Readers of The Field could be excused for assuming that young friends Harry, Mark, Lydia and Amy conversing about “birds”, “pulling” and “banging” was nothing more than a chat about a day’s shooting. Until the word “vajazzle” inevitably crept in. For the greener folk among you, a vajazzle is the decoration of a lady’s bikini line and Harry, Lydia et al are the stars of the TV show The Only Way is Essex.
Essex has long been the butt of jokes, but the boob jobs, carrot tans and crystal-encrusted areas featured on this popular programme, which even spawned its own adjective – “TOWIE” – has taken the county’s image to new levels of lasciviousness. However, behind this raunchy rhinestone persona lies something different: a sporting gem.
“It’s a county of two halves,” says Dominic Good, who was born in Essex and, after stints around the globe and in London, returned to his roots a few years ago. “The bit within the M25, which is more or less London, and the A12 corridor seem to define the popular image. However, most of Essex is rural and has been protected from urbanisation because the farmland is so good.”
“People from outside often ask what on earth we do in Essex. I expect they imagine its all nail parlours and tanning booths,” chuckles Emma Good who, like her husband, is a keen shot. “When I tell them about the shooting, fishing and hunting, they look incredibly surprised. Our house has an annexe that is perfect for holiday lets but when I called Rural Retreats the lady on the phone said, ‘Why would anybody want to stay near Brentwood?’
“Without doubt, the TV Essex does exist. The other day I was hacking and bumped into a woman whose horse had a pink bridle covered in diamanté to match her studded hat and stirrups,” she recalls. “It’s not the whole story but we’re quite happy for others to think so. Let all the snooty people stay in Berkshire and Surrey, and we’ll keep Essex to ourselves.”
Simon Dixon Smith, head of Savills’s Chelmsford office, is familiar with this ruse. “It has long been suggested that Essex gave itself its various stereotypes to deter visitors and keep it unspoilt,” he suggests. “North of the A120 is rural with rolling hills running from Dunmow to Saffron Walden. Go northeast and you have the sharper undulations of the Stour Valley and the landscapes made famous by Constable and Gainsborough.”
According to Mike Alldis, owner of Essex Shooting School, there are more than enough birds in Essex for good sport. “Lord Rayleigh’s place at Terling is gorgeous, while around Tendring Hall there’s absolutely glorious country for shooting. Go to Audley End in the north, where you’re coming up to the chalk of Cambridgeshire, and it’s cracking,” he says.
“The thing about Essex is there is so much fun to be had. There’s abundant coarse-fishing and lots of shooting, plus you can follow beagles, fox- and minkhounds. Personally, I adore the summer months with the Eastern Counties Mink Hounds – there’s nothing better than a pleasant walk along rivers with like-minded people,” he continues.
While it may not be as celebrated as the Highlands, Essex is also a great place for deer. “Epping Forest is stuffed full of fallow and muntjac, plus there’s plenty of private woodland and farmland available for stalking,” reveals Graham Downing. “However, Essex’s best-kept secret is its coastline. At over 300 miles, it is one of the longest of any county in Britain. There are dozens of quiet creeks, rivers, estuaries and backwaters. Outside the sea wall, there are huge areas of salt-marsh and beyond that tens of thousands of acres of mud-flats abounding with life. It’s no wonder Essex has such a rich wildfowling tradition and 13 local wildfowling clubs,” he says.
“The coastline has remained largely free of industry, so it is still remote and undisturbed. Wildfowling in a place such as the Blackwater Estuary, you feel you are in the middle of a true wilderness,” says Downing, a member of the Blackwater Wildfowling Association for many years. “It is all the more remarkable given you are less than 50 miles from Marble Arch.”
Essex is primarily duck country: mallard, teal, wigeon and pintail. “The duck-shooting is something else,” declares Essex-born Nigel Musto. “There’s nothing better than teal coming at you at a million miles an hour. Essex people are open-minded but we’re fussy about our duck. It’s got to be wild. I’ve been to shoots where a thousand duck have been put down as bag fillers, and I’ve seen people walk away in disgust.
“Essex isn’t high-bird country. Traditionally, with partridge over high hedges, we’ve done well. We’re also one of the first counties to get the woodcock in November. Our woods seem to be brimming with them,” he continues. “Above all, we excel at having great fun with our sport and entertaining guests well.”
Leaving after tea is virtually unheard of at an Essex shoot. “You’re invited to breakfast and don’t leave until well after breakfast the next day,” insists Musto. “We do everything properly but shooting is all about having fun with friends – something often forgotten elsewhere – and I think our attitude rubs off on visitors. A couple of years ago a well-known shot from Hampshire came up here and shot a pheasant extraordinarily badly. He hadn’t brought a dog so had to chase the bird across a ploughed field. At the sight of him coursing a pheasant, we all put our guns down and rolled with laughter. There’s always plenty of barracking and definitely not a hushed atmosphere. Essex would be a great venue for the Mickey-Taking World Championships.”
Nigel Musto makes sure work in the field is as much fun as play, so shooting the Musto catalogue is also a jovial affair. “We don’t photograph models because they can’t hold a gun and don’t know one end of a dog from another. Instead, we use mostly local Essex shooting people and it is always a big laugh,” he says.
Annabelle Savage is an Essex girl – keen shot, lawyer, committee member of the Essex Game Conservancy & Wildlife Trust, and a “Musto girl”. “It’s a huge honour to be asked and doing the photographs is great fun. It’s basically a day’s shooting but with lots of taking your clothes on and off – in private, of course,” she insists.
There are always birds aplenty on Essex shoots and no shortage of lady guns. The Capel Cures have taken this equality to new levels with their shoot at Blake Hall near Ongar. “We have a brilliant girls’ day with husbands loading,” says Rachel Capel Cure. “There’s a lot of banter and it is very much a family affair. It usually ends up with about five people on each peg. I’m sure the chaps would dispute this but some of the girls shoot as well if not better than their other halves.”
Essex’s hunting is as rich as the shooting. “There’s such a variety in the countries and characters of the different hunts. There’s something for everyone: as well as the Essex Farmers and Union, the East Essex, the Essex & Suffolk and the Essex, there are bloodhounds, beagle packs, minkhounds and bassets,” explains Simon Marriage, a Master of the Essex Hunt. “Ours is mainly ditch country. It’s challenging. I’m always amazed at what a flap some hedge-hopping visitors get into but we pride ourselves on being friendly. You’re more likely to get told off for not thanking a car than for wearing the wrong colour hat,” he says.
Former point-to-point jockey and eventer Kate Warburton hunts with the Essex & Suffolk. “It’s got to be exciting, otherwise I’m off home,” she says with typical Essex candour and a big smile. “That doesn’t happen very often. Thanks to hard work and investment, we have the sort of hedges you might find in the Shires. Our Master, James Buckle, loves his jumping and we get lots of visitors attracted by the country. However, I think the nicest part about hunting in Essex is how welcoming everyone is.”
Holly Beckley moved to the county five years ago. She is now a regular with the Essex and has been bowled over by the inclusiveness. “People actually seek you out to make sure you’re having a nice day. After going three or four times you’re treated like an old friend and there’s an amazing social life that goes with the hunting,” she says.
The Essex Hunt’s supporters’ club certainly knows how to put the “fun” into fund-raising. “A few years ago we held a lingerie fashion show that made £15,000. It was far more entertaining than the usual cheese and wine evening or auction, although some wives had to hold down their husbands,” admits organiser Sam Tolhurst, a dashing blonde who hasn’t let breaking various bones, including her back, stop her leading the field out hunting or on the party circuit.
“Essex people do know how to have a good time. Of course you get naughty goings-on in horseboxes but you find that everywhere. I remember my husband once being asked back for hot sausages after a day’s hunting. We were never quite sure what that might have entailed, as he declined graciously,” she giggles.
One thing isn’t in doubt: the Fieldy set in the county doesn’t take itself too seriously. “We have a lot of fun with the Essex image and enjoy playing up to it. My 40th was a WAGS and warriors party,” reveals Tolhurst. “One of the hits of the night was the vajazzle spa. Most people, boys included, had the crystals put on their faces, arms or cleavages but some girls came with a “prepared” bikini line.
“Everybody really went to town with the theme. There wasn’t anybody who let their vanity get in the way. I went as a hardcore WAG with nasty, gold shoes, a really dark spray tan, backcombed hair and a sparkly dress. One guy came as a sumo fighter in a suit that he had to deflate every time he went to the loo – that’s really dedicated,” she says.
Tom Tyrwhitt-Drake, who “undressed” as a Zulu for the occasion, may be a Hampshire man but Essex is where he likes to party. “My wife’s family is from Essex and I’m a big fan of the county. They can’t shoot very well but they’re a lively, energetic bunch and I like their policy on when a party finishes, that is, when the last man falls,” he declares. “Essex people are good at taking the mick out of themselves and they don’t do anything half-heartedly, especially fancy dress. They’re very comfortable with who they are, particularly when not wearing much,” he says approvingly.
If evidence were needed that tweedy Essex can outdo the TOWIE brigade, Sam Tolhurst points to a charity bingo night she attended. “Not much bingoing went on but we had a ball with the marker pens. There weren’t many places those pens didn’t go – chests, faces, backs, bottoms. The party went on until the ink ran out at about 3am. It was a riot but the marks were impossible to rub off. There was a hunter trial the next day at which there were (literally) some very red-faced people,” she remembers. “But the nice thing about Essex folk is that we’re used to people laughing at us, so we’ve learnt always to see the funny side.”
“There’s an energy about Essex people and a likeable honesty. Essex has everything you could possibly want. What’s not to like?” proclaims Southend-born Trevor Pickett, owner of the eponymous luxury shop. “My staff are more Made in Chelsea than TOWIE. However, recently one asked what Fabergé was. ‘A 19th-century Russian vajazzling technique,’ I had to explain.” Surely proof that Essex boys and girls always have the last laugh.