14th January 2016
It’s difficult for people to appreciate now just how different the 70s were. Less than three decades had passed since the second world war, and all the sobriety and conformity that represented. Things were still terribly old fashioned, the social texture was very straight. To be this weird boy, one who experimented with androgynous, even feminine clothes and apocalyptic lyrics – it was pioneering.
This is Grayson Perry describing the impact that David Bowie had upon him when he, the flamboyant potter, was a young art student. Today, Secret Informant and myself, three days into a David Bowie-less world, start walking at Wrabness where the Grayson Perry house overlooks the estuary of the River Stour.
The house is much photographed and so I don’t (try here for images), but it sits on its site like a startling hologram. A merged hologram of a Russian Orthodox church and a fairy tale cottage in which dreadful things will happen involving wolves, witches and small children (or perhaps those who choose it as a holiday rental are transported into the ether like the girl in Bowie’s TVC15). Grayson Perry described it as a Taj Mahal, but it is actually domestic in scale, contrasting favourably with the low-slung bulk of the Holbrook School which glowers imperiously from the Suffolk bank of the River.
I’m not sure whether the Wrabness House would have appealed to David Bowie or whether the Essex Coast exerted any influence at all upon his oeuvre. He made a reference to the Norfolk Broads (disdainful to my ear) in Life on Mars, and his collaborator Brian Eno hails from just up the coast (give or take an estuary or two) in Woodbridge, so it is irresistible to speculate what the impact upon his work might have been had he ventured a few miles further south. Imagine if they had chosen to hole up in Jaywick Sands or Burnham on Crouch instead of Berlin. Heroes would have taken on a different slant altogether.
A muddy stretch of path demands focus. We are following the last section of the Essex way (or the first, depending on whether you start at Epping station or the Harwich lighthouse), in fact following a route which was covered by Ebb Tide (he’s far out) and myself on our very first Essex coastal walk four years ago. How time flies when you are enjoying yourself and how time slows when you are wading through mud.
Mud has multiple disadvantages on a walk; In the first place, it is muddy. Mud on a footpath, Secret Informant points out, requires you to focus on what your feet are doing as opposed to looking at what is going on around you. Mud is also morale-sapping because you do not necessarily know how much mud lies ahead. This turned out to be a not-particularly muddy walk. But we don’t know that at this stage. Mud also requires a degree of nimbleness to negotiate. My own nimbleness is a rapidly deteriorating asset and it is a relief to reach the drier path through the trees that line this stretch of the river bank.
An hour into the walk, down past the Ramsey windmill and into Ramsey village itself. It might appear to be a one-horse town…
… but it has a many-horse hinterland and this gives me an idea for a solution to the housing famine in south-east England.
A few days later I investigate horse breeding in Essex and am transported into a different world, one of Teamchasers, Rohdiamant mares and Furioso bloodlines. I investigate advertisements for horses;
Very sad sale due to rider off to university… a forward horse with so much life left in her…. She has clean legs and contact with previous owners(£5,500)
Snaffle-mouthed at all times. Brave as a lion, (£12,000)
A well-schooled ride on the flat and pops a course sweetly (£1,500)
Non-riders like myself tend not to appreciate the nature of the relationship between horse and rider. I once asked a friend who had owned and ridden a horse in her younger days why she didn’t hire one to go for a ride. ‘It would be like a one-night stand’, she said. I was left snaffle-mouthed by the comparison.
Across the busy Harwich Road, a quick dive behind the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A climb up a muddy field towards Little Oakley, through that village, and there before us lies Hamford Water, bright in the winter sun, sharp on the eye,stretching west towards the Beaumont Cut. The Walton Tower all 86 feet of it, stands on its nasal promontory, performing, somewhat mistily, a landmark function . Horsey Island lies flat and black on the silver backwaters. The path passes gently and muddily down to the sea wall and we turn left for the firm dependability of the Dovercourt promenade, which stretches elegantly in front of us under a cloudless blue sky, thinly populated by joggers and dog walkers. The promenade leads us to Harwich which lies embedded on the tip of its peninsular like a horny and inconsistently-manicured toenail, but one that you would not be without.
They are building a replica of The Mayflower in Harwich. Building it in the 17th century way, square-rigged and beak-bowed. It is intended that it will repeat the journey of the pilgrim fathers for the 400th anniversary in 2020 (‘Plymouth hijacked The Mayflower‘ states a trustee of the Harwich Mayflower trust chauvinistically and as someone who spent their early formative years in Plymouth, my loyalties are almost divided), but the 100 foot boat is a godawful small affair and I hope it can cope with the local traffic (see below). I also hope that, when they land, the voyagers manage to reinvent America as thoroughly as the pilgrim fathers did, but perhaps in a rather better way, just as David Bowie reinvented his public persona.
Late news: The Essex Coast is excited to discover a new website devoted to the life and work of John Alec Baker, author of The Peregrine. Try it here.