diamond geezer

 Monday, March 06, 2017

Beyond London (16): Brentwood (part 2)

Brentwood is an anagram of BORED TOWN. There is a school of thought which believes this is entirely appropriate.
"With famous sons such as Douglas Adams, Cliff Richard, Noel Edmonds and Griff Rhys Jones, many might think that Brentwood is a fabulous and exciting place to live. However, none of these celebrities actually lived in the town. They all commuted in to attend Brentwood School." (h2g2, 2005)
Douglas Adams' private school occupies a prominent position at the town's central crossroads, where the Roman Road to Colchester crossed a pilgrim's track to Canterbury, as befits a major educational establishment with Tudor roots. Across the road is the slightly Trumptonesque Town Hall, opened by the Queen a couple of years before Douglas arrived, with gleaming coat of arms and clock above the entrance. And immediately in front of this, on six etched metal plaques, runs an illustrated history of Brentwood. "Poorly informed tabloid newspapers some years ago proclaimed Brentwood as the most dull town in the country", it begins, as if recognising the place has an image problem. But it then goes on to provide 900 years of evidence to the contrary, in what I have to say is the best set of local history information boards I've ever seen.

We learn that Brentwood was a mustering point for the Peasants Revolt, that the Wright brothers' ancestors lived at Kelvedon Hall, that Warley Barracks were home to the East India company's private army, that Brentwood District Hospital was the first in the world to have a television installed, that Thursday half-day closing ended in 1962, that Morecambe and Wise came to open the furniture shop at Wilson's Corner, that Brentwood had Britain's first colour CCTV system and that Crossrail got the go ahead in October 2007. OK, so the full history contains rather more from the last one hundred years than the previous eight, but villages and buildings from across the borough are appropriately represented, and even minor retail upgrades feature. The whole thing is beautifully illustrated by John David Fryer, and available to buy in book form at Brentwood Museum, and (best of all) fully available to scroll through here.

Somewhere retail: Amstrad House
The business name most readily associated with Brentwood is Amstrad. Lord Sugar's computer company had its HQ in King's Road for many years - I haven't been able to find out quite how many - from which the latest hi-fi, word processor, home computer or dubious E-m@iler would have been co-ordinated. The 1980s were good years for Alan Michael Sugar Trading, the 1990s less so, and in 2007 the boss announced he was retiring and selling off his business to Sky. Amstrad's remnants still manufacture most of Sky's set top boxes, its former website unexpectedly lingers on, and the old headquarters have been reappropriated as a hospitality destination.

Step out of Brentwood station and a particularly ugly eight-storey cuboid assaults the environment. It's not even pretty if you're the kind of person who likes brutalism, just a drab layer cake of brick and glass with no redeeming protrusions whatsoever. At least it's been built in a dip on the King's Road so its silhouette fails to scar the town's skyline when viewed from afar - other hilltop council blocks do that. And it's no longer used as offices, because since 2008 it's been a 120-room Premier Inn, an appropriately mass market budget brand given the building's pedigree. If you ever stay try to get a room on the eighth floor, because for the first couple of years of The Apprentice this is where the boardroom used to be located, recreated in later series in a West London studio mock-up.

One extremely major corporation retains a primary presence in town, however, and that's car manufacturer Ford. You might have expected their HQ to be in Dagenham, but since 1968 it's been in Brentwood, or more specifically Warley on the southern edge of town, on the site of the Essex Regiment's former barracks. This is much more how you'd hope an imposing monolithic building would look, a long wall of windows tempered by shrubbery, and with a central low-curved porch for aesthetic balance. It's properly huge, indeed I suspect modernisation will one day force the corporation to downsize.

Across the road in a former army gymnasium is Essex's only Trampolining centre, an echo of the golden days when all the UK's Nissen trampolines were manufactured in the town. Another name from the past is Thermos, the vacuum flask company, whose offices and manufacturing plant moved to Brentwood from Leyton in 1961. They didn't stay either, moving out to Thetford in 1996, and the Thermos factory site is now an especially convenient town centre Sainsbury's. There's also a particularly large BT office at the foot of the High Street, almost palatial in size, which (along with the easy commute to London) helps to explain why Brentwood's unemployment total is so low.
by train: Brentwood  by bus: 498

Somewhere famous: The TOWIE Trail
ITV's groundbreaking scripted reality show The Only Way Is Essex oozed onto our screens in 2010, to minimal critical acclaim. Its shallow recurring characters are now on their twentieth series, but still pull in an average of a million viewers per episode thanks to their uniquely aspirational lifestyle. Whilst action is filmed all over southwest Essex, the immutable hub is Brentwood where blonde and bling are a way of life, and where several of the former characters now run their own shops. The town council are only too keen to encourage visitors, especially those with cash to splash, so have produced an official Towie Trail you can download to track down your favourite stars. I printed it out and went looking.

For sheer cheek, the start of the trail takes some beating. This is Sugar Hut, the superclub at the very centre of the High Street, bedecked inside (I'm told) with hybrid Asian-Baroque decor. Until a few years ago this was The White Hart, a 15th-century coaching inn serving steak and ale, and now it has a huge glitzy chandelier hanging in the entranceway where horses would once have trotted through to the courtyard to be stabled. Trail treat number two (on a street corner near Sainsbury's) is Lucy's Boutique, which specialises in prom dresses, the year-round Essex staple, while three and four belong to Amy Childs. She only starred in the first couple of TOWIE series but this provided enough of a commercial headwind to launch her own boutique and salon. From what I saw the latter draws in ladies of all ages to get their roots touched up, while the former attracts a classier clientele - for example a flawlessly-assembled young Essex couple with a son who knew precisely which branded woolly hat to be seen out in.

Most of the other shops on the trail are in an attractive cluster at the other end of town, specifically around Crown Street which has become an upmarket pedestrianised parade. Here Sam and Billie operate an optimally-targeted boutique, while used car saleswoman turned reality superstar Gemma Collins runs a gobsmackingly ostentatious clothes shop for the plus-size woman. In her window a large crown rests on a pink throne, and propped up inside is a tube of House of Essex Golden Bronze Instant Tan, I kid you not. Initially I thought the assistant standing behind the display was a mannequin, because nobody could have a pony tail that bouffant, but one shake proved I was wrong. Nearby I found a health supplement store, card shop and beauty bar, all TOWIE staples, but also several glitzy outlets that somehow aren't part of the show, just look like they have to be.

If heels and concealer aren't your thing, don't worry, Brentwood also has a downloadable heritage trail which boasts 24 stops rather than TOWIE's 11. For example, the remains of Thomas à Becket's chapel outside WH Smiths are quite evocative, so long as a stereotypically-jacketed couple aren't exercising their trio of Staffies within its medieval footprint. The obelisk commemorating the town's most famous Protestant martyr still draws the attention, or would if it hadn't ended up in a TOWIE salon's car park. And the interior of the Roman Catholic cathedral is quite the Italianate confection, despite (or perhaps because of) being only 25 years old. So should Crossrail ever tempt you out this way, as one day it might, make sure you get off one step before the end.
by train: Brentwood  by bus: 498

So far: Dartford, Sevenoaks, Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Epsom & Ewell, Mole Valley, Elmbridge, Spelthorne, Slough, South Bucks, Three Rivers, Hertsmere, Welwyn Hatfield, Broxbourne, Epping Forest, Brentwood

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