It was one of the ancient chroniclers - Hollingshed perhaps - who described the inhabitants of Essex as 'half East Anglian and half human'. Indeed, it's this cultural ambiguity that haunts the people of this county to this day. Essex spawned Boudicca, but the indigenous Celtic marsh-dwellers were later subdued by the culture of the Angles and Jutes. Subdued but not absorbed; mitochondrial DNA reveals a surprising number of Essex folk retain their Celtic gene-markers. Sometimes this druidic Essex, a thing of dark groves and deserted marshes, comes forth, as during the witch trials. Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, hailed from Manningtree, and sent more Essex women to their deaths - some 200 - than were convicted anywhere else in Britain. Now of course we know that most of these women were just irritating and opinionated rather than the spawn of Satan; twas ever thus in Essex.
In the days when I used to commute from Suffolk to London, our table of regulars used to carry out a white-sock count as the train drew into the intermediate stations. Manningtree, the first Essex stop, would have a WSC of some 10%, Colchester 25% and Chelmsford 40%. If the train stopped at Shenfield or Ingatestone, the count was well up into the 60% level. Sometime during the 1990s the men of Essex stopped wearing white socks with their city suits. Well, most of them, anyway. But the predeliction of Essex woman for white shoes doesn't seem to have diminished; white shoes and handbag are not a cliche in Chelmsford. They contrast well with the orange legs.
Whether it's the East Anglian half or the human half that gives the people of Essex their distinctive character, or whether, like the Mule, the cross produces a distinct creature with a discrete character, I don't know. They really are a breed apart. If you don't believe me, visit the only London Monopoly board mainline station that few of you will be familiar with - Fenchurch Street. Whilst the crowds at Liverpool Street are polluted with fenmen and Norwich boys, Hollanders and Ipswichites, Fenchurch Street is pure Essex.
Anyway, if you've a smidgeon of anthropological curiosity, then The Only Way is Essex returns in ITV tonight. You won't understand what they're saying - Hopkins would have called it a secret language - and the attitudes may have you reaching for the ducking-stool, but have a care. Without the buffer of Essex, Suffolk would be neighbour to the Cockney.