There is a point on the dreaded A12 – a road so soulless it makes the M4 looks like Shangri La – when you reach the end of Essex. If you’re driving from London it takes you a surprisingly long time; there’s a lot of noisy beige concrete to go over – about 60 miles’ worth – with roadside highlights including a large, sad-looking ‘adult shop’ that was clearly a Happy Eater or Little Chef in more innocent times, and dejected-looking service stations with alarming short slip-roads. Then of course there are lorries galore thundering along, laden with shipping containers bound for Felixstowe, Britain’s happiest sounding port. Heading east you’ll pass signs for places like Basildon, Billericay, Brentwood, Chelmsford, Clacton and Southend-on-Sea.
But before you actually cross the finishing line and arrive into Suffolk, there’s something you should know. The fact is, you’ve already left Essex, probably about 15 minutes ago. That’s because between the long administrative border of Essex and Suffolk there is another place, one I call Suffex – a liminal borderland where north Essex and south Suffolk meet, and which is its own place altogether.
And Suffex is no afterthought, nor is it a refuge for those people who don’t like to admit that they live in Essex (‘I live on the cusp of Suffolk’ etc). No, it’s a real place. It’s a place populated by quintessential English towns such as Dedham – a broad meandering Georgian high street with wisteria and painted houses, a river and a flint church the size of small cathedral with its own Constable. I dare say you’ll know it, but Dedham is the reason they invented biscuits, so they could decorate tins of them with pictures of it.