Whatever that means exactly - thank you, reality TV - there are at least three ways to approach England's most maligned county, pictured above: step inside one of the many old buildings (in this case the Norman remainder of Waltham Abbey); ramble in deepest farmland only a 25 minute journey from the City of London (a distant diplo-mate approaching Mountnessing Church); or brave the urban blight to reach your destination (the end of a horrid walk from Waltham Cross railway station to the Abbey). At least another option - the marshes and the sea - was ruled out by the biting winds and freeze of the Thursday and Friday we took off.
The original aim had been to fly south for a long weekend, but half-term fares proved prohibitively expensive (seems we've sorted one objective now for the near future). So I thought we should capitalise on our delighted discovery of Layer Marney, Tollesbury, East Mersey and Copford while staying with the Le Franc family back in 2007 and the subsequent revelation of lovely Saffron Walden in the company of the Kafalas a year later by getting to know a neighbouring county better. Armed with the excellent Pathfinder Guide, we planned out some options.
With the grey and the bitter cold of Thursday forbidding our intended hike around the coastal Saxon church of Bradwell Juxta Mare, we caught a train from Liverpool Street to Ingatestone, and were immediately charmed by what Pevsner calls the 'friendly Neo-Tudor' of the 1846 station building. The glory is the medieval church tower of St Edmund and St Mary
with its black diapers of lozenges and crosses (there too is the top of the 'three-light brick w window with Perp panel tracery' - Pevsner again - and the first set of two-light windows).
Predictably the church was locked. We phoned the warden (correction, 9/3: rector), who claimed to live not very close and seemed unwilling to drive to Ingatestone and let us in. As J pointed out, I should have said something along the lines of 'we've come a long way to see this', but I wasn't at the time aware of the Petre tomb chest, treasure of the interior; if I had been, I'd have made a bit more of a fuss.
Ingatestone High Street is a mix of old and new, chiefly remarkable to me for the fact that I purchased a by then essential blue woolly (looking) hat for £2.99 in a hardware store over a friendly chat with the people in the shop. There's a very flinty mosaicy type mural on one of the less attractive more recent buildings which looks as if it dates from Festival of Britain time.
Then we were off over the fields, past Sir William Petre's 16th century red-brick Ingatestone Hall. The monastery-dissolver and recusant Catholic had the mural's Queen Elizabeth to stay here, which still makes the town and the odd visiting tourist excited.
Crossing the stream of the Wid, you climb gently to the deliciously secluded church of St Mary Buttsbury.
The body of the church (locked again, naturally, in spite of what the welcoming board at the gate may say) is 14th century, but its attraction is the timber, weatherboarded west belfry. The porch is attractively weatherboarded too.
There was now a longish stretch by stream and through fields, past a burnt out car below Kitchen Wood
and up to the church of St Giles at Mountnessing, isolated next to a Georgian hall and farm (though a road runs close). Here's another fine bell tower and west end
though there's apparently less to see inside than at Ingatestone. Which was just as well, since our third church was also locked and the contact numbers in the porch had faded away. Anyway, here we sat out of the biting wind to devour the sushi lunch purchased at Liverpool Street Station. The diplo-mate wanted a photo of the occasion but was as usual coy about revealing his entire lovely visage.
The rest of the walk is lost to visual documentation because my battery had run flat and something went wrong with the transferring of pictures from J's mobile phone. Here's a similarly cloudy-day image taken by another of Mountnessing proper's early 19th century post-mill a couple of miles further on. Gareth Hughes' Geograph project photo includes 'visiting Dutch and Belgian windmill enthusiasts'. Interesting if not especially penetrating observation on the unconscious that here I started to hum the Van der Valk theme (you don't need to be old enough to have seen that series to guess that the hero was an Amsterdam detective).
The dark began to descend, as did we back to Ingatestone. Had this been a collect-churches-for-charity walk like our annual Norfolk expedition, we could have notched up nine in our eight miles, since the town boasts a fair few 19th and early 20th century edifices of various denominations. So back to London, where serendipity found us two returns on the spot for Rufus Norris's ambitious celebration of Yoruba culture, Feast, at the Young Vic. Splendid company work here, dominated by the handsome, well modulated mezzo tones of Noma Dumezweni (J's New Best Friend), the character panache of Naana Agyei-Ampadu and incredibly sexy dancing - not enough of it, sadly - by Cuban Alexander Varona (image by Richard Hubert Smith).
The problem lay with most of the various playwrights' contributions: few made clear the advertised connection between scenes from the Yoruba diaspora and the various reincarnations of the 400 or so deities known as Orishas, so it came across as a rather loose, hit-and-miss revue.
Still, it was a steamy far cry indeed from the wintry wildernesses of Essex. That's enough of a chronicle for now: glorious Waltham Abbey to follow soon.