When Amberley Publishing emailed me out of the blue to ask if I would be interested in writing a book for them, it came as a bit of a surprise. It turned out that a commissioning editor had seen some of the articles I had written and illustrated for This England magazine and thought my writing and photography style might fit in well with their Illustrated Tales Of… (insert a county of your choice) series. I asked if I could write about Essex. They said yes. I prepared a synopsis. They accepted it. We were off and running.

Barking Creek as it was in the 1880s. (Illustrated Tales of Essex, Amberley Publishing)

So why Essex? Well, for one thing I was born and grew up there and, although I have now lived in Hertfordshire for many years, I still retain an affection for my birth county. Also, it was right next door to Hertfordshire, whose border with Essex is only about a 20-minute drive from where I live. I figured it would be easy to make the necessary trips to take pictures. First mistake. I had underestimated the sheer size of Essex. The trips to take pictures, that in my mind were going to be pleasant ambles around the countryside and along the coast stopping occasionally to take a picture, turned into half a dozen mammoth all-day whistle-stop tours, dashing from place to place and stopping at each location for no longer than the time it took to aim my camera and shoot a picture, all the while praying for fine weather.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before taking the pictures, I had to do the writing. So where to start? Well why not with the place I was born? That was Barking, these days a Greater London Borough, but in those days a part of Essex. Growing up, I had a peripheral view of local history, but when I began researching it, I discovered so much more. There was Barking Creek, for instance. It’s the place where the River Roding meets the River Thames. Back in the day it was often referred to by radio show comedians as the punch line to a joke. When I first went there as a kid, I found a huge wasteland, dominated by Barking Power Station. When I went back, all that had vanished. The whole place was a mass of factory and industrial units and there was no sign of the huge chimneys of the power station. The playground of my childhood was gone, but the history remained.

Creekmouth village front row. (Illustrated Tales of Essex, Amberley Publishing)

My researches unearthed the important role the area had played in Victorian times when the first sewers were built in London. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Creek had been an important site for gunpower factories. In World War II, the first British fighter pilot to be killed was during the Battle of Barking Creek (so called for some unknown reason, since the battle actually took place elsewhere in the county). Then there was Creekmouth, a whole community whose houses were swept away by floods in 1953. And I discovered a marvellous music hall song about the Barking Creek bell-ringers’ daughter. There was of course a more lot to Barking than the Creek, and to find out what that was, you need to read the book.

The house in Harwich where Mayflower Master Christopher Jones lived. (Illustrated Tales of Essex, Amberley Publishing)

Meanwhile, there was so much else to discover about Essex. Like, for example, the fact that the Mayflower, the ship which took the Pilgrim Fathers to America, was built in Essex and that its captain, Christopher Jones, lived there in Harwich. Even more surprising, given that most people thought the Mayflower took the first colonists to America, was that another seafarer, one Christopher Newport, also a native of Harwich, had taken settlers to the New World and established Jamestown, the first English settlement in America, fourteen years before the Mayflower’s better-known voyage. I never knew what a large part had been played by the people of Essex in the colonisation of America. Or that a town in Essex was once the capital of England. That Captain Cook was married in Essex prior to setting out on his voyages of discovery. That legend had it that the story of St. George slaying a dragon might have begun on Essex soil. Or even that some of Shakespeare’s plays were reputed to have been written by an Essex man.

Murals around Harwich celebrate the town’s connection with the Mayflower. (Illustrated Tales of Essex, Amberley Publishing)

I soon discovered that Essex is a place where you learn to expect the unexpected, a county where you can find history and mystery at every turn. It’s a place where witches were once reputed to have bewitched people to death, where ghosts are reckoned to roam ancient ruins and where many a resident has had a run-in with the Devil. It’s a place where you can still find evidence of the Romans, Vikings, Saxons and Normans that once invaded England. It’s where you’ll find strange structures and mystery buildings that make no sense until you know their history, lost villages, unknown islands and a wealth of legends, some based on real facts, others no more than stories and rumours passed down through the ages to be exaggerated more with every telling. And it’s where you find towns and villages with strange names like Ugley, Mucking, Shellow Bowells and Fingringhoe; roads with names like Dancing Dicks Lane, Faggot Yard, Nickerlands, Twitty Fee and Wigley Bush Lane.

The more I looked, the more convinced I became that I had chosen the right county to write about, a county full of history, people and places of the past that are a million miles away from the reality-TV view that so many must have of the county today.

John Wade's book Illustrated Tales of Essex is available for purchase now.