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02Oct

How I learned to love being an Essex girl | Sarah Perry

Novelist Sarah Perry carried Essex with her ‘like a white patent leather bag’ -until she discovered the county’s history of remarkable and outspoken women

In the kingdom of the East Saxons, towards the end of the seventh century, the noblewoman Ethelburga founded an abbey in a place they called Berecingum, which means “the people who live among the birch trees”. Here she “preserved the glory of perpetual virginity”, says Bede, “in a life of great self-denial”; and when one morning, mindful of the plague, she took her women out to choose the piece of land where they’d be buried, she witnessed light descending from heaven in the form of a shining white sheet. In this way the abbey became holy land, and there the 12th-century nun Clemence translated from Latin into French a life of Edward the Confessor, imploring her readers not to “despise it, nor to disregard the good in it”, merely because she was a woman. The community lasted until the dissolution of the monasteries: the work of women undone by the devices and desires of men. In the soil where the abbey stood, pegs from stringed instruments were found, and tools for weaving, together with gold thread, hair combs and manicure kits: this is the evidence of their accomplishment and beauty. What remains now of the abbey in the birches is only a pale tower on a pavement, and this tower may be reached by taking the Hammersmith & City line out of London to the east: Berecingum has become Barking, and the women of the abbey were Essex girls.

If you might not have suspected Essex of having been the site of that sacred ground and those holy women, I can’t hold you entirely to blame. A landscape is constructed not only from its hills and the species of its common trees, but from the cultural and historical associations attached to it. Heathcliff will always possess the Yorkshire moors; Tess of the D’Urbervilles will sit forever weeping on her Dorset milking stool. So it is impossible now to think of Essex without thinking also of vapid women in leopard print and heels; of the jokes which begin, say: “How does an Essex girl hold her liquor?” and end with a schoolboy smirk. Ethelburga is no match for Gemma Collins; the Essex oaks and sloping fields of flax are no match for the appetite of London’s borders. The cultural phenomenon of the Essex girl has changed the Essex landscape, as if her arrival altered the geology that underpins the towns. This is a reciprocal arrangement; the landscape alters those who are born there. In the language of the Saxons – whose weapon, the seax, its curved blade notched to inflict greater damage to the neck, appears on the Essex coat of arms – stede means “place”, and so every girl born in Essex is steadfast: held to the place of her birth.

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