Last week, CityMetric editor Jonn Elledge wrote about his experiences growing up in and around Brentwood, now best known as the home of The Only Way is Essex. In response, someone pitched us the idea of a more positive article about the town – so here it is, as part of our ‘In Defence Of’ series.
In June 2016, I attended a wrestling show in Brentwood Theatre that bore little resemblance to the WWE broadcasts of my youth. The show’s promoter Dropkixx is based nearby, trains local wrestlers, and allows spectators to get backstage passes and meet the stars in informal fashion.
All this felt a million miles away from the historically somewhat closeted nature of the professional wrestling industry, which had connotations of intrigue one might associate with the Freemasons or the Magic Circle. But just ahead of the Brexit vote, the event underlined the positive side of the UK’s growing wariness towards centralised authority: a strong and authentic sense of local community more evident than in the 2000s, when the Crap Towns series of books highlighted apparently terminal high street homogeneity.
When I first moved to Brentwood, to be fair, it was out of economic necessity and I perhaps craved some homogeneity as a bolthole. Yet after nearly five years, as an outsider that life here is not monolithic and homogenous at all.
Greggs might have two stores on the main drag – but Percy Ingle bakers, familiar to many within the M25, is also here and offering London Cheesecake and challah. The abundant, even rural, green landscapes close to hand are enough to remind you that Brentwood may be populated by East End diaspora, but it’s a bit Milly-Molly-Mandy at the same time.
To this you could add suburban quirks, in the form of appealing terraced Victoriana and Edwardiana amid all the modern buildings; redux Baroque, in that of the early 1990s Roman Catholic cathedrall; timeless textbook history (the start of the Peasants Revolt); bizarre textbook history (Orwell’s correspondences with then Brentwood resident and future Joy Of Sex author Alex Comfort about pacifism); and stark physical history (the ruins of the St Thomas a Becket chapel close by the Sugar Hut).
Is this focus on history a form of escapism? I don’t think so, if the components of 21st century Brentwood are also engaging. The main characteristics I remember from the Brentwood School alumni I met at university – gregarious, proudly native, and civil – don’t seem specific to a particular time.
By way of example: in early 2016, I was shouted at by car passengers who were out-on-the-town, but in a ridiculously respectful way. To whit: “YEEAAAAHHHHHHHHH good evening my friend.” Sometimes I wonder if I’ve arrived in a parallel enclave where good manners and exuberance aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m certainly not complaining.
Inevitably one cannot overly romanticise life here. Familiar problems abound: horribly expensive housing; the remarkably hideous Sainsbury’s Saturday logjam; the dearth of a proper cinema; social problems (I saw the emergency services out in force this week and it didn’t look pleasant); and being screwed if you are reliant on ponderous railway bus replacement services.
Brentwood (top right) lies on the north eastern edge of Greater London. Image: Google.
This is the flipside of the patch of green belt separating Brentwood and Harold Wood stations, that signifies the transition between metropolitan landscape and something else. Brentwood feels slightly remote for a reason.
Even so, this is no social backwater. There are lots of diverse watering holes, from the outside floral environs at the Brewery Tap, to the debonaire and live-music-friendly Spread Eagle. And the popular venues serve a purpose. During the World Cup, the High Street was conspicuously buoyant after every England win, but that felt like a welcome relief in abject 2018.
Indeed, during the England v Croatia semi-final, in a particularly busy pub, I saw an acquaintance, one of the most tireless community volunteers I have ever met. He was the essence of serenity in a red Three Lions shirt, even whilst the adapted Atomic Kitten renditions around him, from a more multi-cultural crowd than one might have expected, reached new crescendos.
So yes, it is curiously heterogeneous. Maybe the TV programme title The Only Way Is Essex is too reductive: there’s more than one way of doing things in Essex in the first place.
There is a debate in the UK as to what defines ‘liveable’ – a place where you can afford to buy, or a place with a good quality of life. Finding both is a slog.
The first of these I have had to rule out: I doubt a government hamstrung by Brexit will help any time soon. On the second count, though, Brentwood still falls on the right side of adequate. I’m staying, for now.