The Influence of Place on Content.

Essex family research
The Family Research Centre in Chelmsford.

We’ve just returned from a visit to another county where we were engaged in family research. Essex is a place I lived for 18 years, when employment took me there. I haven’t been back for 30 years, but we have ancestors in the area. Time to visit the county records office in Chelmsford, to dig a little deeper in the archives.

This part of the country isn’t noted for tourism. It merges into London in the west, and much of the place is either industrial dockland or dormitory for the capital. Not an inspiring area. Nor is tourist accommodation readily available.

I booked a hotel in South Woodham Ferrers, a place I recalled as a tiny village with character, settled on the rural banks of the River Crouch. But this settlement is now no more than a set of anonymous modern shops surrounded by a fairly soulless housing estate. Sorry to those who live there; and sorry for them. I could find no trace of the original village and there was no heart to the place.

Essex oakland hotel
Our hotel in South Woodham Ferrers.

We did our searching in the state-of-the-art research Family Centre in Chelmsford, another town I barely recognised after 30 years absence. But the centre itself was a modern facility with helpful staff. We discovered new facts and were able to confirm earlier research, so a very worthwhile visit.

Part of the family history involves Stanford-Le-Hope, and we visited there, hoping to find some locations of long dead relatives and, maybe, the odd headstone in the local churchyard or cemeteries. That was a long shot, as most of our ancestors were labourers who would’ve had no funds for such finery. And, in fact, we discovered none. We identified what had been the farm on which one of the relatives had worked, a place now covered in allotments and a fishing lake. The rubbish around the approaches and the marching electricity pylons rather overpowered this once rural setting.

Essex church stanford
The church in Stanford-Le-Hope

We’d arranged to meet a cousin and his wife at a local pub and got together in the small village of Fobbing. This was a place with character and we had a very enjoyable time there, catching up and exchanging news whilst demolishing some good food.

essex white lion
The White Lion pub in Fobbing.

Our final day was spare and we visited Colchester, which had been my stamping ground all those years ago. I had always been bemused by the sign on the approach, which hailed visitors with news that Colchester was England’s oldest recorded town. The local authority spent much of the time I was resident in tearing down the old town and replacing it with anonymous modern shops and residencies. Things haven’t improved on that score and even more of the historical centre has disappeared. But we spent a few hours in the ancient castle, a well-preserved repository of local history. I was once lowered down the internal well on the end of a rope to take a picture of restoration for the editor of the local paper I worked on!

Essex castle
Colchester Castle

We ate in what I recalled as a Tudor house that had been private and the location of over 200 long-case clocks (grandfather and grandmother clocks to the uninitiated). Tymperley’s is now a pleasant, if slightly pretentious, eating place.

essex tymperleys
Tymperley’s in Colchester.

The afternoon took us to Mersea Island, a place I’d often visited with friends who owned a 27 foot sailing yacht, which I’d sailed a few times with them. They’re long gone but this place, at least, had changed little from my memories. The mooring where Mantovani once had a houseboat was vacant, but the safe harbour with its myriad yachts seemed the same as ever and the yacht club looked absolutely unchanged. We walked along the riverbank and looked out to the sea I had sailed, watched the squawking gulls and noted the oyster beds and small boatyards. It recalled many happy memories.

Essex Mersea boats
The riverside in Mersea Island.

And that is the point of this rambling piece. Place can be evocative. It can be influential in our mood and emotional state when we write. And, if that’s the case, it’s perhaps wise for us to make sure that where we reside is a positive influence, where we tap the keyboard keys is conducive to creativity. My study is currently a bit bland, as I’ve not had time to ‘personalise’ it since we moved here a little over a year ago. I’ll alter that over the coming weeks. Fortunately, I have a wonderful view from my window over the edge of the village with the forest intruding on either side. And I have the real advantage of access to the beauty of the trees up a footpath that starts only sixty yards from my front door.

Essex study window
The view from my study window in Lydbrook.

I doubt I’ll ever take for granted the joy of this location, but there’s no doubt that this recent visit to a place mostly lacking in character has reminded me how lucky I am to be surrounded by natural beauty.

So, I urge you to find a place that inspires your writing, if that’s possible, and allow its influence to impinge on your words and ideas. And, if that isn’t possible, to at least treat yourself to a corner you can call your own and decorate it with items that will aid creativity rather than depress or stifle that urge. Writing is a demanding and often lonely occupation; we do well to give ourselves the best possible chance of creating good work.

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