Frinton is a real Wonderland

Martin Newell: There's been a bit of a fuss about Frinton this week, it having been the subject of a documentary in BBC TV's Wonderland series. It could not have been otherwise.

Martin Newell

There's been a bit of a fuss about Frinton this week, it having been the subject of a documentary in BBC TV's Wonderland series. It could not have been otherwise. Frinton's good denizens are easily roused, as I found to my own cost, almost two decades ago, having just penned a satirical poem about the town. This apart, the film: The Curious World of Frinton-on-Sea was beautifully-made and exquisitely edited. At times, the location shots echoed certain modern paintings. The camera lingered pruriently over its elderly subjects and the microphone seemed to hang upon each hesitant utterance, teasing out reluctant confessions as it did so. In short, the film was a work of art.

It was also mean, jaundiced and incomplete, portraying Frinton as a sort of geriatric Stepford. It was the sound of conceited London doing what it does desperately best; sneering at Essex. You could almost hear them braying and whinnying in their Hoxton juice-bars: “A film about Frinton? In Essex? Haw haw! Even better- it's about old people. Unbelievable, darling.” The film was also proof that if the camera doesn't lie, it can sometimes be deliriously economical with the truth.

Where for instance was the long shot from the top of the Greensward, sweeping down towards the Golf Club? Frinton has space and elegance. The camera managed somehow to miss it. Frinton also has its tree-lined avenues and the great houses with their small follies: a mock witch-cage here, a Spanish mission wall there, a lychgate and an ornamental hedge elsewhere. Why didn't the camera take a stroll there? This is actually historical stuff. Frinton is a personification of pre-war suburbia at its most opulent. John Betjeman would have adored it. The problem for our media-wolves is that it's not a sexy bit of history. Frinton hasn't got enough oak beams, honeystone almshouses or lovely former artisans terraces to simper over. For this very reason Griff Rhys Jones won't be roaring down there in the near future with a cri-de coeur on behalf of Connaught Avenue and its charming shopfronts. A further persistent myth about Frinton is that only old people live there. This is not quite true. Although Frinton does have a high proportion of silver citizens. Why is this? Well, it's safe for a start. It's also quiet and orderly, possessing a proper high street with lots of shops. Would you prefer all of our old people to live on the edge a bit more - to leaf through their final chapters sequestered in high-rise flats, hiding out from hoodies and scared to go to the shops, like they are in other towns? Now we come to the Sainted Gates - the knitted portcullis of Frinton's guarded heart. If they want their gates, why shouldn't they just keep them? What is all this fuss about?

If you really want things like piers, candy floss, arcades and Fun Pubs - which experience tells us, they rarely are - then go to cheerful Clacton or Walton, whose hard-working traders will tremble with gratitude to see you. So far as the Great British seaside goes, Frinton is the equivalent of the Quiet Carriage on a train. Its people are so disarmingly genteel as to seem archaic. When, during the film a passing yobbo hurls a very modern expletive at an old chap who's conducting a survey by Frinton's venerated railway gates, it comes as a shock to the viewer, though its recipient barely raises an eyebrow. And then there is the sea. The beautiful sea and Frinton's long, clean golden beach. Ever tried to get onto it on a hot day? And yet, for much of the year, the place is a haven of peace; the sort of soul sanctuary which many deluded metro-types brave expensive oriental holidays for - complete with a round-trip home via the London School of Tropical Diseases.

Frinton with all its foibles might seem strange to some. But at least it belongs to itself. Its shopping centre has not yet been homogenised like so many other towns of its size. We shouldn't be laughing at its residents, for being motivated and stubborn enough to hold their ground. We should be applauding them. Better still, we should be learning from them. But best time to go to Frinton is on a day in spring when you're feeling delicate, after say, a celebration. Go and have a late breakfast there amidst the quiet tinkle of teaspoons and the freeze-dried voices of your fellow diners. Now mosey round the well-ordered second-hand shops. Then you will begin to understand what Frinton is for. It is the ormolu clock upon England's flaking mantlepiece. It should be left as it is.

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