*Onwards Ever Onwards through Marsh and Fen *
* Walking the Lonely Heart * *Creeping up on Camulodunum *
* That rebellious Rogue, Wat Tyler *
* The Great Rising *
Seeing as I took a train from Chelmsford, using the National Express East Anglia line, my wilful walks have taken a slightly different approach this time. The line runs from Liverpool Street in London through to Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, stopping along the way at various places that include Witham, Marks Tey, Kelvedon, Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich. I really enjoy a train journey, it has something enchanting associated with it when not caught up in the hurly-burly of the commuter hour, some degree of luxuriant adventure when you climb aboard a train that you have never been on before. The walk from Colchester station into the town itself (and all via North Hill), is a bit of a bugger, though, especially I imagine if you are elderly as it is a long walk with a slow gradient. As you walk you are again greeted by that ever-present sense of history re-forming about you. The plod of sandal booted Centurions marching in perfect time up the hillside; the arrival of the Saxons after the Roman’s demise; then the medieval merchants trading silks and spices; the Tudors with their pomp and frills and all those wooden beams that line the buildings with black lines against stark white walls.
It has been hot of late and today is no different. Summer has been good this year so far and looks set to continue. We have had days as high as twenty-eight degrees and today has exceeded that by hitting thirty.
The say that England, by the middle of this century, will have summers like those currently seen in the Mediterranean. The idea of balmy summers sounds wonderful was it not for the horrendous prospect of the damage caused by global warming.
The magic of Tiptree with all its history fades in the distance; ahead is Colchester, the one-time capital not of England but of Britain. It is hard to grasp how old Colchester is but it can claim to go back as far as the Roman occupation some two thousand years ago. Makes the one thousand years old history of my local church seem lame by comparison doesn’t it?
Camulodunon is a Celtic name which means ‘the fortress of the Camulos’ who in turn was a war god. When the Roman’s conquered Britain they modified the name to Camulodunum.
Today there is only a little of that history remaining with no real signs of Rome or of Italy unless you count the obligatory Pizza House which owes more to America than Italy. For many years the Romans used Colchester as the capital of all Britain but after Boudica destroyed the town they turned to London which they then used as the capital of the province of Britannia.
I like that name, Britannia and also the other ancient name for these islands, Albion; the later features in my Fekenham Tales as the name of the parallel universe Britain of my creation. It has a certain archaic charm about it that carries such a weight of history that goes well beyond the Anglo-Saxon name of England. Still, I am as English as they come and proud of it even with all its faults and problems it is still a great country to live in. I mean where else could you get fish and chips drowning in vinegar?
Where else would celebrate spotted dick pudding flooded with creamy custard? What country would stand for all the jibes about its supposedly god awful cuisine? You got it in one: England. Incidentally of the one hundred top chefs in the world, fifty of them are in London.
Things change and our national cuisine is not the same as it was when either my Grandparents were alive or when my parents were younger.
The most popular food of Britain is curry and has been for more years than I care to remember. Few English regularly eat roast beef as we now have such a vast array of culinary delights from around the world to choose from and London, if not Colchester, is the number one cosmopolitan city in the world with as many cultures, creeds, and races as there are cuisines. Colchester, though far smaller than London, has an equally impressive history but still eats fish and chips.
If we dig deep enough, using information gained from the book by respected historian Doctor John Morris (1913 to 1977), ‘The Age of Arthur’, we learn that he held the view that as the descendants of Romanised Britons looked back to the golden age of Roman rule that brought with it peace and prosperity, that the name ‘Camelot’ may well have been a reference to Camulodunum. So here I am then walking through streets that King Arthur may have passed down, turning into courtyards that Merlin may have wiggled his wand at, roving past alleys where Lancelot gave Guinevere more than just the eye.
Even archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler put forward a proposal based on the lack of finds of early Anglo-Saxon materials in what is described as a triangle that sits between London, Colchester and Saint Albans as being proof that a civilisation existed there that was still of Roman/British sympathy and was not part of the Anglo-Saxon settlements.
However, by as early as the fifth century the Saxons had moved in which is evidenced now by a hut that was built during that time on old Roman ruins. By the ninth century, the Anglo-Saxons had taken Colchester and most of Essex.
The streets of Colchester are chronicles unwritten in books or ledgers for here the past sits waiting in the bent old buildings that line the lanes and avenues. You do not need pen or paper to record history when architecture tells its own tale. The buildings here are a testament to that. Mostly they appear to be medieval or Tudor; warped timbers that somehow defy the ravages of time while leaning like drunks in a bar against each other.
There stands an old hotel with timbers bent and glass that is made up of tiny panes so that when you walk past it your reflection returns to you as though seen through the eyes of a fly, or perhaps that description fails as it makes it seem that you see several images of yourself reflected; you don’t: what you do see is a series of images that appear to be shattered reflections, a mirror that has been broken but still sticks to the wall with dozens of different images of you seen at curious angles as you pass it. Somewhere just to the left of the hotels door, but still within the structure of the building, is an alley that leads into a larger recess that is filled with smaller shops. It could be something from a Harry Potter film.
The Post Office building is of a similar nature with that overhanging series of wooden beams that separate one floor from the other. There are many structures like that here; warm buildings formed from timber and plaster and age-old craft. Garrulous alleys that lead you to a sense of exploration for you to discover that they either offer more wobbly, misshapen relics of wood and glass or, as they often do, just a brick wall that possibly hides more historical mystery or possibly nothing at all.
Colchester castle stands as proud as your aging grandfather. A face full of character but scarred by the passage of time. It is a medieval building being built in the eleventh century by Normans but it stands on even older ruins; those of a Roman temple; now it stands alone surrounded by some splendid grounds which were opened as a public park in 1892. There is some god-awful music playing today which sounds like a cat being tortured but is, in fact, a karaoke concert.
I buy an ice cream and sit for awhile enjoying the flavour of the confection and the suns warmth.
Colchester claims to not only be the oldest recorded town in Britain, sitting as it does some 56 miles northeast of London but of also having the oldest market. Today the market sells T-shirts and CD’s and I wonder what the Saxon’s would have made of those items. The town doesn’t have a cathedral and, therefore, doesn’t qualify as a city but it is twined with the French town of Avignon which somehow makes sense. I have been to Avignon and it too has a deep, historical past, a long finger that rakes back the dirt and grime of things forgotten and presents them forever more to those that look for them.
In recent years the natural accent of Colchester has been replaced and sounds now, like so many towns and villages that orbit London, to be some form of Estuary or Mockney dialect. Gone is that quaint old Suffolk/Norfolk/Anglia twang and instead, we have people who sound as though they could easily be from the capital. Not everyone, though, there are one or two who still have that faint burr of true East Anglian’s. Most towns that sit as satellites around London and are within the M25 ring road fall under the sway of London. My Grandparents were Eastenders and both my parents were born there; all of the true working class stock but times and attitudes have changed.
A young woman passes me while chatting to her friend; she is recounting a story of another friend who had a tattoo. She didn’t describe the tattoo as being on her friend’s stomach but rather her belly. Had I said belly or arse as a child my Mum would have scolded me and my Mum is very proud to have been born working class. Still, it is just a word and times change. My Grandparents left the Eastend so that their children would have a better lifestyle and they were possibly the forerunners of all those other Eastenders that have followed suit.
Nowadays London has grown like a bloated spider to encompass virtually all of the area within the M25 including Sutton and Leatherhead in Surrey to Maidstone in Kent to slough in Berkshire and, of course, Romford in Essex. With their virtual immigration comes change. What I find funny though is how the ancestors of immigrants can so easily forget their history and turn against the newer immigrant with bile and rancour as if they were to blame for the ills they believe beset them, as if all their true history can be consigned to some dim and dark cupboard where no one ever looks anymore, where the truth can be shackled and hidden away the better to twist the myth, as if being a member of the human race is not enough you still have to join and subscribe to a given tribe; their tribe, their clan, their faith. I can trace my ancestors back to the mid-1700’s. We are all white (well sort of okay) but the fact is that the original Londoner’s were described, from the manuscripts kept at the time, as of having a ‘muddy’ complexion/skin colour. If you were to DNA test me, or any other traditional Londoner you would find that 95% of those tested would have either black or brown origins. What ever happened to one god, one faith, and one human race?
Essex of old is not what it was. The accents have changed but so has the way of life. Modern day Essex people are caught up, as we all are, in the hurly burly of twenty-first-century life. The country gent and labourer have been replaced. We are all living life at a faster pace. The mockney is a later day cockney but without all the cheeky chappie myth that used to surround those east London people and without being born within the sound of Bow bells.
I also see a profusion of elderly gentlemen in shorts. Surely that is illegal? All that white flesh on display. Is there not some bye-law against men of a certain vintage being able to show off their varicose veined limbs? One chap looks as if he has legs that are one stump short of a wicket: thin and white with dints and dents and abrasions.
One of the kick’s I get from visiting places like this is to learn of the famous people who either lived here even if for a while or were born and bred here. There are quite a few relatively famous people who have associations with Colchester; the most famous has to be Margaret Thatcher who stayed here during her time as a research chemist in the 1940’s. Also, Mary Whitehouse, that self-proclaimed guardian of all our morals, who died in Colchester in 2001. Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon and Dave Rowntree of Blur fame and also Jay Kay of Jamiroquai: Daniel Defoe (1660 to 1731): John Constable (1776 to 1837): Sir William Withey Gull who not only was Queen Victoria’s personal household physician but was also suspected of being involved in the Jack the Ripper murders: Joan Hickson (1906 to 1998) the actress who was best known for playing Miss Marple. John Grant the author of the Lovejoy series of books and my personal favourite: Jane Taylor (1783 to 1824) the poet and author who wrote:
“Twinkle, Twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky”
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky”
The poem was originally published under the title of “The Star” and was composed by Jane Taylor whilst she was living in the Dutch Quarter which in itself was a settlement of weavers and clothmakers who emigrated from Flanders to Colchester between 1550 and 1600. Another couple of famous nursery rhymes are ‘Old King Cole’ and ‘Humpty Dumpty’.
‘Old King Cole’ has a lengthy and, I think, dubious explanation to its origins all of which seem to centre around some misinformed Brit’s thinking that Colchester’s meaning was Cole’s Castle when in point of fact it wasn’t but instead is taken from the Roman ‘Colonia’ for a fort. Such is the way local legends are made.
‘Humpty Dumpty’ is newer and comes from the time of the Civil War (the oddest Civil War that I have heard when the King is deposed then beheaded only for his son, years later, to take up where his old Pop left off). It was during the siege of Colchester when a Royalist sniper who was known as One-Eyed Thompson stood in the belfry of the church Saint Mary-at-the-Walls. He was given another nickname of Humpty Dumpty because he was fat. He was shot down and the town fell into the hands of the Parliamentarians. It all makes some kind of sense when you put it together as the rhyme we know.
‘Humpty Dumpty (Thompson) sat on the Wall (the belfry)
Humpty Dumpty had a big fall (Thompson being shot)
All the King’s horses and all the Kings men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again’ (Having been shot and falling from a great height it is hardly surprising).
Of course, there is another and far more disconcerting mention of Colchester in literature in George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ when Winston Smith recounts his wartime memories: “Perhaps it was the time when the atomic bomb had fallen on Colchester,” Fortunately, there have been no atomic wars and hopefully there never will be.
Now, in this the century where science fiction evolves from the imagination of Isaac Asimov and from the scripts of Star Trek, Colchester is a thriving place again. No longer the capital of Britain as no city can claim that; no longer the county town of Essex as that honour belongs to nearby Chelmsford but still Colchester is a vital town not only in Essex but in the region of Anglia.
Colchester High Road 2009
Colchester, along with Chelmsford and also the far tinier habitation of Maldon, form a triumvirate of Essex towns that, in my view, are the core three places that act as the hub of the county. Maldon is far smaller but just as interesting and it is there where I am next headed.
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.