Tiptree is not the sort of Essex village you would chance upon, nor necessarily visit by choice unless you happened to be travelling to the shop and tea rooms of the famous Wilkins & Son jam factory, but it’s the place I adopted as my home in December 2009, almost by accident.
Previously I had never even heard of the place, let alone visited. The connection arose after a nomadic year following the break-up of my marriage and a decision to seek out a character property somewhere in the general area environs of Chelmsford.
Why Chelmsford? Simple: a reasonably straightforward journey to collect the kids, easy access to London and the motorway network, a pleasant county town with ample facilities, and, most important of all, it has a fine cricket ground! These days I’m in Chelmsford several times a week rehearsing for plays, among other reasons to visit, so staying near the city was important.
I began by looking at cottages close to town, and gradually spread the net further afield. So when one agent sent me the details of a tardis-like 16th century cottage with an Aga, lots of beams and two inglenook fireplaces, located in a village two thirds of the way towards Colchester I was not going to turn him down. In fact, I fell in love with the property, put in one low offer which was rejected, put in a second offer which was accepted, and Tiptree was from that moment my destination and the place in which I would put down roots.
When my kids walked down the high street with me the initial reaction was negative, in spite of the rather pleasant duck pond on the green and the now armless windmill, for which the village is also famed locally. Lindsey looked around aghast and said with a mock horror that belied her years: “Dad, you can’t live here – it’s got two Age Concern shops!”
First thing to notice was that Tiptree is not really a village at all, and certainly lacks the quaintness and architectural heritage of Coggeshall and Lavenham, to name but two places that attract visitors by the score, and therefore succeeds in achieving the peace and quiet to which villages aspire. It has also avoided becoming a rat run to articulated lorries, thanks to the excellent A12 enhancements. Visitors to my house have remarked that unlike other destinations, the only things you hear in the morning are the doves cooing!
In practice Tiptree is more like a small but functional town with housing estates, three primary schools and a senior school, though it somehow masquerades behind the facade of a sleepy place more akin to Brigadoon than the solid and charming market towns hereabouts, Witham, Braintree, Maldon and the like. The village itself has precious few pubs, but there are plenty of excellent ones out in the countryside (I recommend the Chequers at Goldhanger, for example), not to mention the facilities at Five Lakes resort.
The nearest station, Kelvedon, is under 10 minutes drive and on the main line between London, Stratford, Chelmsford, Colchester, Ipswich, Clacton and other destinations, which makes it easier to commute than from places like Maldon. Strangely enough, pre-Beeching, Tiptree used to have its own branch line out towards the coast, and to this day we have a Station Road without the corresponding station.
Tiptree manages to be two minutes drive into open countryside in any direction. Indeed, we have lots of lovely woodland and a splendid heath replete with Exmoor ponies at some times in the year. Furthermore, 20 minutes drive by the back roads and you’re at Mersea Island on the Thames estuary – beaches, country park, a vineyard and superb fish restaurants at your disposal. But with two cities a short drive away, you’re never too far from civilisation and culture here. It’s also barely over an hour’s drive to my sister’s family out in the wilds of Suffolk at a village called Wenhaston.
Tiptree does not have a huge shopping centre, but what it does have is at least useful – three sizeable supermarkets (Tesco, Asda and now Iceland) within a stone’s throw of my front door for example. The remainder of the retail environment seems dominated by said charity shops and a disproportionate number of takeaways, which leads you to suppose that the citizenry tend to buy in than cook for themselves. Fancy fish and chips, Indian, Chinese, Thai, pizza? Trust me, you won’t have the slightest problem getting decent takeaway grub in Tiptree!
It’s a shame but Tiptree lacks many of the old-fashioned shops for which villages are usually famous, though the ones we do have are quite magical. Only last week Adam needed art materials and brushes, so I took him to a place in Tiptree called “The Cheap Shop” – which proved to have a wealth of art materials hidden in its cavernous rear. Tiptree can sometimes be a place that surprises the unwary.
Millins the butchers, now rehoused and expanded into deli and other branches of quality provisions, is quite superb – and it’s a pleasure to see the shop thrive in spite of the competing attentions of the supermarkets. There is also an excellent electrical shop which amazingly matches the prices found online and provides delivery and fitting without any hassle. Perhaps the shop that amazes most visitors is the tardis-like hardware store (same ownership as the Staines & Bright electrical shop), which from the outside looks unprepossessing but once you’re inside seems to stretch on forever, selling an incredible array of stock. You need it, it’s there. So easy to take such places for granted and miss them when they’re gone, so I do make an effort to buy things there on occasion. The only other shop of real note is the Factory Shop, which sells most things the hardware store does not, and is always worth a visit on the off-chance.
But it is the jam factory for which the village is best known. Their website is Tiptree.com, and the slogan adopted many a year since is “Tiptree, where the jam comes from.” These days you can’t tour the factory – though if and when the expansion plans go ahead that omission may be rectified. You can visit the museum, the tea rooms and the wonderful shop, which sells a myriad of condiments and other items, and has been newly refurbished. Time was when fruit for jam was grown in the fields hereabouts, and now the shop will sell you Tiptree strawberries, for example. Well worth a visit and do return with some of the excellent preserves!
If I had to offer a critique of Tiptree it would be that the sense of community here is not as strong as it should be, possibly the result of new housing estates bringing in a new populous of young families. My neighbours have been here a dozen years or so, but you never seem to meet any true locals – although I do have a nodding acquaintance with the local postmen and women. There is a football team, and a local newspaper, but somehow Tiptree lacks the coherence you associate with other villages. Maybe it has grown too big and lost a little of its soul along the way?
All I can say is that I am delighted to be living here, and all things being equal will continue to do so for some years yet. Serendipitous my introduction to Tiptree may have been, but a very happy accident, to be sure.