They say foreign travel broadens the mind and this year’s expedition was no exception.
Long haul was out of the question and so we set off last week for a few days in Essex. For once, the border controls were no trouble at all. . As we sped down the M11 past a ‘Welcome to Essex’ sign, all sorts of electronic gizmos must have flashed into action to log our arrival and scan our possessions for dangerous weapons.
I noticed all those subtle difference of being a foreign country immediately. Our little car, weighed down with buckets and spades and other holiday paraphernalia, was buzzed by much larger vehicles, which drove past at great speed on either side of us.
The familiar landscape of soot ridden stone buildings gave way to a charming vernacular architecture of red brick and wooden beams. The market towns with quaint names like Saffron Walden are straight out of Middle Earth. As we headed even further south, along Loughton High Street with its glitzy shops, I knew we were in quite a different country to Front Street in Prudhoe.
I noticed that everyone seems to eat on the pavement . I learned this is known as ‘al fresco’ and involves drinking ‘pre secco’. I always like to try out the local cuisine and in Essex there was much on offer including Italian, Indian and Chinese. Almost everything in fact, except English. Thank goodness then for the occasional branch of Greggs, where I could find a cheese and bacon wrap.
After a few days, I got to grips with the lingo. The locals have an in your face accent that reminds me of a klaxon but I relaxed when I realised that every greeting ended with the patronymic ‘mate’ which must be an offering of friendship.
With the referendum in Scotland fast approaching, I was keen to find out how manifestations of nationalism played out in another small country like Essex – whose population is comparable to the North East.
To my surprise, the Queen is still on the throne in Chelmsford. She has shown all her legendary astuteness in delegating the practical side of opening fetes and old peoples homes to a local footballer and his model wife who act rather like the Northumberlands back home. They also have that heart warming common touch despite their immense wealth . In the Beckhams’ case, it is a self made fortune and that seems very important here.
Indeed wealth is admired and displayed in Essex in an admirably open way that you rarely see in County Durham. They wear gold a lot and have boats. It is all so much more affluent.
Connectivity does not seem to have suffered with independence. Frequent modern trains whisk the working population away early every morning and return them, late at night. The roads are all dual carriageways and seemed an extremely popular place to meet your friends from five o’clock onwards.
Subservience to a large city further west is accepted as the price for all this prosperity. The treaties skilfully negotiated several decades ago with the wider economic area known as the South East have ensured an standard of living that poorer neighbouring countries further north will never match. They thrive on international trade and co operation here.
Essex has immense self confidence but displays of national pride were strangely muted. The red flag with three scimitars is not waved in your face on every street corner like some other places I could mention. The good burghers of Essex wear their national pride in such a light and easy that I began to wonder whether independence had really been worth the fuss after all.
Of course, it could have been so different. If Queen Boadicea had prevailed against the Romans we could all have been subjects of the Empire of Essex. If the Earl of Essex’s coup d’etat had not been defeated by special forces in the sixteenth century, Essex would have ruled the world.
I bought some miniature jars of Tiptree marmalade which will be much appreciated by my friends as souvenirs of our holiday. As I loaded the car, I wondered whether there really is a role for the small nation state in the twenty first century? Isn’t it something that only appeals to those with a chip on their shoulder? Yes indeed, there is always something to learn from trips abroad.
One of the highlights of my foreign holiday was a visit to Tomassi’s ice cream parlour in Southend on Sea. According to the helpful history on the back of the menu, Pasqual and Marianna Tomassi started making ice cream in Langley Park, County Durham in 1912. They made the bold decision to move their business to the boom town of Southend in 1934. The Tomassi’s invested in the first Triple Hedda ice cream machine in Southend and the first Gaggia coffee maker in Essex.
The present two storey restaurant occupies a prominent position on the way from the station to the pier and boasts the best and largest selection of sundaes anywhere. Of the twenty nine varieties of offer, I opted for the Mystical Macaroon and was not disappointed.
Their business, kindled back in those early days in County Durham, has led them to become respected pillars of the community in their adopted country where they were awarded ‘Freedom of Southend’. The firm is now run by Antony and Giovanni Tomassi, who are the third generation of the family. Another brilliant success for entrepreneurship from the North East, exported around the world. I must tell James Ramsbottom.
Sadly, the world’s longest pier, praised by Sir John Betjamin as the heart of Southend, did not live up to my childhood memories. It may, of course, be me rather than the pier that has changed. The main attraction is now Adventure Island whose rides looked very frightening though not as frightening as the proposed Boris Island which may have been built by the time I return to these shores.