certainly don't think I've been anywhere in England where the residents look so visibly poor or unwell - a tragic irony, given the original conception of Jaywick as a place where people could enjoy the healthy, outdoor life.

Apparently, the local council has tied to bulldoze the worst parts of Jaywick on more than one occasion, but the residents have always resisted. Beyond the poor housing and conspicuous poverty, there is a community spirit and fierce sense of independence. Jaywick will not be moved.

Unfortunately, in addition to being the poorest place in England, it is also one of the most flood-prone, so the North Sea will probably succeed where the authorities have failed.

Two miles along the coast, Clacton-on-Sea holds the accolade of being the second most deprived seaside resort in Britain, but compared to Jaywick it is the Côte d’Azur:

Like Margate, it was a popular resort for working-class Londoners. Today, you'll probably find more Cockneys living in Clacton than within the sound of Bow Bells and the souvenirs, like the rhyming-slang tea towel below, cater for a local clientele as much as the daytrippers:

My Cockney grandfather once worked as a labourer on the London Underground and, during a careless moment, fell onto a live rail and received serious burns. Paid sick leave wasn't an option in those days, so he decided to take his two weeks' annual leave and get treatment at Clacton-on-Sea, so that his wife and children could at least have a holiday.

It seems a poor way to treat a man who was gassed in the trenches.

The resort was packed in those days, as trainloads of people from London's East End filled the beaches:

Today, Clacton has been largely usurped by sunnier climes and the holidaymakers have been replaced by the retired and unemployed. The popularity of UKIP probably reflects the feelings of those who feel that they have been left behind.

On the pier, the funfair attractions were all mothballed and the only people I saw were a woman of 70, dolled-up like Olivia Newton John in Grease, with tight leather trousers and heavy make-up, clinging on to the arm of a man with faded tattoos.

I left the funfair behind and walked towards the end of the pier. Two very elderly women hobbled past me and I heard a brief snatch of their converstion:

"She said she was becomin' a lesbian, but now she's decided not to..."

Next to the pier, a small building offered 'Tattoo's', but there was also a glass booth that offered temporary ones. I was very tempted to play a joke on my wife by coming home with something inappropriate on my arm, like Justin Bieber. But I've read too many stories of tattoos going horribly wrong, so I decided to play safe.

For some odd reason, I had to buy my parking ticket in a bookshop and the moment I opened the door, I was transformed back to the 1970s. 

What is it about the small, old-fashioned independents that give them such a distinctive aroma of sweet decay? A lack of fresh air and a surfeit of old stock, perhaps, but the smell evoked happy memories of choosing the latest Enid Blyton.

A woman slowly wrote out a chitty for me. I wanted to tell her that I used to be a bookseller too.

For those who can survive for more than a day without a contemporary art gallery or artisan bakery, Clacton has its charms. The seafront is pleasant and there is a sandy, sheltered beach where small children can bathe safely with being dragged out to sea by any riptides. If you prefer shingle beaches and campervan-driving hipsters, then head north to Suffolk.

I'll be sticking with Clacton. If it's good enough for my grandfather, it's good enough for me.


Canadian Chickadee said...

How intereesting. Flatford Mill and Willy Lott's cottage (the one pictured) have always been two of my favourite places. You can walk across the fields for miles on the trails and never see a soul, though I agree that the visitors' centre does get crowded. They do a nice cuppa tea, though.

I think the continuing appeal of Constable's paintings is, as you say, the rural charm. An idyllic time that no longer exists, if it ever did. Also, Constable the man seems to have been someone it might have been nice to know. Unlike Turner. Who, if the movie is anything to go by, was a nut. 'Nuff said.

Dale in New Zealand said...

I know that area pretty well, and agree with you.

We took elderly family who live in one of the pretty villages near Flatford Mill on a Sunday drive to see Jaywick, about 20 years ago. They could not believe how tatty and sad and depressing it had become, as they recalled happy holidays there in the early 1950s when it was much more attractive.

Mind you, the farming practices around Flatford and that part of East Anglia have changed out of recognition in the 30+ years I have been visiting the area. Most of the hedgerows ripped up to make room for agricultural machinery and "prairie farming" techniques. Wildlife decimated as a result.

I think of the Cyril Joad comment: "It will be said of this generation that it found England a land of beauty and left it a land of beauty spots."

Brett said...

Thanks, Steerforth. I've missed your quirky travelogues.

Rog said...

You are a veritable Alan Bennett with your wonderful overheard snippets!

Plumbers don't live in rough council estates any more.

I cycled to Southwold on Wednesday and it appeared to be a suburb of Hampstead.

Katharine A said...

What a post! Very British. Slightly strange. I studied your rabbit photo for a (short) while. What is that about? I took a group of sixth formers on a residential art trip to flatford Mill years ago. Seem to remember painting & pubs. Those were the heady days before risk assessment and when there were still advisory teachers.

Steerforth said...

Carol - Flatford Mill was new to me, so it came as a very pleasant surprise. It's great visiting somewhere out of season, early in the morning, as it isn't ruined by the crowds.

Dale - I don't know the Joad quote, but I couldn't agree more. I worry that if our population continues to grow, places like Flatford will be tiny heritage zones, squeezed between identikit housing estates. It's already happened to Bletchley Park.

Brett - Thanks. I've been preoccupied with family matters recently, so haven't had the opportunity to get out much.

Rog - That's the impression I got in Aldeburgh as well. No wonder it's known as Boden-on-Sea these days.

I thought of becoming a plumber when bookselling was starting to look precarious. It seemed like a bullshit-free job, with no nonsense about team-building and brand values. Plus, as you say, the money's good these days. But then I looked at the training manuals to become a heating engineer and realised I was too thick to understand them.

Katharine - The rabbit was quite disturbing. It was quite a high branch, so someone had clearly gone to some effort to get it up there.

ChasingtheCrayon said...

I've seen rotting rabbit bodies hanging in trees on my local walks. I'm guessing dog owners put them there to stop Fido eating them...My own little mutt loves nothing more than rancid rabbit remains!

Steerforth said...

Crayon - That's a plausible explanation - less disturbing than the macabre scenarios I'd envisaged.

joan.kyler said...

That was worth waiting for! I loved the little video of the noisy birds. Was that a cuckoo I heard?

Steerforth said...

Thanks Joan. Yes, that was a cuckoo. I wish the video quality was better, but Blogger doesn't seem to like large video files.

Sam Jordison said...

Great to have you back

Steerforth said...

Thanks Sam.

Spacezilla said...

So glad you are writing again! You have a great eye and voice.

Annabel said...

Despite living in Harlow for a while, I never ventured Eastwards to the Essex coast, although I have been to Suffolk and a lot of Norfolk ones. The bits you visited sound completely out of time. Loved your tweets of the day too.

(that new photo anti-robot thing was hard! I got sushi...)

Steerforth said...

Spacezilla - Thanks for your kind words.

Annabel - Yes, they were both very much out of time. Clacton was like the early 70s (where, incidentally, a Tomorrow People story was film on the pier).

Lucille said...

All riveting stuff, but nothing more so than that rabbit because yesterday we came across the back half of an unidentifiable animal wedged high in the fork of a branch too. I've never seen anything like this before. To make matters even more confusing the fur was wet even though it hasn't rained.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Glad that normal service has been resumed. The Constable is a brilliant picture. And what I like about him is that he painted working landscapes. The mill wasn't a picturesque bygone in his day - it was producing flour. And a horse and cart might have been seen as ugly, vulgar and workaday. These days we paint grain silos, disused mines and pylons.

Steerforth said...

Lucille - Could it have drowned somewhere nearby?

Lucy - I've never liked the Hay Wain, but you've made me look at it in a new light and begin to see beyond the chocolate box cover.

Lucille said...

Not easily we were in a bluebell wood and it was very cleanly severed...wondered if bird of prey had dropped it.