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...voted the most boring town in the UK

Just passing through...

I’ve been struggling with the idea of how to explain to people who don’t know Brentwood, just what it is about the place which makes it officially the most boring town in the UK. All small towns have their petty party politics, all have neglected areas, all have urban sprawl dominating the heart of the community. And then it hit me. "The heart of the community". That’s it. Brentwood has not got a heart. And more to the point, it’s not even a community. It never has been. Brentwood is not a place you go to, it’s a place you go through.

What makes a community? It certainly isn’t an accumulation of houses, whatever the estate agents tell us. I think that a community is made up of people with a shared interest in something that transcends the minutiae of their daily lives. The reason why 'community' is so often used to describe a town or village comes from our history. Through most of England, through most of time, people have been fairly static.

High St c1906 A village would be made up of perhaps 100 families, all of whom have known each other over generations. Small kindnesses grow into friendships which last across generations, small grudges grow into feuds. Because everyone’s past and everyone’s future is centred in the same place they learn this lesson (mostly) and try, on the whole, to get on with each other. The feeling that grows is held in the network of relationships between the people themselves, not in the place, as anyone who has moved into an English village and been perceived as the outsider they are, knows to their cost. The physical proximity is a coincidence.

In Brentwood, the number of residents has historically been small compared to the number of strangers. The small kindnesses (and small grudges) have not just been shared within the town but shared with all who passed through. In this process, instead of accumulating and creating a bond, they have dissipated. In the same way, the constant flow of arrivals and departures over the centuries has created the sense that there is more to life than Brentwood; life choices such as career, marriage, and political allegiences have historically not been dictated by what happened locally but were drawn from a far wider canvas. This has given the town a sort of restlessness, a rootlessness. It’s as if we locals were living in an airport, with everyone else on the move, off to exciting adventures or heading back to home comforts; but we few are cursed to live there permanently in the shadows, looking after the weary traveller’s luggage.

London Road up to Brentwood c1906

The name Brentwood comes from "Burnt wood". Some people say this ancient name relates to a community of charcoal burners living in the woods, some say it comes from a fire in the woods which created a small clearing. Either way, there was nothing much here. Neighbouring villages have evidence of ancient earthworks, roman artefacts, and are mentioned in the Domesday book. Not so Brentwood.

What seems to have happened is that there was virtually nothing going in Brentwood until the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29th 1173. This seems an odd argument. How could a murder in Kent influence events in a clearing in the woods in Essex? However this gets to the essence of Brentwood; it’s not a town, it’s a place with houses.

The murder was so shocking that people wanted to pay their respects in person and crowds began to arrive at the Cathedral. Within days of his death rumours began to circulate that miracles were occurring, and travellers began to make long and arduous journeys to Canterbury from all over the country. These journeys became pilgrimages, people made them for the glory of God and the good of their souls; but of course their physical needs had to be met as well. Burnt wood happened to be close to the main Roman road running from Colchester into London, (now the A12) and came to be a resting place for pilgrims. A smattering of houses and inns came into being, the name was changed to Brentwood, and in 1221 a small chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket was built for the pilgrims. The town’s real history began at this time.

Roman map
The Roman roads of Essex; green roads are known to be Roman, the red ones are less certain.

By 1277 there was a ferry operating between Tilbury and Gravesend, linking the A12 to Watling Street which went from London to Dover. This created a much shorter route to Canterbury for pilgrims from East Anglia. The new settlement of Brentwood, with its chapel, was perhaps only half a days walk from Tilbury. Shops and market stalls began to open up to provide goods for the pilgrims, and inns and hostelries were set up to provide shelter. And so the life of Brentwood began; local people having to live here in order to serve the needs of other people who would actually prefer to be somewhere else more interesting.

This pattern has been repeated through the centuries. More and more people arrived and departed, more and more Brentwood became a place about other places, and not about itself. The identity of the town was one of serving the perpetual motion of others (although some outsiders stayed in the town - but not because they wanted to: a hospital for lepers was founded here in 1233; dependent on donations from pilgrims for its survival). More usually strangers were to a greater or lesser extent transient. The wool trade in the 14th and 15th century passed through Brentwood on its way from Flanders via the ports of Colchester and Harwich into London; in the 16th century Brentwood School opened, and boys were sent there from across the county (and these days boys and girls are sent there from across the whole world) and sent home again, and military bases were established with yeomen mustered from Norfolk and Suffolk assembling in the town and later returning to their homes. None of these people wanted to actually be in Brentwood. None of them had any choice in the matter.

Brent-Wood and Ingarstone ... have very little to be said of them, but that they are large thoroughfair towns, full of good inns, and chiefly maintained by the excessive multitude of carriers and passengers, which are constantly passing this way to London, with droves of cattle, provisions, and manufactures for London..

Daniel Defoe, 1724

The 17th century was the era of the stagecoach. Brentwood was a day’s coach ride out of London on the main road to Harwich. A great variety of strangers passed through the town, taking with them the smiles and kind words of the locals, and leaving their money behind. In 1686 the War Office records that Brentwood contained 110 beds in inns and alehouses, and the stabling for 183 horses. All these inns and stables needed staff and supplies, and Brentwood prospered. Again though, the energy of the travellers was essentially about being in Brentwood temporarily in order to serve the greater purpose of getting somewhere else.

In the 19th century it was the turn of the army to occupy the town. Barracks were built in 1805 for 2000 cavalry; this in a town of 1001 population. This led to a proliferation of pubs and eating houses in the town, a trend that continues today. The soldiers obviously didn’t want to be here – safe at home, or off fighting for king and country, but please, not sitting on our arses in Brentwood. Seven Arches vast railway cutting The railway line also arrived around this time. In 1840 trains began to come from London to Brentwood. Going out from Brentwood to the east there is a steep rise, and at that time the railway technology was not up to the job of getting a train up such a steep slope.Despite the wide variety of pubs, it seems that the railway owners knew that there was no call for an actual terminus in Brentwood. That would imply people had Brentwood in mind as a destination. Instead, a cutting was made through the rise. Such was the scale of this enterprise that several construction firms were bankrupted in the process, and the Brentwood Cutting pushed the gearing of locomotives of the time to their limit. It took 3 long years to extend the line from Brentwood to the next town of Shenfield. But it was worth it so that travellers could keep on going not to, but through, Brentwood as they had since the beginning.

The next phase of unwilling visitors to Brentwood began to arrive at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Their stay was destined to be fairly long term. These were the health migrants. Because Brentwood is on a hill, the air was deemed to be healthy (at least compared to the smog of industrialised London) and hospitals began to spring up all over the place. High Wood, for children with TB; St Faiths, for epileptics; Warley Hospital, the county lunatic asylum, for psychiatric disorders; the Marillac hospital originally for TB and now for people with physical disabilities. Brentwood residents took care of these people, as always, in the knowledge that although these people were in the town they were not of the town.

In modern times Brentwood has grown enormously. Modern Brentwood The current population is around 68,000. At last it seems that people actually want to be here; they buy houses in the town and send their kids to local schools. But that’s just the surface. Brentwood is still a large throughfare town, full of good inns, and to be honest, a large smattering of horrible inns full of out_of_town Essex boys wanting a ruck. We have some good restaurants. We have many fine charity shops. We have an excellent road network leading away from the town in all directions, and a great by-pass. And that's about it.

The new residents don't take any part in the life of the town – we can’t even sustain a local cinema, local shops are struggling, the pubs and restaurants are full of people from elsewhere and the civic society has just closed due to lack of interest. It seems that the new wave of residents are still here reluctantly; they live here because they really want to live in London but can’t afford it, or because they really want to live in some rural village but can’t afford it. So they reside here, but don’t invest their hearts in the town.

And do you know, I don’t blame them?