Essex is the ugliest county. I only went there to be able to work in peace and quiet and get away from the settlers from London south of the river. It was flat and untidy and full of water with the Colne and the Crouch and the Blackwater and all their tributaries fingering up from the sea and spreading vinous tendrils of water into the flat land. For half the year, the wind blew in from the east, over shingle, mudflats, saltings and marshes: even twenty miles inland, where I first set up house, gulls drove the crows out of the fields.
In the late 1960s I found an empty farmhouse called Charmers End in the village of Long Crendon, took a three-year lease and settled in. Many of the farms and villages had odd, even poetic names – Crab’s Green, Sweet Dew, Blythe Easter, Fantail and Honey Wood – although on the whole, the more fanciful the name the more dismal the place. When I moved in, there were black-and-white cows in a shining field at the bottom of the garden. The cows were responsible for my decision to take the place. Otherwise this part of Essex reminded me of the southern tip of South America, where the trees are deformed, a cold wind combs the grass and glum Indians, reserved and offhand like the country people of Essex, are muffled in their clothes against the grey weather.
The farmer who had lived here had grown old alone and sold his land. One day he hauled himself to the top of the tallest tree in the garden, drank a quarter of a bottle of Lysol, shoved the barrel of a German pistol collected in the war into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. This man had also liked the cows. The new owner did not, and so they disappeared soon after.