Category Archives: travel writing

Aberdon’t – Marischal Square

This is to stop that awful development in Aberdeen going ahead.

The two buildings that strike most about Aberdeen are Provost Skene’s House and Marischal College.

The first is a free museum in a former mayoral residence (provost in Scotland) which is SHUT to allow this monstrous development round it, even though it’s not touched by it. Skene’s House is one of the best museums of its kind in the country, with plastered and painted ceilings and recreated rooms of different periods.

When I last came to Aberdeen, I was gutted that this turreted stone building was obscured by a dreadful office block which the Queen had to open. I hoped she’d soon be pushing the first swing of the wrecking ball.

The ball has done its work, but instead, something equally as grievous is planned in its place.

Opposite is the second largest granite edifice in the world, the most arresting landmark in Scotland’s third city, a sort of Houses of Parliament rival. It went from being the University’s second college to being leased to the city council – pictures of the interior changes have caused many squawks! There is a by appointment collection within that used to be a free museum.

I’d like to emphasise that I’m a visitor, not a local – we care too about Aberdeen and these special buildings.

The development is just what everyone else is getting – Edinburgh, Leeds, Cambridge… the dumpy new 1960s boxes, which will equally be regretted immediately and get worse with each decade.

The developer’s website is dreadful. It uses not even very buzzy buzz words. There’s nothing different, exciting, unique, quality about this mixed use site – it’s what you expect. Go on – try to name four things this might be. Yeah, you got them all. Not, there’s not anything cultural in there. Just a lump in the heart of a perhaps overlooked interesting city.

As a petition to reject this proposal said, it takes business away from the long established classical shopping street which views gardens and domes, churches and theatres. Yes, like its big sister below, Aberdeen has an old and new town, a one sided street overlooking the distinct skyline – Marischal college being the apogee. Like the capital in the lowlands, Aberdeen’s got several museums, a waterfront and shoreline, all built in a particular colour of stone – this one is light silver.

I felt that Aberdeen was missing something last time I was there. It wasn’t this.

I found several thousand supporters who feel the same, and the matter regularly features in local press.

Why are developers Muse allowed to go ahead, presumably putting profit before the wishes of the people and what the city needs?

There is much anger and backlash about this, and belief that illegal and unfair practices have been involved. The claims over bankrupting the city if it were stopped are manipulation.

Why should Aberdeen have this enforced on the – or Edinburgh the new St James, which equally upsets me with its Ribbon at the heart? (And why can’t I find a campaign on that?)

Muse may think that this creates a monumental lasting testament to themselves, but Muse will just be the shameful name of who spoiled a city. Or tried to.

I support those who say the building should cease and something that is more popular and suitable is put forward instead, which doesn’t obscure these buildings or desecrate the heart of the city.

I’d like Aberdeen to have more independent, special shops and cafes, more arts – not more of the usual chains, something akin tot he atmosphere of Belmont Street – and that will never look like Muse’s vision.

Leave a comment

Filed under society, travel writing

naughty guides and days out have a new home

I’ve started another blog for these. There are links to similar posts around the web on previous articles on this one:

https://elspethr.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/my-travel-writing/

https://elspethr.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/naughty-guides/

I’ll keep my other posts on travel and heritage on here – eg churches, a sense of place, and musings on a couple of Essex cities – and the Elephant grey bottom post. (you’ve noticed the search box and category filter on the right?)

but I’m going to start updating the Day Out With Elspeth series and putting these all together.

They now live at http://elspethsnaughtyguides.wordpress.com/

Leave a comment

Filed under heritage, travel writing

City of Churches IV: Conclusion

What I’ve realised is something about myself…

Firstly – what are my favourites among the cities we’ve been to?

Thinking about other cities (and not just those I’ve been discussing), I realise that Norwich, Bristol and Ipswich all have several special medieval churches – but like London’s classical ones, I can take them for granted.

Bristol churches22 Bristol St Mary Redcliffe crossing

St Mary Redcliffe Bristol – my favourite parish church in Britain

I like St Mary Redcliffe best – perhaps that’s why I’m so dissatisfied elsewhere as I’ve got such a high precedent. I would have work to do to any Norwich church to put it on this level. It’s also 60ft longer than Norwich’s largest parish church and its spire is only 23ft shorter than Norwich cathedral’s. It has modern glass, a neo medieval crypt for meetings, and it has interesting historical associations (that’s a whole other aspect I’ve not touched on).

What makes SMR stand out is its vault and a satisfying tower/spire, and no-one’s got such an unusual porch

From Norwich’s churches, I’d pick:

St Peter M Norwich churches at night6

I would want to put tracery on the arches inside, and do something about that Victorian spirelet and parapet.

St Giles   for its tall tower and porch – but only the latter has the kind of detail I seek

St Stephen’s  though the ceiling could be more carved and coloured and the glass is heavy and murky. Does the tower need a parapet?

St Andrew’s Norwich churches at night4 as it’s big, airy, partly stone, and has tracery on the arcade, but it needs many more details

 St Miles for its flushwork, but I’d like it all over and with a big east window. The inside needs renovation and it’s hard to assess the church in the state I last saw it in.

That’s not to say that none of the other churches have anything good.

Norwich churches at night2 St Michael at Plea, Norwich – good porch, well lit

My wish list from elsewhere

I’d like Cambridge’s round church

a classical church  – St Stephen Walbrook I think being my favourite out of several

modern stained glass – Bristol would be best for that

an octagonal open tower from York – St Andrew’s Halls lost theirs

There really are some great churches in Suffolk and also in the East Midlands and Cotswolds area; Norwich/Norfolk as a city and county may have the most, but not necessarily the best. To make Norwich’s 31 churches superlative, I’d have to pinch heavily from the West Country and Lincs/E Yorks/Notts too.

By cutting out Catholics and nonconformists, I’ve undermined the full picture in many cases. I don’t like Victorian gothic, but two great Catholic churches of that era are to be found in Cambridge and Norwich. Nearly these towns have great Nonconformist chapels and that evens out the lack of classicism. In Norwich, there’s a 17th C red tower and a bank that resembles a Wren style church (and another huge former bank has Gibbs-like rhythms in its ceiling arches) so it sort of does have all the eras and styles, for the missing Early English is made up for in the Catholic cathedral. And the synagogue opposite has modern stained glass. Perhaps Pevsner was right when he said Norwich has everything. I was beginning to doubt him.

Perhaps Suffolk’s finest and the best parish churches of England are posts for another time…

What I realised about me:

I realised that what appeals to me in a church is about space and atmosphere; that my non conformist roots, for all my 20 years of Anglican church interests and wide faith journey, are still very strong. I often pick out the preaching box like churches. I don’t miss furnishings: I like the damaged churches who sweep out as much as they’re allowed and start with a fresh open space – not that I’m condoning bombings, arson etc – but their aftermath is actually an opportunity.

But I also asked myself why this church stuff mattered, for as much as this is focussed on buildings, human emotions creep in. What is my relationship to these cities and to these churches, whether as worshipper, employee, citizen, customer, passer by, or tourist? Many of these churches have strong emotive attachments for me. The stories about being near or in those churches…. that might be a creative writing idea….

Sense of place is hugely important to me and churches are a part of that, both as my environment and as a spiritual person looking for a community. Why is perfection important? Perhaps it is about feeling I have chosen as my home a city that I feel really proud of and one that meets my needs; whose boasts I can believe first hand rather than accept those of others, and sense of belonging and having the same perspective as other citizens. Perhaps this reflects my own disillusions and doubts about where I live now and should live, rather than on bricks and plasterwork…

Perhaps this comes down to issues nothing to do with actual churches and things too personal to reflect on here.

Leave a comment

Filed under heritage, spirituality, travel writing

City of Churches III Norwich vs London

London, I think, is the most remarkable of British cities for its church collection. On one level, it’s like Norwich – a large group of much the same, in this case, Stuart churches. There’s little medieval here and nothing externally of that era to please.

St Andrew Undershaft has an interior like an inferior version of Bristol’s St Stephen’s and Lord Mayor’s Chapel. St Helen’s has potential, but both St Helen’s and Undershaft are diminutive outside. The great Norman priory at St Bartholomew’s is not only shorn in half or less, but insensitively and anachronistically restored externally – and mean enough to enforce an entrance fee. I like round 12/13 C Temple church which doesn’t count under parish churches – I like it less now that it too imposes an entrance charge. Out of the classical ones, it’s hard to choose as I have not spent the time with them that I have in other cities. For the interiors, domed St Stephen Walbrook is supreme, but overall I think St Mary le Bow is my favourite; and I’ve just discovered St Mary at Hill near Monument.

St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook London

Above: St Stephen Walbrook – the photo on the right captures the City.

Perhaps we take London’s churches for granted – would they would seem more special in other cities where there are none or few of these? If you visit several in one day, they can run into each other.

St Mary Abchurch By analysing them, you come to see the brilliance of Wren and his office. He used gothic as well as classical; and not all the same type of classical. There are white stone and red brick ones (St Mary le Bow being both), and some of more beigy stone (St Dunstan in the West), whereas the pre-Fire ones are of flinty rubble or whitish ragstone. Some have traditional spires (St Margaret Pattens), some have cupolas (St Magnus), some have little hats (St Benet) and some have tiered wedding cake toppings (St Bride). St Mary Aldermary has long parapets. Three have round ceilings (St Mary Abchurch left, St Mary at Hill and St Stephen Walbrook) as did the wonderfully named Barton [Bat] Fink (now gone). Bombs from the war and the 1990s have meant there’s several modern windows and other fittings.

Wren did not build all the City’s churches; some are pre Fire survivors, some by other 18th or 19th C architects; and some like bat eared St Sepulchre are mishmashes of several centuries, Classic and Gothic.

London churches

The rest of London has many more ecclesiastical treasures, but most are fairly central.

In the West End, there’s rightly famous St Martin in the Fields with its delectable plastered ceiling, but there’s other special classical churches around there – St James Piccadilly, St John Smith Square, St Clement Dane…

Hawksmoor’s 6 1/2 highly original churches are also quite central (one in the City). There’s one of these top left:St George in the East, in the Shadwell area.

London perhaps is the most remarkable city for breadth, but it lacks what Norwich and Bristol have by way of gothic and I don’t think that even Westminster Abbey really makes up for that, though the Lady/Henry VII Chapel is a supreme example of gothic.

Final thoughts in the next piece…

Leave a comment

Filed under heritage, history, travel writing

Cities of churches – intro

** UPATED WITH NEW EVIDENCE JUNE 2015**

Is it true that Norwich has more medieval parish churches in its walls than any other English city?

It even says it’s got more than most of Europe, in some daft marketing phrase that is so beloved of Norwich’s promoters. I can personally only account for the former, so that is what I’m sticking to – places I know and have actually counted myself in England.

Norwich also likes to boast it has as many churches as York, London and Bristol – England’s three other greatest medieval cities – put together. That claim has never felt right. It is also misleadingly phrased. The claim can only be to have more medieval churches in the centre – that’s medieval fabric today, not medieval foundation. There will follow some lovely tables to put this matter to rest.

Norwich has been a little sneaky with its boast because lots of other important medieval towns spread its walls but Norwich was neatly contained by them till medieval church building was done. And “medieval” is vague, as most central parish churches were founded in medieval times, but have often been rebuilt, whereas Norwich’s are all the same style of Gothic, built in the 14-16th centuries: remarkable, or dull?

I’ll come to that question in another post. This one is about numbers. Here are my definitions:just outside the wall = allowed; but not ones in the suburbs, nor who have been moved, nor utter ruins; and I count only Anglican parish churches, not cathedrals, friaries or private chapels.

I’ve enjoyed comparing the English cities with multiple medieval parish churches – mainly the 10+ group of Bristol, York, Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich and London. Multichurches does seem to be an English phenomenon – Scottish or Welsh cities seem to have had one of two original parish churches. It’s interesting that several important medieval towns (Edinburgh, Hull, Coventry, King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth) had only 1-3, opting for few large churches, which makes me wonder something for my next article… I’m aware of larger former numbers in Lincoln, Winchester and Exeter but I don’t know those cities well enough to personally vouch. Here is my table:

City # churches now medieval now prewar reformation
London 39 7 c48 c100
Norwich 31 31 34 c60
York 19 19 19 47
Bristol 10 6 15 21
Cambridge 13 c5? 13 U/K
Ipswich 12 12 12 12?
Canterbury 9 8? 11 14+

Colchester has 6 (+1 further out) and Worcester 6 (with 2 just outside the walls); Chester 6 including St John’s (had 9), Nottingham 3, Newcastle 4, Northampton 4…. this is sounding like football results!

But what’s more interesting – the greatest number or the greatest collection? There are going to be four more on this subject.

I made a full list of the churches in the 10+ cities but it won’t fit on these pages!

Reeling it off makes me feel like that character in a Count Duckula episode whose party trick is to recite the digits of pi – suffice to say the list is available to the curious and I do know the names and locations/look of all the churches in my chart. I have seen and visited many of them and made an effort to count personally, not copy figures from other sources.

I am being generous with “medieval now”  as Norwich claims that title for churches that have been bombed who have been substantially renewed and rebuilt by the Victorians, and whose furnishings nearly all come from other eras – the can also include glass. Nearly all its churches, whilst appearing medieval, actually have some fabric that isn’t. There is a blatantly C17th tower, also counted among its 31. So I am offering the same spirit of generosity in my definition of medieval to other cities. St Martin le Grand of York counts as it has a roof, windows and is used for worship..

Does Norwich really have as many medieval churches as Bristol, York and London?

Norwich  31/31 Bristol, London, York
1 All Saints All Saints                 B 6/10
2 St Andrew St James
3 St Augustine St John on the Wall
4 St Clement St Mary Redcliffe
5 St Edward SS Philip and Jacob
6 St Etheldreda St Stephen
7 St George Colegate All Hallows by the Tower    L 7/39
8 St George Tombland St Andrew Undershaft
9 St Giles on the Hill St Bartholomew the Great
10 St Gregory St Ethelburga
11 St Helen Bishopgate St Helen Bishopgate
12 St James St Olave Hart Street
13 St John Maddermarket All Saints North Street      Y 19/19
14 St John de Sepulchre All Saints Pavement
15 St John Timberhill Holy Trinity Goodramgate
16 St Julian Holy Trinity Micklegate
17 St Laurence St Andrew, Andrewgate
18 St Margaret St Cuthbert
19 St Martin at Oak St Denys
20 St Martin at Palace St Helen Stonegate
21 St Mary Coslany St John the Evangelist, Micklegate
22 St Mary the Less St Margaret
23 St Michael at Plea St Martin le Grand
24 St Michael Coslany/Miles St Martin-cum-Gregory, Micklegate
25 St Peter Hungate St Mary Bishophill
26 St Peter Mancroft St Mary Castlegate
27 St Peter Parmentergate St Michael le Belfrey
28 St Saviour St Michael Spurriergate
29 SS Simon and Jude St Olave
30 St Stephen St Sampson
31 St Swithin St Saviour

No – it’s the same. It has AS MANY medieval churches NOW as those three cities.

Adding up Bristol, London and York’s full set would mean 10+39+19 =58 – somewhat higher than Norwich’s 31!

So Norwich, your boast is wrong! I will never get a job at Norwich’s HEART now.

Leave a comment

Filed under heritage, history, travel writing

Things to do with £16 – or why insurance is fear based waste

I could have bought 2 cinema tickets,  or one luxury central London one

and I’d have got into many gigs and theatres for that

 

I could have eaten out or had a bottle of reasonable wine

 

I could have travelled 70-150 miles by train, return

 

I could have had entry to a major historic attraction

 

bought a top or sandals (esp. in the sale)

 

and got a lovely picturebook souvenir.

 

I also could have paid my summer gas bill.

 

Alas, this particular £16 did not do any of these useful, pleasurable things. All of these, even the bill, paid for something I tangibly had. I did have hot water for my summer of showers. I did see that film. I did ride that train, I am wearing the garment, and my body is digesting the pleasant items I put in it. My bookshelf is enhanced with the ongoing enjoyment of the book; my scrapbook bears testimony to the evening out, which I can recall much later.

 

But no – this £16 bought me nothing that I had any use or value of. Apart from the do it yourself print out, I’d wonder I’d spent it on anything at all, or if I just gave the money into the ether. For as my trip was pleasant, and without hiccup, I got nothing whatever back for the insurance I’d paid. I wasn’t going to bother, then something in the news made me think that I might end up paying far more if I didn’t. But then, wouldn’t there be excuses of why the company should not pay, how it was somehow my fault (isn’t blame key to this industry) and the paperwork would be worth £16 in my own time and frustration.

 

But it’s fear of the unknown, the what if, the makes us all believe the lie that insurance is essential. In some cases, it’s required by law – wouldn’t we all like our line of work to be used by everyone by government decree! But it is not actually a necessity. I can’t claim a refund because I didn’t need the insurance. I can’t complain legitimately. Yet I can speak out and say, insurance is based on commoditization and fear and is an immoral notion. I’m not proud to have lived in a city where a famous insurer began his business. I would never look at a suitcase and think, how can I underwrite that… let alone another life. I’d have rather kept my £16 and had something tangible and pleasurable or at least useful, and not lined the pocket of another fat cat.

Leave a comment

Filed under society, travel writing

A Sense of Place

I have further thought about why travel writing is important to me; about my sense of place being central. When I write fiction, it is grounded in a city or area and that is vital to the story, so I choose carefully. I am always aware of where I am, so that I cannot feel right if  I am not happy with where I reside. I wrote to a friend that if I took a walk, it was a particular city outside, though in my head I was somewhere else.

The city I live in (if it is a city – sometimes I have lived rurally) is vital because I draw from it. The people I meet will also love the area and I must choose somewhere where they think similarly, where their draw is my draw.

I have been writing a book (0r a small series) on my personal thoughts and interactions with cities and also cathedrals. I enjoy looking at my entries to see how my relationship has changed.

I note that with both, I am journeying with a particular ideal in mind and often responding to particular places. In travel, there is one city that has become a benchmark and has been my home twice; there is another city which is kind of moving in the opposite direction, a counter flow… but they are too different to meet.

I am continuing my day out with Elspeth series, now on Hubpages (see https://elspethr.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/my-travel-writing) for links – recent ones are Southampton and Brighton

Leave a comment

Filed under heritage, travel writing

Empty Listed Buildings

Mentioning Chelmsford’s Marconi factory has prompted me to write about dead buildings left to rot by the owners, sometimes I think to gain money from the land and save money by taking responsibility in maintaining it. In Bristol, a graffitied concrete block in Stoke’s Croft stood with even the blowup inside deflated, spoiling the view of Georgian Nine Trees Hill (though perhaps ironically fitting for the area).

However, there are buildings which are architecturally/historically important and which mar a more serious view. I had long noticed a light brick kind of Queen Anne style building from the train at Chelmsford. I meant to go an investigate when I was there last. I am glad I did not make my way to New Street as I would have been met with a sorry boarded up building – one of Chelmsford’s very few (see my post on the Diamond Jubilee Cities).  I discover that this attractive building is surprisingly an Edwardian radio factory, important nationally as the venue of the very first broadcast. The daughter of the local pioneer Marconi spoke earlier this year to the BBC about her disappointment over the factory’s state – it not just in memory of her father’s  achievements, but for the town. There is a society of former workers who also feel insulted by the decaying building, often broken into.

The factory went into receivership and the firm replied to the BBC’s secret filming article that they had taken new steps to improve security and keep squatters out already. But they miss the point – the building should be maintained and used. I have a shocking suggestion – what about making it a radio factory again? with a visitor centre about the Marconi story.

Another example is in Norwich of a late 17th C house on King Street which has stood empty since 1960s. Howard House was the garden house of the Dukes of Norfolk and has an important staircase. Plans were made for the surrounding area, once a spectacular gardens of the house, but the development fell through in the mid 2000s. Now the semi cleared site remains with buddleia growing through concrete, and they’ve not even been allowed to use the land for a community garden. The scaffolding over Howard House grows each time I see it, blocking the lane and apparently putting off businesses. In an attractive street which is working hard to throw off a former red light district image and be a nice place to live and visit, this is really not helping.

The recievers claim they have no plans to do anything for a decade – which may be too late to save Howard House.

I think receivers should be compelled to sell to the council or a heritage group for renovation and reopening or maintain the property. If you take responsibility to administer assets, you have to look after them. Security cameras and waterproofing and window boards are not enough – they are all ugly.

I urge a change in the law to this end, and if there’s a dead building near you that you care about, fight for it to be cared for and reopened, and not left to rot.

Leave a comment

Filed under heritage, history, society, travel writing

Why is Chelmsford a Jubilee city?

I’m revising my views on Chelmsford and I shall write my updated thoughts on my other blog: Elspeth’s Naughty Guides: Travel and Heritage with wickedness.

——————————–

I do not wish to denigrate Chelmsford and the other places mentioned; rather, I just want fair praise and description and for the appropriate places to win the prize.

It seems a rather random way to get city status – to wait for a queenly anniversary. Cities used to be defined by having a cathedral. New cities in the 1800s were substantial in some way – the ones with weedy upgraded cathedrals had grown large with grand civic buildings and an obvious hub. But not later in the next century.

Grimy markety Lancaster got city status ahead of much larger towns in the titular county in the 1970s. Then Sunderland, who did not have a cinema till 2005, was appointed one – a poor shadow of nearby Newcastle who has righty been one since the 1880s and would have been reasonably called so since medieval times.

Much of the would be city list vying for the Diamond Jubilee honour are largely similar grubby towns (Milton Keynes, Corby, Middlesbrough, Reading) trying to perk themselves up and get attention. I noted Ipswich didn’t go for it this time. Although I have said in the past that Ipswich lacked the necessary dignity and distinction, I would gladly have seen it endowed with city status over those who did win.

Yes, neighbouring Essex too has always been without a city, even though it and Suffolk are old and historically among the most populous counties. Essex put in three bids for the Jubilee competition – Regency pleasure ground Southend with its new cultural pierhead attraction; Colchester, who has always been capital of Essex to me; and Chelmsford. I do not understand why Chelmsford ever got county town status: the drab market town turned City commuterville whose claim to long history was that the Romans passed by and dropped a few pots, whose cathedral is significant as a parish church, but who has little else is of interest save the Marconi radio factory and Shirehall.

I visited Colchester again this week and Chelmsford this time a year ago. I have only been to Chelmsford because of need, never pleasure. Each time, I walked by the river to fill time and because of nowhere else to go. It just feels like a suburb of London, perhaps having the attraction of greenery around it. The only thing over Colchester that Chelmsford has is that a theatre shows art house films sometimes. Yes I walked thoroughly; I went to to the far flung Museum along older Moulsham street (an attempt at independent shopping) and found the stone bridge, and I noted the regency Quaker Meeting House. And I still struggled to fill my day.

But Colchester was not a camp stop or staging post for the Romans; it was a large town, whose walls are still existing. It has several churches and two ruined priories. It has the largest castle the Normans built. It was home to Dutch refugees (these settlers had good taste in where they chose) whose homes still grace the town, in timber and bright colours.

In East magazine, a local shop manager was asked what he likes to do in Chelmsford. I noted that several answers were outside of the town – including his own home. I looked up Chelmsford and Colchester in the latest Pevsner guide. The late Sir Nik begins the Chelmsford entry with a derogatory sarcastic quote. He starts Colchester’s by saying it’s rightly the focal town of the shire. I’ve listed its assets in other articles. But I think that Firstsite gives a clear message: Colchester is not an ickle backwater. We are not part of London. We have a significant cultural venue; we take architectural risks and make sure all our treasures are not just in the past. Chelmsford has no new significant buildings, no castle, no Dutch quarter equivalent, and no vast proud town hall; no arts centre, no producing theatre, no Jumbo watertower (though it does have a viaduct), no town centre museums (Colchester has five, plus other galleries). Even if Colchester does not fully fill my criteria as a city, it is way above its neighbour which merely has the county council offices in them.

It seems that the title of city now actually gives little – no extra benefits or funding for the borough. I continue to see Chelmsford as a town and Colchester as Essex’s leading conurbation – a word which sums up its rival: just a clump of houses with a river through them and a mediocre shopping centre.

I must end with the MP of Milton Keynes’ words on hearing they had been unsuccessful. He claims they are a city anyway, no matter what Westminster says:

“…there’s a saying that if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck it probably is a duck.”

True, you should hear my definition of a duck. It isn’t flattering!

See my next article sticking up for the 2nd Marconi factory

Leave a comment

Filed under society, travel writing

Colchester

I have lived in every county of East Anglia, bar one. I have never had enthusiasm to live in Essex – but not because there’s nothing appealing about it. I enjoy it for a day visit and would be happy to take a holiday there. But as a home…

I have criteria for my ideal city. Although the actual status of some urban places may have changed recently, Essex has no real cities. Colchester, not Chelmsford ought to be the county town, and is closer to being a city in my definition.

Essex has many large towns, many of whom are London overspill and commuter towns, often having grown rapidly since the wars from little market towns or less. Colchester is further up the county away from London and has retained an air of independence and own county rather than home county. It feels like Suffolk in places, to whose borders it is close; the 16th C belt of Wool Towns extends into Essex. And so unsurprisedly, Colchester has quite a Suffolk feel. I once commented that I thought it felt more like the county town of Suffolk, or at least South Suffolk, than Ipswich, the actual capital. For me, the Wool Towns are Suffolk.

The buildings that make South Suffolk’s wool towns beautiful and distinct – the timbered, coloured houses of the 1500-1600s – are abundant in Colchester too. There are a couple of areas – the Dutch Quarter, North and East Hills – where the town feels akin to Lavenham and Sudbury. The Dutch Quarter, away from traffic and almost purely residential, evokes a village. East Hill and Street tumble away from the Walls into one of the longest extra mural suburbs I have seen. It really is remarkable to have unbroken chunks of timbered buildings, more so that they are found in a town of 170,000+ rather than the villages which ceased their industrial importance and thus were able to retain so much of their earlier buildings. It is also special that so many of these buildings are in the heart of Colchester; all three clusters I mentioned run directly from the High Street.

The middle of the town is a mishmash, and looked heavily bombed or re-planned. A recent book helped me note the buildings more: that there are banks of imported stone and several former cinema and theatres. But there’s a slightly jaded feel to many of the buildings. Some of the shopping areas are quite thoughtful: Scandinavian cheap clothes chain H & M is currently in a nice Georgian house, and the centre piece of Culver Square is a giant Venetian type window, housing Debenhams’s department store. A large multistorey carpark built at a similar time – the early 1990s – makes what could be a mass of eyesore into a kind of feature. Sir Isaac’s Walk continues the olde lane so well I didn’t even notice it is modern.

Yet other parts are less successful. As is the current whim, the 1960s-80s mistakes are being tarted up in what will surely be looked on as 2010s errors. Culver Street got cut in the middle and is now oddly handlebar shaped. Central library and much of the high street shopping date from this era, though thankfully Colchester has resisted the indoor mall (having possibly done away with the first Lion Centre) except for a huddle of cheaper shops off St John’s.

The ringroad here feels particularly divisive, mostly as I went trailing along its length to find an alternative to a subway to be able to cross it. Noting old streets that had been riven in two, I felt the chasm that ringroads bring to those on the wrong side of them, worse than the stone of town walls ever did.

Colchester’s walls are its special point. No other British or Irish town has near complete Roman walls. They are not often original height or condition, and much of the time they are hiding behind backs of shops. Other cities may have Roman patches or a Roman base, but with the addition of a couple of medieval towers, these walls are all Roman and don’t seem to be messed with by subsequent centuries (such as York’s and Chester’s, Britain’s most celebrated longest sets of walls).

The walls remind that this was the capital of the country in the era they were built and this is Britain’s oldest recorded town. Thus the Romans rightly feature specially in the town’s consciousness and marketing. However, it does not retain a Roman street pattern and perhaps this is partly why much of the Roman buildings are hard to excavate and not available to see – the best of these are outside the centre.

Colchester has another distinctive link with the Romans – that their bricks were recycled in medieval buildings. This led an 18th C owner of the Castle to believe it was Roman and restored it accordingly with red Italianate tiles. The building is actually Europe’s largest 11th C Keep, similar in plan to London’s White Tower. But Colchester has lost the top – it is not known how many storeys more there would have been. My guess is that early stone keeps were low cuboids (cf London, Norwich and Castle Rising, also in Norfolk). Therefore, Colchester’s would not have been much taller – it was not like later Rochester and nearby Hedingham in being considerably higher than the base is square. It’s an interesting museum with much about the Romans and the town, but there is not much in the way of unaltered Norman fortress inside. The best place for that is Castle Hedingham, in West Essex, where each floor is still a recognisable room and the principal chamber has a huge arch running across the whole width.

The park around the castle is one of the town’s best features. As gardens, it runs for some acres, then becomes riverside walks, meadows and cricket grounds. I discovered that it is possible to walk from the much pictured cottages at the foot of North Hill right round to the mill on East Hill. There is also a country park in the rough vicinity of the station (which I have not tried to find yet). For river and greenness, Colchester does well, as well as being quickly accessible to lovely coast and countryside.

Prettiness, antiquity and greenery are all features of my ideal city and which Colchester supplies, but there is a kind of building central to my and the traditional definition of a city which Colchester (and all of Essex) lacks.

St Botolph’s Priory would not be on par with the great cathedrals. St John’s abbey was perhaps twice its length at 295ft, but that’s small compared with its East of England cousins, and only a gate remains. So the ecclesiastical offerings left today are Colchester’s low point. I barely register the cluster of parish churches, though author of several local books says Colcestrians are proud of that central collection of 8 (plus St Leonard at Hythe in the outkirts). Having lived in Norwich with its superlative portfolio (31) and being acquainted with Cambridge (13), Ipswich (12), York (19), London (39) and Bristol (15 including ruins), Colchester’s churches seem diminutive in number and size. Coventry and Hull have few but what they do have are impressive in both senses – large, and they enter your mind as an emblem of the city. I didn’t always notice I’d passed a church in Colchester, and none really come to mind as an iconic image.

Trinity is the one on most people’s radar, because of its rare Saxon tower, and because it is prominently located, and used to be a museum. Now it houses vintage fairs, a lively Charismatic congregation and a not so lively (in terms of service) cafe, with music matching what I assume one would hear in the church worship. When I visited, staff were foreign with poor grasp of English. One didn’t know how to use the word ‘please’ and the other gave me the wrong order then brought the right one with such poor pronunciation that I thought a further mistake had been made. They asked for money then walked out of the room and asked for it again. For the churchy charity cafe this surely was, the prices were not as low as the food quality or ambience, and I wondered why I’d chosen this for lunch over the more professional looking cafe down the road. I also encountered poor service at the Minories cafe (it’s the Low Bistro in more ways than one). Ignoring me for several minutes in an empty room, I asked staff if I ordered at the counter or if they came to me. The woman looked up from her conversation, said to order here, and then turned and carried on cleaning. I left.

This is one of those moments where my spider diagram mind does not know whether to carry on with churches, or start on food offerings of Colchester, or Georgian heritage. I could conclude the paucity of churches by mentioning 18th C St Peter’s, and All Saints, an Ipswich style flint and flushwork church which is a Natural History Museum, but which I was unable to go in. Monday is a bad day to visit; the castle and new art gallery firstsite are open, but nowhere else. Other places were between exhibitions and plays. Nearby pretty wool town Coggleshall’s National Trust properties and Arboretum are also closed.

Georgian heritage was what most struck me on this visit; there is far more of it than had stayed in my imagination. I was aware of the Hollytrees museum, but there are finer houses of the period; the said Minories, the Greyfriars opposite; and a pair on Culver Street East, another gallery and restaurant. I also learned of a former octagonal Independent chapel, known as the Round Church, which is echoed in the modern URC above shops on Lion Walk.

Colchester’s little streets and alternative shops are better than I thought. I’ve not tried to actually  shop for anything (that is always telling of the real facilities) but I did find some interesting places. Red Lion isn’t quite what I had hoped for in an independent bookshop, and the Waterstone’s is quite a small one. The media offerings are a big part of my warming to a place, and it is here that Colchester again seems to lack; I saw no independent little record shops, only the usual paltry HMV, and nowhere else for DVDs.

Film is no better to watch in public. Like Chelmsford, this consists only of an old style, central Odeon, curiously in a former post office with an abandoned purpose built cinema of the same chain round the corner. It has only 8 screens to solely serve the whole town. Is that why it charges London prices? There’s not even the Director’s Chair strand of supposedly artier programmers. In 2016, futuristic banana Firstsite (now with a capital letter, hurrah) has a regular film programme – but why doesn’t it haven any pictures in the brochure?

There is an Arts centre, in St Mary’s At The Walls. I have not gained access to the little church with its red tower. Its programme seems not dissimilar to the unrelated Norwich Arts Centre – an alternative mix of music, comedy and fairs. It does not appear to have a daytime café or access.

Also between the water tower and the walls, the Mercury is a well thought of touring, producing and new writing dramatic theatre, but again appears its facilities are not open to non patrons. I as disappointed to see its website’s directions tell Londoners how easy it is to get there, but no encouragement or comment for rural visitors of the region – it’s equally only an hour from Norwich or Bury St Edmunds.

A third, less known venue is the ten year old amateur Headgate Theatre, who is not on Headgate Street at all, but hiding behind a former playhouse (now pub) in a nonconformist chapel on Chapel St North.

The University, a good 3 miles east out of town, has the Lakeside Arts centre; and there is an exhibition centre for sport, exhibitions and concerts called the Charter Hall on Cowdray avenue, the northern ring road. This isn’t easy to learn about.

It’s hard to get a real feel for Colchester as the Tourist Information Centre is full of tacky Jubilee gifts rather than much on the town and surrounds, and the local booklets were all behind the counter like age related and illicit goods. Most leaflets I found anywhere were the standard ones around the region, and featured little on Essex.

Often I make discoveries via finding quirky cafes or arts venues whose posters and flyers suggest other avenues to explore. I could find nor get in none of these. I did note two possible music places, one on Queen St facing Culver St East; and on North Hill, a record club, which is hot on Vinyl, and Creative Arts Live, which is still mysterious to me.

Food is dominated by chain restaurants and most of the pubs I passed did not entice me in. On a previous visit, I left early, having not found anywhere appealing and electing to eat at home. I note that I commented on lack of eateries on all my visits, over 17 years.

The only demographic I noticed was the amount of people in military uniform, but glancing at a map shows a large area of barracks. The other aspect suggested by a map would be lots of late teens due to the vocational Institute and Sixth form college. I did see many people enjoying the sun, some of those would have been students though many were young families. Enjoying the sun was one thing I was not really doing. I concurred with the woman on her phone in her Cockney/Essex tones: “Tell her it’s 30 degrees and your mother’s not happy!”

Colchester’s charm is beginning to seep through. I noticed lots of thoughtful new old style buildings around the town, alongside the challenging architecture of Firstsite, and that there are plans for further improvements. I feel quite an affection and an appetite to explore Essex’s other small towns. My rue is that there are not publications to explain and celebrate what is here.

There’s a day out with Elspeth guide on my other blog at

https://elspethsnaughtyguides.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/a-day-out-with-elspeth-in-colchester/

 

3 Comments

Filed under travel writing