TOLLESBURY IN ESSEX on the Blackwater River estuary is a village just over 5 miles southeast of Tiptree, a small town close to the Wilkinson jam factory and museum. This charming village, where a good friend of ours lives, has a venerable parish church, St Mary the Virgin.
In common with most of the parish churches we have visited during our extensive roamings around the English countryside, this church, whose construction had begun by the 11th century, contains a rich selection of interesting features. These are well described in a copiously illustrated booklet about the edifice published by the Friends of St Mary’s Tollesbury in early 2020. Amongst the interesting things we saw within St Mary’s, one of them particularly intrigued me: the incorporation of Roman bricks in the fabric of the church.
Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a Romano-British cemetery near the village. They have concluded from their findings that in about 200 AD, there was a significant rural settlement located near Tollesbury at that time. Other remains are evidence that the district around the estuarine village has been the site of human activity since the Neolithic era (4000-2000 BC).
As if to prove that recycling is not simply a recent trend, the church of St Mary incorporates bricks made whilst the Romans occupied England. These can be seen clearly above the south doorway within the church. The 11th century arch above this portal is made entirely of recycled Roman bricks. Some more brickwork made with Roman bricks can be seen exposed above the gothic archway in the western wall of the nave, which is also part of the late 11th century bell tower.
Although the re-used Roman bricks have been ‘highlighted’ in St Mary’s, the structure of the parish church in the nearby village of Goldhanger also contains recycled Roman bricks. Making bricks at the time when these churches were built would have been far more laborious than making bricks using today’s industrial techniques. So, re-using bricks that had already been made would have been very sensible.
FROM A FIELD on my friend’s farm in Essex, I could see the mid-morning sun glistening on the water of the estuary of the River Blackwater. Moored out on the water, there was a trawler with a red hull and white superstructure. A tall aerial mast, just about visible through the heat haze, was mounted on its deck in front of the bridge housing. When my friend saw me taking a photograph of the vessel, she mentioned what it is, and this caused distant memories to surface in my mind.
When I was a child in the early 1960s, I had a Phillips radio in my bedroom. I was a keen listener and enjoyed exploring the various stations broadcasting from all over the world. It was during this period and with this radio that, for example, I was able to tune into the propaganda-rich programmes transmitted from Albania by Radio Tirana. Less exotic than this was Radio Luxembourg, which unlike the few rather straightlaced, advert-free BBC stations, pumped out a stream of non-stop ‘pop’ music, punctuated by commercials for products, which were not aimed at audiences in little Luxembourg but instead at consumers in the UK. In those days, I was not much interested in pop music, but I enjoyed the commercials. The only one that I can remember was for a particular football pool company.
Radio Luxembourg was founded in 1933, long before I became one of its listeners. Located outside the UK, it was not subject to any of the legislation that ensured the BBC had a monopoly as a broadcaster in Britain.
In 1964, the Irish businessman Ronan O’Rahilly (1940-2020) and Alan Crawford came up with the idea of broadcasting to the UK from a ship moored in international waters. This way both the restrictive laws that protected the BBC, and the record company’s control of pop music broadcasting in the UK, were overcome. Radio Caroline was born and began broadcasting non-stop pop music from beyond Great Britain’s territorial waters. Caroline was soon followed by other radio stations, such as Radio London, which all made use of the same wheeze to get around the restrictive legislation in the UK. Radio Caroline has had a long and sometimes difficult history since its formation. This is described in great detail on the company’s website (www.radiocaroline.co.uk).
Our friend in Essex told me that what I was photographing is the boat from which Radio Caroline transmitted. I was surprised because, for no good reason, I had believed that Caroline was a thing of the past. The boat moored in the Blackwater is the Ross Revenge, formerly used as a fishing trawler. It was not the first boat to house Radio Caroline; it served this purpose between 1983 and 1991. A radio station bearing the name Caroline still functions. What is important about Radio Caroline and other so-called ‘pirate’ stations is that their existence had some considerable influence in causing the BBC to commence broadcasting pop music. Radio 1, which replaced the BBC’s Light Programme, was started in 1967 in response to the popularity of the pirate stations amongst the listening public.
I am glad that we were shown around our friend’s farm and that I spotted that boat in the estuary. Although I did not often listen to Radio Caroline, seeing the vessel made me recall my early radio receiver (‘wireless’) and the joy it gave me during my early teens.
THE COUNTY OF ESSEX is immediately east of Greater London. Parts of it are heavily built-up and not particularly attractive. The rest of the county is both varied and delightful to explore. So near to London, many parts of it retain rural characteristics, which one might not believe existed so near to the huge city of London. Recently, we visited Goldhanger, a small village close to the River Blackwater’s estuary.
The village near Maldon (famous for its salt) has been known as ‘Goldanger’, ‘Goldangra’, and ‘Goldangre’. According to Maura Benham (1913-1994) in her history of Goldhanger, the place’s name has always had ‘gold’ as its first part. The gold probably referred to a yellow flower. The second part might either originate in the word ‘hanger’ meaning hill, or ‘anger’ meaning grassland. It is not known exactly when the settlement, which is at the head of a small creek, was first established but there is archaeological evidence suggesting it was already inhabited in the Iron Age around 500BC. One reason for the village’s existence might have been for making salt from seawater. The local saltworks came to an end in the early 19th century.
The heart of the small village is The Square, where Church, Fish, and Head Streets meet. We ate a hearty, tasty lunch in the Chequers Inn. This was listed as the only alehouse in the village in a document dated 1769. It might have been used by smugglers long ago. The building housing it has been used as a pub for at least 250 years. Prior to that it was built about 250 years earlier as a residence. Constructed in stages, the earliest part was probably built in 1500 (http://past.goldhanger.org.uk/Chequers.htm#:~:text=The%20Chequers%20has%20been%20an,landowner%20as%20his%20private%20ressidence.) Inside, the pub, built on several different levels, with an abundance of ageing timber beams, has an authentic ‘olde worlde’ atmosphere and appearance.
The pub is the southern neighbour of the attractive St Peter’s parish church. According to the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, the church originated in the 11th century and some evidence of this can still be observed. The south aisle was built in the 14th century and the west tower in the 15th. Pevsner makes special mention of a tomb chest with a black stone cover plate which has indentations where several brasses used to be. This stands in the South Chapel, which was built by the local Higham family, whose farm was in Goldhanger, in the early 1500s. The chest tomb contains the remains of Thomas Heigham who died in 1531,
Although the church has many other interesting features to enjoy, I will mention only one of them. Located close to the Higham tomb, I noticed a curious wooden carving, a sculpture depicting two forearms with hands clutching or gripping something I could not identify. This was sculpted by Crawshay Frost. According to a short history of the church, this artwork was dated “1960s”. Whether that means it was placed in the church then, or created then, is not stated. I had not encountered the name Crawshay Frost before visiting Goldhanger. A fascinating web page (http://past.goldhanger.org.uk/Frost.htm) described a notable inhabitant of the village, Horace Crawshay Frost (1897-1964), who lived in Fish Street between 1926 and 1964.
Horace graduated in History at the University of Oxford. During WW1, in which he suffered injuries (both physical and psychological), he took many photographs, some of which are now kept in London’s Imperial War Museum. After leaving the army in the early 1920s, he taught at a school in Brentwood (Essex). Soon after that, he moved to Goldhanger, where he gave private tuition to the children of the curate. In Goldhanger:
“… he involved himself in local history, archaeology, art, sculpture, music, ornithology, horticulture, photography and writing, and also established a reputation as a local philanthropist of extreme intelligent. Whether it was because he was sufficiently wealthy, or because he was too ill, or both, it appears that for most of the time he lived in the village he did not engaged in any kind of full time employment, but rather he spent his time enthusiastically pursuing various hobbies and pastimes, and paid others to help him with them.”
On the basis of this information provided on the webpage, I feel that it was Horace, who produced the sculpture I saw in the church. Further evidence of his interest in wood carving comes from a book, “Celebration”, the autobiography of Graham David Smith. He recalled visiting Horace in Goldhanger in 1955, during the time of the so-called Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya. Smith wrote:
“We had come to work and earn money. Mr Frost had a perfect job for us. Laid out in front of the open kitchen door were several mahogany beams ordered through local woodyards and a large satchel of finely honed steel chisels from Harrod’s. Mr Frost, deeply disturbed by any stories about war, had come by what he thought would be a perfect solution of that awful Mau-Mau business in Kenya: art to soothe the savage breast. To get the Africans started, he had sketched out the wood scenes and motifs he thought conducive to a peaceful and pastoral life.”
On our way from the church back to the car, I noticed three pumps on Head Street, near to the Chequers pub. Two of them, standing side by side, were old-fashioned petrol pups bearing the ‘Pratts’ logo. These well cared for objects were installed in about the 1930s, but maybe originally in Church Street. Opposite these and next to the village car park, there is another pump. This was installed to supply water.
The water pump is above a water well that was dug in the hot summer of 1921. According to a notice affixed to the hand operated pumping mechanism, the well is 70 feet deep “with a further 100 feet of artesian bore, making 170 feet in all.” In 2012, to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, Goldhanger Parish Council restored both pump and well to working condition.
Once again, a brief outing to rural Essex, albeit a small part of it, has proved to be most interesting.
MOST OF SOUTHEND in Essex was built after the Victorian era. The town on the estuary of the River Thames was and still is the nearest seaside resort to London. According to “Encyclopaedia Britannica”, Southend:
“…became fashionable as a seaside resort when visited by Princess Charlotte of Wales in 1801 and by her mother, Princess Caroline (wife of George IV), in 1803.”
Originally, Prittlewell, once a village north of Southend but now one of its suburbs, was the only settlement in the area now occupied by the modern town of Southend. South east of it on the coast was a tiny village called Leigh, which is now the much larger Leigh-on-Sea. The resort now known as Southend-on-Sea was developed at the end of the 18th century in Prittlewell’s southern district of South End. Today, more than seven miles of buildings extend from Leigh-on-Sea through Southend to Shoeburyness.
The High Street, part of a road heading south from Prittlewell, runs from near Southend Victoria Station towards the sea, ending at the edge of a steep slope that falls to the seashore below. Various roads and a lift can be used to descend this incline. At the top of the slope, the High Street meets the eastern end of Royal Terrace. At the corner where these two streets meet, stands the Royal Hotel. Next to the hotel and lining Royal terrace, numbers 1 to 15 were built in the 1790s at the same time as the hotel. These were backed by the Royal Mews, a road still in existence. These constructions were part of a then new phase of development of the town, which was known as ‘New Town’.
The hotel, a fine Georgian edifice, opened with a grand ball in 1793. Princess Caroline House that adjoins the hotel. number 1 the High Street, is a listed building, which looks as if it is contemporary with the hotel. The gardens on the slope in front of the hotel and the Terrace are known as The Shrubbery and were originally for the exclusive use of residents in the Terrace, but now they are open to the public. According to www.southend.gov.uk/historic-southend/history-southend/2:
“The Terrace was named “Royal” following visits by Princess Caroline, wife of the Prince Regent, in 1803 and for a short time attracted fashionable society. But difficult access from London by road and river discouraged further development until the construction of the railway in 1856. Royal Terrace is the only surviving Georgian terrace in Southend.”
Just east of the High Street and dominating the shoreline is the massive Park Inn Palace hotel, formerly the The Metropole. Built in 1901, this hotel that looks like an oversized liner had 200 rooms, a billiard room, and a splendid ballroom. During WW1, it was temporarily used as a Royal Naval Hospital. An online article (http://beyondthepoint.co.uk/first-world-war-southend-the-palace-hotel/) related:
“The Palace Hotel was built in 1901 and served great use in the war effort. Messrs Tolhurst; the owners of the hotel, were generous enough to offer the building up for free as a naval hospital for the rest of the war. Its glorious five star interior would’ve been quite bizarre with hospital beds placed amongst its lounges and ballrooms. It held possibly the world’s first purpose-made x-ray department. It recently underwent refurbishment by Park Inn to bring it back to its former glory.”
Both hotels overlook both the sea and Southend Pier. The older, Royal Hotel, is less of a blot on the landscape than the Palace hotel.
UNTIL WE WENT to Southend (in Essex) in February 2022, it was not the first place to spring to mind when thinking about art galleries. To my mind, Southend was mainly associated with its spectacular pier, which is over one mile in length. Now, to the pier I will add the Beecroft Art Gallery to the good reasons for visiting Southend.
The gallery has been housed in a distinctive 20th century building on Victoria Avenue since 2014. Its current home was formerly Southend’s Central Library. The edifice was designed by Borough Architect R Horwell and opened in 1974. Prior to moving there, the gallery was housed in a large Edwardian house on Station Road in nearby Westcliffe-on-Sea.
The permanent collection of art in the gallery was donated to the town in 1952 by a local collector, a solicitor called Walter Beecroft, who worked in Leigh-on-Sea. His paintings ranged from the 17th century to the late 19th, and a few from the 20th. A selection of these was on display in the first-floor gallery of the Beecroft when we visited. Newer additions, mainly on long-term loan, to the gallery’s collection were hung alongside examples donated by Beecroft.
We went to the Beecroft to see a temporary exhibition of 20th century artists from London’s East End. It was excellently curated. I will write about this in the future. There were also temporary exhibitions of Pakistani wedding outfits and feminism during the covid19 lockdown. The basement of the Beecroft is currently dedicated to the history of jazz.
All in all, the Beecroft Gallery is well worth visiting. The quality of the exhibitions we saw there puts to shame a few of the better-known art galleries in London.
THE FIRST TIME I visited Southend in Essex was in about 1960. I was invited to go there on a day trip with my best friend, his younger brother, and their father, who was a senior official in London Transport. We went by car, stopping on the way at several London Transport bus garages, where we saw a few vintage busses. I remember two things about Southend on that first visit. First, we ate fish and chips. It was the first time I had sampled this cuisine because my parents were too snobbish about food to have been seen dead in a fish and chip shop. I have enjoyed fish and chips ever since that time in Southend. The other thing that sticks in my mind was travelling along Southend Pier in a special train that carried passengers almost to its furthest point from the seafront. It was not until the 11th of February 2022 that I made my second visit to Southend.
Southend Pier is the longest pleasure pier in the world. It is 1.34 miles (2.16 kilometres) in length. The present pier, which replaced an earlier wooden one built in the early 1830s, was completed in the late 1880s. it was opened to the public in 1889. At about this time, the single-track railway running along it was also ready for use. It was extended by 1898. The trains were then electrically operated. In 1978, the electric railway was closed. By 1986, it had been re-opened using trains that were driven by diesel engines. It was on one of these that we took a return trip this February.
I enjoy piers. They provide a way of going out to sea without leaving land and without risking seasickness. In addition, like the one at Southend, most of the piers in England are visually satisfying when viewed from the shore. At the sea end of Southend Pier, there are various structures ranging from painted wooden shacks to the beautiful contemporary-style Royal Pavilion, opened in 2012. Despite being a complete contrast to the other constructions on the end of the pier, it enhances to visual attractiveness of the area.
Although the pier was not the primary reason for our excursion to Southend, it certainly enhanced our enhancement of the place as did our lunch at a local fish and chips shop.
DURING A SHORT VISIT to Chelmsford in Essex, we noticed an old hotel The Saracens Head. Situated in the centre of the city – yes, Chelmsford is a city; it has a fine cathedral – it bears a commemorative plaque which states that the inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), founder of the Wireless Telegraph Company, stayed at the hotel between 1912 and 1928, when he made visits to his New Street factory in Chelmsford. Marconi made the city a place that was to change the world. It is hard to imagine how our world would be today without radio signals.
I wondered why he had chosen Chelmsford to site his factory. The only explanation I can find is that Marconi needed electricity for his factory and that Chelmsford had a good supply of it. In any case, his factory provided work for many (up to 6000) people in the city.
As for The Saracens Head hotel, I have not yet stayed there, which might be a good thing as it receives many poor reviews on Tripadvisor.
Prior to establishing his factory in Chelmsford, he lived in a terraced house near London’s Westbourne Grove, at number 71. He lived there between 1896 and 1897. That was 2 years after he had made the world’s first demonstration of radio transmission. He arrived in London from Italy in 1896 because few in his native land could see much of a future in what he had demonstrated.
THAXTED IS A PICTURESQUE small town in Essex, about six and a half miles northeast of Stansted Airport. Apart from its numerous quaint old buildings, the town has three notable landmarks: an old windmill, a 15th century guildhall, and a large parish church, which was built between 1340 and 1510 during the time when Thaxted was an important centre for the manufacturing cutlery. Also, Thaxted is home to an annual music festival, whose existence derives from the discovery of the town by a composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1934), creator of “The Planets” and many other musical compositions, who was on a walking tour in Essex during the winter of 1913.
Holst, who was born in Cheltenham, was living in London by 1913 and teaching music at St Pauls School for Girls in Hammersmith, James Allen’s Girls School in Dulwich, and Morley College for adults in Lambeth. At the same time, he was busy composing.
Holst had come to study at The Royal College of Music in London in 1893. Soon after arriving in London, he became acquainted with William Morris (1834-1896) and attended meetings at the latter’s house in Hammersmith, where he would have heard lectures on socialism given by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and others. Holst joined the Hammersmith Socialist Society (‘HSS’), which was led by Morris. Many of the socialists he met including Shaw were vegetarians, as was the composer Wagner, whom Holst greatly admired. As a student and a regular attender of meetings of the HSS, he became a vegetarian and at the same time developed a great interest in Hinduism (www.ivu.org/people/music/holst.html). He began studying Sanskrit at The School of Oriental and African Studies (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india) and several of his compositions bear Indian-sounding titles, such as “Savitri” and another opera called “Sita”, and songs based on the Rig Veda.
According to Nalini Ghuman:
“In contrast to the vague musical orientalism in vogue during the height of the British Empire, Holst’s hymns, with their bona fide Indian texts, subjects, and musical elements, have often seemed decidedly ‘un-Indian’ to the uninformed ear: ‘Sound firm impressions of the East from a sane Western perspective’ declared The Musical Times; ‘They do not suggest a point further East than Leicester-square’ (Daily Telegraph); after all, explained the Manchester Guardian ‘many real Eastern musical ideas are frankly ugly and uninteresting’. Their Indian musical roots have long been denied by the composer’s biographers.” (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india).
However, Ghuman points out in her article that Holst did incorporate elements of Indian music, including emulating Vedic chanting and a South Indian mode, the namanarayani. You would need to be a serious musician with specialist interest in Indian music to be aware of these features whilst listening to Holst’s Indian inspired compositions.
Returning to his political leanings, major biographies of Holst tend not to focus much on his connections with socialism, but an informative article, “Gustav HoIst, William Morris and the Socialist Movement” by Andrew Heywood (Journal of the William Morris Society, vol 11, no. 4: 1996), shows that his involvement was far from inconsiderable. In addition to attending meetings of the HSS, Holst conducted its socialist choir, played the harmonium on the ‘official socialist’ cart, and was involved in the administration of the society. Heywood wrote that:
“In the light of his clear commitment to the socialist movement through 1896 it would seem likely that his involvement with the musical activity of the society did not stem from a lack of political commitment; rather it was an opportunity to serve the movement in a way which utilised his musical talents and interest.”
It was through the HSS that Gustav met his wife Isobel, who not only sang in the socialist choir but also, according to Heywood, was politically active in the society.
So, it was with a background of involvement with socialism that Holst walked into Thaxted in late 1913 and took such a great liking to the place that he rented a 17th century cottage there (actually, in Monk Street, 1 ½ miles from Thaxted) from its owner, the Jewish author Samuel Levy Bensusan (1872-1958). Thus began Holst’s several year’s association with the town. It was not long before he made the acquaintance of Thaxted’s vicar, Conrad le Despenser Roden Noel (1869-1942). After the cottage in Monk Street burnt down, Holst and his family lived in a house, The Manse (formerly known as ‘The Steps’), in the centre of Thaxted. Today, this is marked by a commemorative plaque.
Noel was not a run-of-the-mill country cleric. He was a Christian Socialist and a member of Social Democratic Federation, a founder member of the British Socialist Party, and for some time the Chairman of the Anti-Imperialist League, supporting the struggle for independence both in Ireland and India. Deeply committed to Christian socialism, social justice, and egalitarianism, Noel made sure that what went on in his parish church promoted these ideals. Noel’s biographer, Reg Groves, wrote that Conrad:
“…emphasised always that there was much more to making a new society than the acquisition of political power and the transfer of some property from the rich to the state, from one set of rulers to another. In this as in so many things, he was at one with the wisest of English socialists, William Morris, and much of what Morris said in prose and poetry and in the work of his hand, Noel tried to say in the group life he had developed at Thaxted”.
Noel and Holst shared socialist sympathies and more.
During Holst’s sojourn’s in Thaxted in between his heavy teaching and other musical commitments, he attended services led by Noel. It was after one of these held at Whitsun in 1915, that Holst, having heard the great potential of singers in the church, approached Noel and offered to give the choir the benefit of his professional skills as a trainer of vocalists. Noel, recognizing the splendid opportunity, soon had Holst become his church’s ‘master of music.’
Heywood explains that Holst’s:
“…first job was to train the choir for the church. Its members were drawn from the local population, and they achieved high standards with Holst. One member, Lily Harvey from the local sweet factory, was sent to London for professional training because of her exceptional vocal talents. In addition to his activities with the choir and playing the organ, Holst organised three major music festivals in Thaxted between 1916 and 1918.”
Lily was not the only person sent to London for musical training. The then young curate Jack Putterill, who was politically turbulent and played the organ, became one of Holst’s students at Morley College. Jack, who married Noel’s daughter, succeeded Noel as Vicar in 1942.
The festivals organised by Holst involved not only performers from Thaxted but also some of his students from Morley College and St Pauls as well as other musicians from outside the town. Each festival lasted several days, on each of which there were many hours of music making, both rehearsed concert pieces and much spontaneous music.
Holst not only helped make music in Thaxted but also composed there. The plaque on the The Manse, where he lived, is positioned on the outside of the wall of the room in which he composed. While living at Monk Street, he composed much of what was to become the well-known piece, “The Planets”. The “Jupiter” section of “The Planets” contains a tune or theme that Holst named “Thaxted” (you can listen to this familiar tune here: https://youtu.be/GdTpBSg7_8E). In 1921, “Thaxted” was used as the tune for the patriotic song “I vow to Thee, My Country”, whose words were written by the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918). Holst also composed pieces specially for Thaxted and its people. These works include a special version of Byrd’s “Mass for Three Voices”, “Three Hymns for Thaxted” (later known as “Three Festival Choruses”), and a setting of the Cornish carol “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day” (hear it on https://youtu.be/Cz_0j__FDuc).
Although the last festival in Thaxted with which Holst was intimately involved was in 1918, he never lost touch with music making in the town, even after he moved from it to nearby Little Easton in 1925. Holst’s pupil Jack Putterill, an accomplished musician who was Thaxted’s assistant curate from 1925 to 1937 and its vicar from 1942 until 1973, helped keep the town’s musical life alive and vibrant. In the 1950s and 1960s, concerts with great orchestras such as The London Philharmonic and audiences in excess of 1000 were held in the parish church. In 1974, the hundredth anniversary of Holst’s birth, the first of what was eventually to become an annual music festival was held in Thaxted. By the 1980s, the Thaxted Festival had become a regular and respected part of the British musical calendar (www.thaxtedfestival.co.uk/).
Apart from the Festival and the house with the plaque in Thaxted, most souvenirs of Holst’s time in the town can be found within the cathedral-like parish church, which, incidentally, was once a candidate for becoming Essex’s cathedral (this honour was granted to the parish church in the centre of much larger Chelmsford). The church in Thaxted contains a photograph of Holst with singers and musicians at the Whitsuntide Festival held in 1916. Near this, there is some calligraphy with the words of “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day”. The church’s Lincoln organ built in 1821 by Henry Cephas Lincoln (who worked between c1810 and c1855) was played by Gustav Holst and has been recently restored. Not far from the organ is a cloth banner, sewn by Conrad Noel’s wife, which was used in the 1917 Whitsuntide Festival. It bears the words “The aim of music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation”. These words were written by the composer JS Bach (1685-1750) and were chosen for use on the banner by Holst. Near this banner, there is a bust of Holst’s friend and collaborator, Conrad Noel.
Both Holst and his student Putterill fell in love with Thaxted at first sight and were so strongly drawn to it that the town came to occupy important places in their hearts and minds. We first visited Thaxted in the early summer of 2020 soon after covid19 restrictions began to be relaxed sufficiently to permit travelling out of one’s immediate neighbourhood. Like Holst and Putterill, Thaxted made a special impression on us, so much so that we have visited it at least twice since our first encounter with it. Next year, we hope to be able to attend concert(s) at the Thaxted Festival inside a church that we have grown to love.
THE COUNTY OF Essex is traversed by numerous rivers (http://essexrivershub.org.uk/), one of which is the Crouch. This lies south of the Blackwater and north of the Thames. The small town of Burnham-on-Crouch with its picturesque river front and much-favoured by yacht owners lies on the north bank of the estuary of the Crouch, about five miles from the North Sea. So near London, the town feels so far away from the metropolis – another world. Once home to several boat-building yards and various factories, Burnham appears to have become a centre for leisure activities. If you are staying in the town and have had your fill of pubs, cafés, and bistros, there is also a small cinema that shows the latest films.
The Rio cinema, despite its name, is not on the river front, but not far from it. Its decorative façade and foyer are backed by a shed like building with a corrugated iron roof, which contains the auditorium and screen, which I was not able to enter as we visited Burnham one early morning. The cinema has a long history (http://burnhamrio.co.uk/history.php), which I will summarise.
Burnham’s first cinema, The Electric, opened in 1910, making Burnham-on-Crouch one of the first towns in England to have a cinema. In 1931, this ran into problems when a rival, a purpose-built cinema, The Princess, was opened. The Electric closed and the larger Princess thrived. In the late 1960s, its name was changed to its present one, The Rio.
Burnham-on-Crouch is one of the towns and villages in the Dengie Peninsula, which until quite recently was a relatively impoverished part of Essex. During The Great Depression when money was scarce and people lived literally ‘from hand to mouth’, they had little or no money to buy cinema tickets. In those difficult times, the cinema was prepared to accept goods instead of money for tickets. The history relates:
“A Jam Jar would get you admission for the Saturday morning picture shows. Something as uncommon as an orange would admit a whole family midweek…”
Things have changed in the Dengie Peninsula. Today, many of its inhabitants and visitors are:
“… fat merchant bankers, Hooray Henrys, Minor Celebs and eastern Europe nouveau rich.”
The Rio was one of the last cinemas in England to have a gas-powered emergency lighting system. Reading this reminded me of my visits to The Everyman Cinema in Hampstead during the 1960s. I saw many films there. My enduring memory of the auditorium was that it always smelled of leaking gas. I now wonder whether The Everyman, like The Rio, also had a gas-powered backup lighting system.
The Rio in Burnham has survived two of its rivals, The Flicks in nearby South Woodham Ferrers and The Empire in Maldon, also not far away. The latter, which was housed in an Art Deco building, has sadly been demolished. The Rio’s website makes it clear that the 280 seat cinema is not in the Art Deco style. I am not quite sure which architectural style, if any, can lay claim to it. However, next time we visit Burnham, we will make sure that we watch a screening at the long-lived Rio.