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A drowning on Clacton beach

PETER FROST sees a elephant god drown at the Essex seaside

LAST month I had a few days on the coast in one of my favourite and much underrated counties — Essex. 

One reason I went was for the start of the native oyster season on Mersea Island. These smaller rounder bivalves can only be caught and eaten when there is an R in the month so September marked the start of the season. The oysters were small but delicious.

To wash them down we chose a bottle of local wine from Mersea Island’s own vineyard. When we called in at the vineyard they were busy with the harvest, filling huge plastic crates with the large and juicy pale green grapes freshly plucked from the vines.

They told us that this has been a very good year for the English wine harvest but also the somewhat surprising news that they were giving up making their sparkling wine that had so impressed us in previous years.

“We can sell all the wine we can make as still wine. Frankly there are just too many English vineyards making sparkling wine, and some very good sparkling wines. It is much easier to turn our harvest into good English still wine, which we can sell to you much cheaper,” they told us.

This was the weekend of one of the barge and smack races. Over breakfast we watched the brown-sailed 100-year-old vessels assembling from a wonderful open-air cafe on Brightlingsea seafront.

This and Mersea Island were just some Essex places we wanted to visit, so we decided that Clacton was nicely placed to explore this corner of the Thames estuary coast.

One of the biggest changes in Clacton is the vast forest of wind generators just out to sea. I know many people object to these windfarms but I actually think they add something to our land or seascapes and when I learn what a major contribution they are making to our sustainable and green energy supplies, I think the argument is won.

The 48 wind generators of what is known as the Gunfleet Sands Offshore Wind Farm, off Clacton, can provide enough power for 150,000 homes, saving a quarter of a million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

If that isn’t enough for you, in the distance towards the coast of Kent is the even larger 175 turbine London Array. Together these two windfarms are the largest in Europe and the second-largest in the world. 

I couldn’t visit Clacton without reminding myself that this was the only place in Britain that had ever elected a Ukip member of Parliament. 

It happened in October 2014. The existing Tory MP, Douglas Carswell, defected to Ukip and resigned his seat prompting a by-election in which he sought re-election this time as a Ukip MP. 
Then prime minister David Cameron and the Tories were desperate to find a candidate to beat Carswell. Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, was one name that came forward but Johnson didn’t like the thought that he might lose.

Some Tory elder statesman argued that the Tories should not put up a candidate against Ukip’s Carswell at all. Norman Tebbit claimed that the “House of Commons needs men like him.”

Ten days before the election, street artist Banksy painted a mural on a Clacton wall which showed some rather distressed looking grey pigeons holding up three placards. “Go back to Africa,” “Migrants not welcome” and “Keep off our worms,” they said. 

The messages were aimed at a more colourful migratory swallow perched further along the wire. Sadly the mural was quickly painted over by the cowardly local Tendring Council.

Carswell won the election. The first and only time Ukip had won a Westminster seat. He retained the seat for Ukip at the 2015 general election, but his majority was cut by three-quarters. 

In March 2017, Carswell announced that he was quitting Ukip to sit as an independent MP. He announced that he would not stand for re-election in Theresa May’s snap 2017 election, instead he endorsed the Tory candidate Giles Watling.  

Watling was elected and Ukip's share of the vote fell by 36.8 per cent, one of its largest declines in the country. Perhaps Clacton was beginning to be ashamed of its reputation as Britain’s most right-wing, reactionary and racist town. 

It certainly seemed so last Sunday when I was delighted to join several hundred devout Hindus and a good few interested non-believers on the beach just by Clacton pier. 

Local council representatives were there, some members of the local beach patrol and interested holidaymakers but mostly colourfully dressed Hindu worshippers.

We had all come to celebrate Ganesha’s birthday. He is also known as Ganapati, Vinayaka, Pillaiyar or Binayak, and is one of the best-known and most worshipped gods throughout India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bali, Bangladesh, Nepal and now, I learn, Essex. Devotion to Ganesha is wide and extends to some Buddhist groups as well as Jains.

Ganesha’s elephant head makes him easy to identify. He is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the bringer of intellect and wisdom and as a patron of letters and learning.

So why are we celebrating his birthday on the beach at Clacton? Well, certain local and east London Hindu temples wanted to follow the ancient tradition of floating a likeness of Ganesha out to sea to celebrate the origins of the mud and water from which he came.

Now they do it every year, purple tents had been erected to distribute delicious curry and fresh fruit to all. Music rang out across the sands and two huge statues of Ganesha, painted shiny gold and other bright colours decked with bright embroidered fabrics were carried from the pier across the sands.

Scores of men stripped to the waist to help lift the long logs that supported the statues and wade out to sea with them. 

The huge sculptures had been made from unfired clay so when the image was set free in the water it would sink and in a perfectly environmentally friendly way would return to the Essex mud from which Ganesha and indeed all of our predecessors originally emerged — the circle of life was complete.

It was wonderful celebration on a beautiful late summer sunny afternoon and a far better memory of Clacton that the town’s brief, but disgusting flirtation with Ukip.

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