Category Archives: Essex

Saffron Walden

To Church Street, under creative commons from Elfiedas photostream. Click pic for link.

To Church Street, under creative commons from Elfieda's photostream. Click pic for link.

Updates here have been a bit sporadic of late, and I apologise unreservedely. I’ve spoken previously of my car troubles, but just last week there was some degree of bike/road interface, followed by a further hip/metal plate and screws interface, so I’m a bit out of action for a while. I’ve summarised here, but hopefully this will give me a little while to catch up on some of the towns I’ve visited recently, starting off with Essex’s Saffron Walden.

We came to Saffron Walden quite by accident one sunny Saturday afternoon in April. It turns out to be quite the attractive medieval market town, and in fact it dates back well before that. The Anglo-Saxon town grew during the Norman rule, gaining the largest stone church in the county, a castle, a priory and a market charter (nicked from nearby Newport). Like Saffron Hill in Farringdon, the town’s name comes from the agriculture of the saffron spice in the 16th and 17th centuries in the area; given that saffron is now worth more for its weight than gold, you can image what a reasonable industry that must have been.

Sometimes I feel I should precede paragraphs like the former with a “here comes the history bit,” a la a L’Oreal advert. It’s out the way now, you’ll be pleased to here, although it does give you a reasonable indicator that Saffron Walden is indeed an attractive, historic, and historic-looking country town, and therefore well worth a going over on Charity Shop Tourism.

Last night I saw Kirstie Allsopp extolling the virtues of “skipping,” stopping where one can to nick stuff out of other people’s rubbish. The point was, it’s not always worth going out to find these places, they’re more likely to just crop up. So with charity shops, and so with Saffron Walden: really we just stopped because we were dying for a coffee. A coffee we found in one of my new favourite venues, Cafe Cou Cou in George Street. I heartily recommend the produce here: the scones were vast and delicious, and the variety of cakes, pastries and breads looked the equal of Marmalade, or Fleet River Bakery.

Just opposite Cou Cou we started, in an Oxfam Bookshop. Although I left empty-handed this was a decent shop, well-stocked as these places often are with interesting titbits and hauls. Then, through some tiny, winding squares and streets to King Street, whereupon we find our second Oxfam, nice again although nothing ventured on the day. Nextdoor was British Heart Foundation, of the same ilk as Oxfam and just down the road, Cancer Research.

By this time, you’ll have all but landed on the market, in the ancient hub of the town centre. This is where we could have done with arriving earlier: our limited time arrangements meant the stalls were packing up, and we therefore had no time to mooch up to the church or the ruins of the castle, or pick at the market itself: the only temptation left was a stall offering chicken-themed crockery at knock-down prices. Needless to say, I had to haul my companion, herself something of a better-looking Kirstie Allsopp, away.

That leaves the two hospice shops: one (Home Farm Trust) a low, packed arrangement with various DVDs (I came out with Easy Rider having almost had to toss up between that and Ninja Terminator). The other was a big St Clares Hospice shop, with some very random furniture and all kinds of unusual things. I don’t know how many typewriters I counted that day, but even they didn’t compare to the odd tables covered with some sort of quilted arrangement. Again, probably a field day for the Allsopp acolyte.

Saffron Walden will definitely be getting a revisit from me: it’s a charming town, and though it’s still in Essex has little of the uncultured bluntness of other Essex towns. Instead it’s refined, pleasant, small and quaint, and I heartily recommend it to you.

Find: Saffron Walden @ Google Maps
Consume with: A ginormous cream tea from Cafe Cou Cou, George Street.
Visit: Audley End house stands on the site of the priory and is a dramatic kind of place with the house stnading right by the road.
Overall rating: four antique typewriters


Filed under 4/5, Essex


Romford Market by mickal

Romford Market by mickal


Romford is now logically a part of this grand conurbation we call London, but in actuality this is very much Essex country. You can hear it in the accents, even the subjects of the conversation, you can smell it in the marketplace (sausages, cheap vegetables, ‘sexy’ vinyl Robin Hood outfits), you can see it in the outfits (not just Robin Hood, but the preponderance of Primark and its allies. You get the picture).

Romford has a lot more going for it, however, than say Basildon, or Southend. It’s a thriving market town, with its own little bits of history and everything. And it’s got the charity shops! Woo!

All of which makes Romford somewhere you would actually go, on purpose, unlike a number of other places I’ve been. For example, its extensive market and substantial shopping facilities are quite the draw, and its border location makes it an attraction from outside the city and in. That said, it’s not a pretty part…

Romford’s appeal (for me) is in the diversity and quality of its charity shops. We visited five on Saturday, and came away with some excellent bargains. Most notable was a really quite good Oxfam, from which was purchased a skirt, and in times past has given us some random purple material. This weekend, it yielded up a mammoth Steven Jay Gould book.

Down the road is a well-stocked Cancer Research, and there’s a British Heart Foundation both with a goodly selection of DVDs and clothes. I ended up with Zoolander and the complete Yes Minister – double woo indeed. Cancer Research gets another cheer – £6 bought a pair of French Connection jeans in my own size and everything. I know, get me!

The Sally Army shop was pretty, but brought nothing I would buy, but the littler St Francis Hospice shop, despite its curious odour, was a little treasure trove – best purchase was a slow cooker, £7.50: as I write, I’m digesting its produce in the form of sausage casserole.

Find: Romford on Google Maps
Transport: Romford station on the National Express route to Essex
Consume with: double macchiato from Costa (the mince tart is winking at me though…)
Visit:  we plan to incorporate Romford into some sort of preplanned charity shop day out, but as for visitor attractions, they’re few and far between. You could try the Hainault Forest Park.
Overall rating: four cardigans


Filed under 4/5, Essex


baz by chocolategirl64, under creative commons

baz by chocolategirl64, under creative commons

When a town is most famous for being the hometown of Denise Van Outen, Milhouse’s more attractive cousin, it sets one or two alarm bells ringing. But, having given Southend-on-Sea up as a bad job, we were on our way home along the A13 (Trunk Road To The Sea) and looking for somewhere to wile away the rest of the afternoon. Basildon seemed to fit the bill, in that it was there.

If all you know about Basildon is that there’s posh writing paper named after it, stop right there. Basildon is not posh. Nor is it pleasant, attractive in any way, or really a nice place to visit. That said, we had a happy enough time there, proving that adversity is no match for a sunny disposition and an optimistic view of anywhere that’s not Southend.

Entering Basildon belies its New Town nature – endless roundabouts, poorly signposted and directing you to somewhere called Vange – and when you finally reach the town centre, you’re faced with a bewildering choice of numbered multi-storey carparks. Do not attempt anything quirky here – these are not governed by conventional spatial rationality. When you do manage to exit the car park complex, you enter wide, dusty pedestrianised precincts that span off with small shops selling cigarettes, many shuttered shops with once-inviting signs that have given up the ghost. Down the main thoroughfare and you enter a vast, seemingly enclosed central space. A huge courtyard, surrounded by shops and department stores – a towering Marks, a large Primark, sky-high walkways and the occasional monstrous tower or recessed pit. It’s a forbidding sort of place – in some ways, exactly like the polygonal concrete structures and essentially random manmade elements that made up the Tony Hawks’ skateboarding games.  The dark sky looms above the claustrophobic towers; even taking refuge in the Costa coffee (basically a glass box on the courtyard) is a surreal experience, surrounded on three sides by grey, urban decay and barely a solitary shopper or wind-blown leaf to temper the experience. Spoeke sums up the experience nicely.

In terms of charity shops, Basildon fares little better. A small PDSA and a Cancer Research discount store are your lot, although the pavements are lined with Cash Converters and other such shiny, misery-exploiting evils. It looks (according to Google) like there was a couple we missed – to be honest, I’m not inspired to go back for completion’s sake. There’s a humungous Wilkinsons and a tatty looking market, so while your charity shop haul may be slight at best (I left with just a chef’s steel, though I have been searching for one for many moons), you may pick up a thrifty bargain elsewhere.

Find: Basildon @ Google Maps
Transport: Basildon station
Consume with: a macchiato and a muffin from the fishbowl-esque Costa
Visit: um, you’ve got me. Maybe nearby Stanford-le-hope, home of the wonderful Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip.
Overall rating: two former Popstars winners (it’s still better than Southend)


Filed under 2/5, Essex


Southend on Sea, Essex by draco2008

Southend on Sea, Essex by draco2008

I can imagine Morrissey trudging, hands in pockets, along the high street in Southend-on-Sea. This is the coastal town, he would explain to me, that they forgot to tear down. And in a fit of asexual Mancunian pique, he would raise his bequiffed head and cry out to the sullen sky come, Armageddon! Come!

Of course, these days he and I would not look so out of place. The make up smeared girls and boys of this Essex outpost don’t really realise the depths of their misplacement. Just moments from London Town, really, Southend seems so far-flung and bleak, although there’s a precint plastered with Primark, with Marks, with everything you’ll need. But there’s the tumbleweed-strewn bus station, the lonely cafes where Morrissey sips his greased tea, and no reasonable promenade to speak of.

Why would you go to this place? As it turns out, you wouldn’t: any charity shop enthusiast in their right mind would vist Leigh-on-Sea, just nextdoor and considerably nicer, apparently. But we weren’t to know, we boldly set forth to find numerous tacky delights, to stroll through the seaside delights of neon, and candy floss, and doughnuts, and the like. But no, we found nothing. Next to nothing: a sad British Heart Foundation, with an uncomfortable smell, and nothing good.

A sad state of affairs, but there you go. Such is life sometimes.

Find: Southend-on-sea at Google Maps
Transport: Southend Central, on c2c
Consume with: share some greased tea with Morrissey and I – there’s bound to be a caf somewhere.
Visit: don’t! or Adventure Island
Overall rating: one forlorn commemorative mug


Filed under 1/5, Essex