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Culture vulture! Books & films set in Essex

Lights, camera, action! For a dose of local culture this summer, look no further than these brilliant works of fiction and film all set in our characterful county.

Seeking something new to read or watch over the summer? Well, you don’t have to look too far for inspiration with these locally set stunners which, along with being compulsive viewing and reading, also provide some great inspo for days out over the holiday. It’s a win-win situation!

THE ESSEX SERPENT

THE BOOK: Rooted firmly in author Sarah Perry’s home county and, more specifically, Aldwinter – a fictional town near Colchester that backs onto the Blackwater Estuary – The Essex Serpent won a slew of awards for its eerie depiction of murder, mystery and monsters on the salt marsh. Set in 1893, we follow sometime heroine Cora Seaborne as she fleas her controlling, unhappy marriage to start over in the peaceful Essex countryside with her son. Cue a community in panic and a creature of folklore that refuses to loosen its grip for the ultimate gothic yarn.

THE MINI SERIES (and locations you can visit!): Movie star Claire Danes was the lead actress in the adaptation, but Maldon was the real star of this 2022 series released on Apple TV in May, in particular the lovely High Street, Silver Street – check out The Moot Hall, a former 15th-century courthouse now a museum and wedding venue and The Blue Boar – plus Promenade Park (Muddy kids like the splash park here in summer!). You can also see the Thames barges in Hythe Quay. Tollesbury, nine miles from Maldon was also used for filming (it also appears in the BBC’s adaptation of Great Expectations!) and the village of North Fambridge’s clapboard cottages made a great additional backdrop for various scenes.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

THE BOOK: Hit Susan Hill’s white-knuckle ghost story for a sure-fire shiver fest. Set on a remote island cut off at high tide, this chilling east-coast thriller tells the tale of Jennet Humfryre – a vengeful mother who will stop at nothing (and no one) to haunt the grounds of Eel Marsh House. 

THE FILM (and locations you can visit!): Harry Potter (a.k.a Daniel Radcliffe!) plays Arthur, the recently widowed young lawyer forced to attend to the affairs of the recently deceased owner of Eel Marsh House. Scene(ry) stealers include Layer Marney Tower near Colchester and Osea Island, the star of the show and celeb-favourite hush hush hangout where you can stay IRL (if you dare…).

STARTER FOR TEN

THE BOOK: Before bestselling author David Nicholls penned the chart-topping One Day and Us, he mastered his comic craft in Starter For Ten: a touching tale about love, class and growing up on campus in the 80s. It follows Brian Jackson, a hopeless hero who has one goal in life: to make it onto TV’s biggest general knowledge quiz show. But then his enigmatic teammate Alice Harbinson comes along and the ambition gets a kickstart. Now they have to win. 

THE FILM (and locations you can visit!): Actor James McAvoy stars alongside lots of other famous faces (tbh this is definitely worth a watch if only to try and guess ‘who IS that?’ when glimpsing actors like a young James Corden). Ok Bristol Uni is the main setting, but Essex still stars which is what counts, right? Good old Clacton Pier is where Brian, Spencer and Tone listen to music – if you haven’t been to Clackers for a while, you might be surprised by the pier’s revamp and endless kids activities. 

BOOKS SET IN ESSEX THAT SHOULD BE MADE INTO A FILM…

Secret Water by Arthur Ransome

Perfect for channeling your inner kid explorer (or reading aloud to little adventurers), this gem by Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome is set in Hamford Water, near Walton-on-the-Naze and follows John, Susan, Titty and Roger as they take on the job of mapping their way out of the mud flats. Expect nostalgia in buckets and spades as this charming story on the Essex coast unfolds and the Swallows turn a dull holiday into an epic family odyssey.

The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore

Poetic and beguiling debut novel that brilliantly brings to life a small Essex town in the grip of the seventeenth-century witch trials orchestrated by real-life witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins. Muddy couldn’t put this book down.

Hiding From The Light by Barbara Erskine

Another spellbinding tale of witchcraft and haunted cottages with romance and a rector on the edge. Already hooked? Say hello to Emma Dickson – a former high-flyer who finds herself in the grips of something sinister with no way out. If it’s good enough for Richard & Judy’s book club….

When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman

This darkly comic, critically-acclaimed debut from Sarah Winman shuttles between suburban Essex (where protagonist Elly grows up), the wild Cornish coast and bustling streets of New York. It spans four decades. It asks the Big Questions. It even features a rabbit called God. But it’s Winman’s ability to expertly navigate the pull and power of family ties in her narration of loss and love that will keep you captive on the sun lounger.

If you’re going to buy, don’t forget to order from one of our favourite Essex independent book stores like Red Lion BooksMaldon Books and Wivenhoe Bookshop #InLoveWithLocal

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