Set at the edge of a tiny village in North Essex overlooking the estuary of the river Stour is a remarkable building called the House for Essex which we were lucky enough to be able to stay in recently.
Apparently the artist Grayson Perry had a long-held wish to celebrate his home county of Essex. This amazing quirky building was the result. It was commissioned by Living Architecture with Perry working in partnership with Charles Holland of FAT Architects to create a kind of memorial to the fictional character of Julie Cope, an every-woman of Essex.
The house is located in the tiny village of Wrabness which is between Colchester and Harwich.
At the end of a private lane you encounter this uncompromising house, set in an undulating landscape leading down to the shores of the river Stour.
The building is like a wayside chapel or memorial, and as the house extends back it increases in size. It almost seems that it you pushed it together each section would slot in the next, kind of like a Russian doll. The house is clad in some two thousand handmade tiles; which along with the roof sculptures, have all been created from originals produced by Grayson.
The conceit is that this is indeed a memorial to a fictional character called Julie Cope by her second husband following her death in a tragic road accident in 2014, aged 61.
Guests enter through a large wooden door into a lobby and hallway, off which a small bathroom is situated, and across the hall the staircase leads to two bedrooms and a second bathroom on the first floor.
Each bedroom has a giant tapestry of Julie – one with her first husband (Dave), as a newly wed and the other with her second husband (Rob). Note the drink in the first tapestry is beer and it’s wine in the second.
Each of the bedrooms has a little dressing room which opens onto a balcony overlooking the main room.
And between the balconies is another Perry work – a ceramic woman.
And hanging from the ceiling is a little moped, which acts as a kind of chandelier. This is part of Julie’s story as we shall see.
Now back downstairs, from the hall you enter the kitchen and dining area – quite cosy.
There is a fireplace which has hidden doors either side. They lead you into that double-height living room we saw from the balconies.
This room is lined with decorative timber panelling and two more of Grayson Perry’s richly coloured tapestries. Other specially commissioned artworks including pots, wallpaper, cushions and a mosaic floor celebrate the story of Julie Cope and her life in Essex – her “progress” from Canvey Island in the south to Wrabness in the north via Basildon, South Woodham Ferrers and Colchester.
On the right wall is a tapestry of the first part of Julie’s life – from her birth in Canvey island, her growing up in Basildon and her marriage to Dave and the birth of her children.
On the left wall is a tapestry showing the second part of her life, after her divorce from Dave with her new husband Rob. It shows her moving on to become a social worker and finishes with her sad death at the hands of a moped delivery driver. So that is where the moped comes in.
Ahead are double doors can be opened to reveal a sheltered porch overlooking the fields down to the Stour, with a rather dramatic mosaic on the floor.
The concept is that this house is a memorial to Julie created by Rob. But Perry has woven in so much more – it also explores the story of how ordinary people lived their lives in post war Britain and how things changed and they changed.
The house is fascinating but not one in which you would actually want to live. The bedrooms are small and dominated by tapestries of Julie and her husbands – a bit of a shock to wake up to! And surprisingly no en-suite bathroom.
The living room was functional rather than comfortable.
Not the kind of place you would want to cosy up in on a cold winter’s night – and there were only two comfy chairs. Anyone else had to sit on the side benches.
But it was great for a couple of nights and location was fantastic. It had the feeling of remoteness with lovely views down to the river estuary.
But look to the east and you could see the cranes of Harwich and Felixstowe, a reminder that this is not quite so remote as it seemed at first.
Then look west and you have this lovely skyline which could be particularly wonderful at sunset.
It is just great to be able to stay in somewhere so different – to be surrounded by art which is totally accessible, both physically and visually as well as in terms of concept. So all in all we had a great stay which passed far too fast.
But there was one last surprise the house had in store for us.
As we were leaving we spotted something to the right of the driveway. It seemed to be just a concrete cover for something. We knew it could not be the septic tank because we had seen that emptied the day before. Anyway it was further over.
Going up to it we saw immediately it was the “grave” of Julie. Nice touch.
You too can stay at the House for Essex, but you cannot just book it. The demand is so great that Living Architecture allocate places by means of a lottery.
So if you want to go sign up for their news letter and register for the next draw. It only took us three attempts! But it was worth it.