Let's face it - Essex gets a rough old time.
I'm not exempt from blame in this respect, since I like an Essex girl joke as much as the next man. Particularly since J is from Harlow and I can't resist a cheap shot. I've no doubt I'm the poorer man for that.
However, since J still has family towards the north of Essex, I am a reasonably regular visitor, and I'm starting to reach the conclusion that we've all been more than a little harsh.
For a start, I'll admit it's got some towns I'm not mad keen on. But then where hasn't - I'm from Watford in the neighbouring county of Hertfordshire, and that's not going to win any beauty parades (just don't diss the football team - I'm not called Hornet for nothing). Even my beloved Warwickshire has its fair share of less desirable locations (no names, no pack drill) - but that's no reason to dislike a whole county.
What Essex has going for it is sheer scale and diversity. It's huge. As well as Harlow, Basildon, Canvey Island, Stansted Airport, the M11 and M25, it also has Hatfield Forest (authentic medieval woodland), wide open agricultural spaces, miles and miles of coastline, and fantastic saltmarshes and tidal estuary.
And, being a birder, it is the latter which really excite me! Thanks to a recommendation from Pete I've just come back from the Blackwater Estuary (Old Hall Marshes et al) where I had the most beautiful afternoon imaginable (report to follow).
On the basis of that visit, plus my Sunday morning stroll around Hatfield Forest, plus all the other adventures that can be had in this most maligned of counties, I urge you to give Essex a second chance - it'll be worth it I promise.