Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Wilful Walks of C.J. Duffy part twenty

* Frolicking in Frinton *

*The Crumbling of Walton-on-the-Naze *

* Peter Bruff and the invention of the English Seaside resort *

After the initial blast of a fine summer, the sun has been doing a spectacularly good job of hiding itself. Wimbledon fortnight was glorious and we had some blazing sunshine either side of that period but since then, the sun has been replaced by that fine old tradition of grey, wet weather. As Lennon once sang in ‘I am the Walrus’ – “if the sun doesn't come you get a tan from standing in the English rain.” Today, though, Sunday 9th August 2009, the sun has done us proud.

The first thing I notice as I saunter into Frinton is the genteel quality that slumbers here; a silent politeness that pervades the streets and houses with a stereotypical Englishness. The houses are of character although neither grandiose nor ostentatious. There is money here but it is not the money of recently acquired wealth but rather the money of the retired who have worked hard all their lives and now have settled here to live out their days in relative comfort. Well, preserved Mercedes are polished and parked in neatly kept shingle drives. The streets are litter free; the kerbs tidy and trimmed. The sea front, where children splash and play, has a hushed sense of frivolity about it rather than the accustomed raucous display of normal holiday makers. I suppose, as a bit of a generalisation, Frinton still has the clinging Vestiges of the late Victorian, early Edwardian age attached to it.

Frinton and Walton, like their bigger brother Clacton, owe a huge debt to the Victorian entrepreneur Peter Bruff who, almost single-handily, created these Essex seaside resorts. Less bombastic than jovial Brighton, Frinton is the gentle Essex retreat.

There are rows of beach huts that line up in solemn lines like a procession of military men. They stand in regular formation with their blunt wooden steps and their single windows steadfastly looking out to sea. Above them, looking down with decadent eyes, are two art deco houses. White and resplendent they gaze imperiously with arched, ironic eyebrows reflecting their mirrored memories of the gay thirties. I wonder if Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot ever solved the odd murder here. Perhaps Bertie Wooster, accompanied by the ever faithful, ever resourceful Jeeves holidayed here? If they didn’t then they should have it would have suited them perfectly.

Even the road names have certain portentousness to them: Winchester Road, Oxford Road, Eton Road, Cambridge Road, as if by association a certain degree of quality will rub off on the surrounding environs and in fairness it does seem to. Even the parked cars know their place and are neatly lined up in neat little bays that are equidistance apart from each other. Frinton really is the epitome of an Edwardian/Victorian resort. The polite town presents itself with a stiff upper lipped and elegant style, but never starchy, just reserved; reserved but not shy and it is that air of polite reservation that gives it its charm.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see gentlemen in straw boaters, linen trousers with wide blue and red striped jackets arm in arm with young ladies dressed in floral, crinoline dresses with gaily coloured hats promenading along the front. I watch as a couple pass by hand in hand licking ice cream from cones as it melts and runs down onto their fingers. An Asian family, the ladies in saris, giggle past me like a gaggle of geese but it is still the polite laughter of polite people in a very polite town. I spot an empty bench and take a pew. I watch a family at play; a mother with her baby daughter and father with his young son. The baby girl holds a Velcro pad, the sort that balls attach to when thrown. The mum is trying to teach the infant to catch the ball but the child just stands to watch as the ball fly’s past. I smile at the memory that this vision invokes. I pick up my camera and take a few snaps. The sea is far away and vibrant blue, the sky pale eggshell; colours that flow into each other. A series of beach huts circle the sand that softens to the gentle lapping of the waves. In the distance boats bob with a gentle rise as the ocean holds the vessels in the hollow of its hand. Even from here the sound of water slapping against the shore and the hull's can be heard, a faint hiss that no simile can do justice to. Nature has a way of doing that.

Today I am listening to the captivating album that has been nominated for so many awards: Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. For me, it was one of the albums of 2008 and I find that I repeatedly return to listen to it. There are a couple of songs on it that hold a resonance for me, songs that seem to sum up nicely how I feel about given topics that run through my life. The song Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On) is a perfect example:

Some sunny day-hay baby
When everything seems okay, baby
You’ll wake and find that you’re alone
’Cause I’ll be gone
Gone, gone, gone
Really gone
Gone, gone, gone, ‘cause you’ve done me wrong

Everyone that you know baby
As you walk down the street baby
Will ask you why you’re walking all alone
Why you’re on your own
Just say I’m gone
Gone, gone, gone
Gone, gone, ‘cause you done me wrong.

And if you change your way baby
You might get back to stay baby
You better hurry up if you don’t wanna be alone
Or I’ll be gone
Gone, gone, gone
Really gone
Gone, gone ‘cause you done me wrong

The song was written by Don and Phil Everly whose beautiful harmonies are now legendary. I have to say that Alison Krauss and Robert Plant are no mean shakes at harmonising either. They seem to be able to make such an intimate sound that is so close, so warm that it feels like a couple from a bygone age caught singing during their courtship; truly enchanting.

Oddly, there are no public houses here and never have been which seems a bit strange at first. Normally every seaside town has, at least, one pub but not Frinton. The more I think on this, the more sense it makes, after all, it probably deters hooligans and louts and perhaps these days, what with the English disease of binge drinking, it keeps that element of society away. A shame really, though, as having a drink should not cause any problems but in this we have brought it upon ourselves. Our reputation for being unable to hold our liquor is large in Europe and a great embarrassment. Funny how these things happen, the way it has gone. I, like most of my generation, have been drunk as skunk at times but it is sad to see the gender I thought superior to my own acting like men and throwing up before falling into the gutter in a stupor but still, who am I to judge and anyway, speaking of louts, I think it time I moved on. I fancy a cup of tea and I know just the café in Walton-on-the-Naze to buy one. How about you ladies, may I buy you one?

It is only a relatively short walk from Frinton into Walton. At a guess, I would say maybe a mile, maybe two but no more than that. Walton church stands alone and to one side as I pass it. Before me the town lays waiting and the cup of tea that I am gasping for. If Frinton is a polite gentleman in a tweed suit walking slowly, twirling his summer cane then Walton, equally delightful, is a bloke in a garish shirt, opened to the waist that reveals a large tattoo. He has a cheeky grin and is holding up some saucy seaside postcards while eating fish and chips out of yesterday’s newspaper.

I locate the café that my wife and I used to frequent. It hasn’t changed in years although the poems that used to decorate the walls have gone. I sit at a table in the corner that looks out the window. A lady, presumably the owner approaches me and asks me what I want. I order two eggs, sunny side up on toast and then that cup of tea I am still gasping for. I cover the eggs liberally with ketchup and then I wolf them down. The tea is a potent brew, dark and strong but I don’t mind it that way as it goes down a treat. Outside the window, folks walk by with children in buggies all bound for the seafront no doubt. I swallow down the last of the tea resisting the urge to buy another, pay my bill then leave.

The heat outside is pleasant enough but within minutes of walking, I feel a sheen of sweat coat my chest. I could have circumnavigated the crowds by turning left out of the café and the following the seawall down to the Naze but instead, I turned right and then carried on straight ahead. There are crowds of people around me, couples and families and I am acutely aware of being on my own, not that that bothers me but I would imagine I must look slightly out of place. The laughter is robust and the sense of fun tangible. These people are here to enjoy themselves, it is Sunday and rather than be inside a church they have taken to the seaside. Everywhere there is the smell of vinegar and of burgers being cooked; a tempting scent even for a veggie like me and besides, they do veggie burgers now don’t they? Maybe a can of coke, nice and chilled will suffice.

The colours of the shops are proud and bright. They fit the theme of the town naturally with a cheap but cheerful display. There is even a Rock Shop and by that, as every Englishman will tell you, does not mean a shop selling Led Zeppelin or Metallica memorabilia but a shop dedicated to that age old British custom of creating a stick of confection with the resorts name running through it. It could equally be called tooth decay on a stick but we still refer to it as a stick of rock. The coke goes down nicely and swills about oddly with the tea but in the heat, I hardly feel it. I have an American friend who, when I told her we were hitting the eighties this summer, laughed and said that eighty was cool and that she was living through a summer in the nineties. She does live in Louisiana though, Lafayette. As I said, we only had a glimpse of summer this year and then for just two weeks, this heat today is welcome but has been absent too long.

As I walk, I pass the Walton-on-Naze leisure centre. The place is named after a gallant First World War soldier; one Herbert George Columbine. Herbert was born in 1893 in Penge, London and died in 1918 defending his position. The Great War was, as the now departed Harry Patch has said, organised murder; a stupid war, an uncalled for evil of gargantuan proportions; a sin committed for no other reason than the building and defence of empires. Thank the gods that all empires have now gone but this fact should not undermine this or any other mans bravery and this chap’s act of heroism was huge. On March 22nd in Hevilly in France, Private Herbert Columbine took over command of a gun. As the position became untenable due to flying aircraft bombing them constantly, Columbine told his comrades to flee saying that he would hold the position whilst they escaped. He kept firing from 9 in the morning until 1 p.m when he was hit by a bomb that not only destroyed his gun but killed him in the process. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military medal given to a British soldier. Ironically, Harry Patch died at about the same time as I discovered this memorial. Harry was another true hero who should be remembered forever more especially for his observations as a foot soldier in the god awful war and his honest and outspoken views on war.

Herbert Columbine memorial
There is nothing pretentious about Walton. It is what it is and makes no bones about it. The sounds of laughter are loud as are the shops facades. I hear children screaming as they run into the sea. I hear mothers shouting to their offspring to be careful, to not jump on their sister’s leg like that, to keep the noise down, to not wave that spade about like that or you’ll have someone’s eye out but the kids don’t listen and do precisely what children were born to do; have fun. Perhaps Walton is tacky but what of it? It is the perfect foil to Frinton’s quiet charm: a working class folly full of amusement arcades and ice cream vans.

I walk on leaving the small seafront behind. It is time now to move onto the dangerous, crumbling Naze itself with its highly regarded remnants of London Clay that are said to be 54 million years old. The Naze is perfect for kite flying as it stands high above the sea but sadly the place is eroding. Years and years of remorseless nature have taken their toll and the sea combined with the wind has reduced this area to silt that is constantly being eroded. There are many Pill Boxes along the East coast of England. They were built as a defence against the threat of German invasion. The Pill boxes are concrete slabs that could have withstood machine gun fire with impenetrable ease but have not a cat in hells chance of stopping Mother Nature. There are a couple of ruined Pill boxes on the beach. Green with seaweed, fractured by the bruising waves; they now lie broken and defeated as relics of another time. There is something oddly wonderful about them though even now as they await that final blow that will forever remove their remains from these shores.

There is a great deal of sadness to observe, almost before the eye the way that the cliffs are crumbling. It is occurring at such a rate that you can almost see it before your eyes. I haven’t been to Walton for a couple of years and in that time, it is quite unbelievable just how much soil has eroded. I first came here as child and remember walking where now there is empty space.

War heroes and decaying battlements to one side, Walton has another figure of historical renown that lived the last years of his life here. Frank Paton was an artist who included Queen Victoria among his fans (the Queen was also a patron) and who rose to prominence during those halcyon days. The art of Frank Paton is not the sort that has great appeal to be although I can see its virtues bit it is very much of the age it was painted in and not as lasting as the Impressionists. It is rather twee and coy with lots of images of cute little animals often captured peering into looking glasses or posing with neatly placed balls. It has to be said that the gentleman managed to capture their likeness extremely well but I still have reservations about their worth.

Paton wasn’t born in Walton nor in Essex; Paton was a Londoner and was born in Stepney. Although famed for his paintings it was his etched Christmas cards that cemented his fame and made him large amounts of money as the cards, marketed as a quality product, sold for half a guinea each which was expensive for those days. He moved to Walton when he was 53 but only lived there for a short time as he died in November 1909 just ten days before his 54th birthday. He was described as a “kindly, unassuming man with a rare fund of humour” which may be why he drew such quaint portraits.

Another claim to fame that Walton has is its pier that, being built in 1830, is, if not the oldest pier in Britain and some say it is, it is certainly one of the oldest. It has none of the Victorian elegance associated with such structures and lacks the grace, style and class as shown by Brighton Pier but that notwithstanding it still has rough-hewn charm. It is not the longest pier as that title belongs to Southend but it is the third longest. (Southport coming a firm second). There is nothing quite like taking a walk along a pier. Ice cream in one hand, seagulls overhead and a lusty, salt breeze blowing through your hair but I have no intention of walking down any pier today be it Southport, Southend or indeed Walton. My feet are fine but I am still thirsty and it is a desperate thirst that needs quenching.

The pier stands behind me and day is drawing on and I decide to make a move. There is still Harwich to see and Dedham and then Borley. American’s love Borely and not just because it is such a pretty place not because of the spectres that have been there but because Harry Price psychic researcher, author and ghost hunter did much of his famed research there.

But then I hear you cry, wait, you haven’t told us what London Clay is. (I did mention it earlier). Is it hardcore shipped from the heart of Hackney or mud from the middle of Millwall? Neither! London Clay is a marine geological formation of Ypresian age. It is found around the areas of Wiltshire, Kent and in great supply here in Essex, more specifically at Walton-on-the-Naze. (Bet you wished you had never asked now!). The clay has been used for making house bricks and for pottery but it is not for that purpose that London Clay is most notable for but rather that it dates back millions of years to when this region would have been covered in a lush green forest much like East Africa or Indonesia today. Among the many fossils that can be found are bivalves (not spare car parts), gastropods (not French chefs), worm tubes, brittle stars, sharks teeth and birds that no longer exist: Antalavis Oxford (it looked a lot like or was possibly related to the Magpie-Goose of Australia). There were also remains found of a type of horse, Hyracotherium. Quite amazing what you can find buried in a load of mud isn’t it?

I take my leave of Walton with its finite future; fling a farewell wave toward Frinton and head off toward Harwich, the seaport from where ships set sail to Holland.

all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.


Gel said...

Quick stop to thank you for popping in so soon again. I'll be back to read this and I FINALLY am whipping my blogroll back up. Well, not really whipping, unless you count those red leather gloves and leggings...I'm being too saucy, I know, but 'tis fun.

You're on my blogroll again. I'm long overdue in reconstructing the list of my blogmates from that computer crash a couple of yrs ago. Whether you're tied up or not, remains in your imagination (or mine lol). And yes, I'd love to accompany you and photograph the sites!

Gel said...

I am are amazingly prolific, CJ! (You may want to wear some "armor" when you visit next... hehe)

GPV said...

I want to thank you for sending me your scripts for I enjoy to read stories on paper(why???)
It's a great help since I went to school in the USA and the spirit of the words aren't exactly the same wether it's from the new or the old world,so reading you helps a lot to understand people from England, thanks again.

C.J.Duffy said...

GEL>>>I put on my armour and visited my amour [;-)] and got back out by the skin of my teeth. A very funny blog I read too!

GPV>>>Glad you like my Wilful Walks. Real English is very different from all the regional dialects spoken by American's, Canadian's, Indiaina's etc; even my own regional English is very different to many of my countrymen.

weirsdo said...

Great armchair tourism for me as usual.
I don't know about Frinton, but Wodehouse did feature similar seaside towns. There's a great story in which Bertie tries to induce a toddler to say "Kiss Fweddy," to help the perpetually hapless Frederick Widgeon get his girl du jour.

C.J.Duffy said...

Weirsdo>>>Armchair tourism sounds fine to me.

Follow by Email



A Utility Fish Shed Blog

A Utility Fish Shed Blog