Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Special memories remain from a place that I can still call home

Martin Newell's Joy of Essex

Martin Newell's Joy of Essex - Credit: nick strugnell

We’re in Joe’s new Mini heading down the B1027, the back way to Aingers Green. The hamlet is about half a country mile from the rail crossing at Great Bentley. My brother, the railway man, 14 years younger than I am, used to look after that crossing. Then, a few short years ago, amidst some controversy, they automated all the level crossing gates along the Colchester-Clacton line.

Frinton had been an especial bone of contention. Sir Progress, however, being Sir Progress, eventually had his little way. Younger Bruv took a job at another crossing, 40 miles across the county.

Great Bentley isn’t mentioned in despatches much. Its railway station however, is. At least, it once was. For decades, rather than years, it won the Best Kept Station award for its region. It was a charming English village station, straight out of a 1940s Powell Pressburger film. And I’m not kidding you, even as a young head-in-the-clouds coxcomb, stumbling blearily onto the train each morning, I’d still notice how pleasant it was.

Great Bentley station, at this point, boasted a goldfish pond on one of its platforms and a little ornamental garden. I think at one stage there may even have been the odd garden gnome around the place. The certificates verifying its post-war supremacy as a village station of note adorned its ticket hall walls long after the competitions had ceased to exist.

Great Bentley village green is popularly supposed to be the biggest in England. It was notable for the fact that during cricket matches, its batsmen, upon leaving the pavilion to walk out to bat, had to first cross a road in order to do so.

Bentley green is beautiful and vast. The houses arrayed around it are classic English colonial-style Regency, typical of this part of north-east Essex. Tucked into one side of the green is a gorgeous little duck pond with white railings. If a Hollywood set-designer were ever to concoct such a scene, it would possibly be rejected for being unrealistic. There’s a village school, with a little clock tower. My brother went there and today his children do. If you approach Great Bentley by train, you’ll also see the church tower across the fields. This is 1950s Ladybird book territory. At a push, if we ever needed a setting for an Essex location for The Archers, Great Bentley might be our man. The place remains, I suppose, sort-of home to me, although I haven’t actually lived there since the mid 1970s.

My mother, the former ATS girl – that’s her, dancing in Piccadilly on VE Day – was, up until quite recently, still looking out for “older” people. Then, rather carelessly, last October she broke her shoulder and is now herself being looked after. So, while she’s recuperating in a care home just down the road from the ancestral villa, Younger Bruv and I went to look the place over.

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Two days before Christmas, with a storm closing in and the day already getting its coat on to leave, we go in. The visit was shaping up as a quest of sorts. During recent conversations with our mother, it transpired that she’d never been into the loft-space accessed by our old bedroom.

It is a melancholy and slightly spooky thing to do to enter the house, which as a very young man, you recall moving into as a newly-built house. I may have harboured fanciful ideas of what we’d find in that loft space. Joe, who left home rather more recently than I did, had only a vague idea of what there’d be.

Our mother was blunter. “About half of Joe’s old Fiat, I should think.” It was true. As I crawled over the dusty joists, there was quite a bit of 1980s petrol-head paraphernalia to negotiate. As for me, I’d hoped possibly, to find a small box of old vinyl albums, perhaps a folder full of my early scrawlings: lyrics, diaries, teenage angst etc. I was disappointed. Forty years on, all that I found was a Kodak Instamatic camera, given to me for Christmas in 1965. It used to take funny square little monchrome snaps of the last days of my childhood. I still have some of them in a dog-eared photo album.

So, in the end, my brother and I didn’t find much. But in a way we did. Two days before the current Christmas, and 40 years after that first Christmas which we spent there, the two of us came home. But it ain’t home without your mother in it.

1973 had been the golden age of the Christmas single. There had been an epic chart battle between Wizzard and Slade – they’re still talking about it on national radio to this day,

Aingers Green, back in those scoop-necked days was a cheery sort of a place, a typical Tendring mix of country Essex and adopted London. Essex and London have always rubbed along well together Back then, a new three-bedroom house cost about 13 grand and the interest rate, so my mum reckons, was about 16 per cent.

Now? Now the house is cold. Our father went to the great barrack room in the sky over six years ago. Our mother’s ninja Jack Russell terrier is temporarily re-homed. So there isn’t even anything to savage our ankles. It’s dusk on December 23, 2013. According to the Met Office there’s a humungous storm brewing. At 3.30 pm Mrs Newell’s boys are locking up.