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