Walks through my life: Colchester

Walks through my life is a more personal series of blog entries, which will be posted on the second Friday of the month. Here is the first!

I was born, and grew up, in a smallish English town called Colchester, which is in the East of England. It has 100,000 inhabitants, is fast-growing, and in the driest place in the whole UK. Fun fact: some years it’s even drier than Jerusalem. I never really understood the whole stereotype of England being a rainy country until I started regularly going to Manchester. It rains a LOT more there.

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Colchester castle (circa 2012, now sans dragon)

Colchester’s identity is a bit mixed. I never know whether to say I’m from the East or South East. Whenever I say I am from ‘Essex’, I get a barrage of questions asking why I don’t have the ‘accent’, and respecify it to ‘North Essex’. In many ways, I feel more aligned with East Anglia – we get Look East as a BBC Channel, and I generally prefer the East Anglian life. We’re an often a forgotten region in the media (except for the royal links to Norfolk), and there aren’t even any motorways in north Essex or Suffolk.

There’s a huge mix in wealth here. It’s at the extremity of disparities. There are two grammar schools and two failing schools in the town. We’re near the sea – Mersea island is part of the Colchester borough, and is very wealthy with the famous Colchester oysters aplenty. There’s an area called Lexden near where I live, where the houses regularly go for over £1 or £2 million. There are even other nearby areas such as Frinton-on-Sea where the residents complained that opening an Aldi would ruin their image. And yet, a few miles down the road is Clacton and, specifically, Jaywick – often called the most impoverished area of the whole United Kingdom. It’s a strange imbalance. There’s even a huge mix politically. Until the current election, we were a Lib Dem seat (now Conservative). We’re also an army town, although I never see any soldiers.

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My dog enjoying the sights of Mersea island

There’s many things that make me sad about where I live. Topographically, the town centre is a muddled mix. Jumbo the Water Tower, iconic of the Colchester skyline (if there is one), is left to rot as the council can’t seem to agree what to do with it. The old Odeon cinema where I remember going to see Mulan and Babe at a tender age has similarly been left to languish, bought and resold continually as no one can agree what to do with it. Other things make it a difficult area to live: The bus system is terrible, the train system through East Anglia is often voted the worst in the country, and Colchester is generally far from all areas of England. It would take me as long to get to Cornwall as it would Cumbria. (Although, admittedly, you can get to London in 50 minutes).

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Jumbo the water tower: the Elephant in the town. (That’s only funny if you know that Jumbo was named after an elephant in the early 1900s.)(Wasn’t even that funny).

Yet there’s elements of Colchester that make it my safe place, my haven and my home town. I love the history. As the former capital of Roman Britain, it has long and interesting stories, as Camulodunum to Colchester today. I like walking past the Roman walls as I enter the town and seeing the church where Humpty Dumpty fell off. We’ve continually found Roman pottery in our garden, and as my Grandad is a tour-guide of Colchester castle so I’ve always been interested in Boudicca, the witch trials and the siege of Colchester. Royalists even camped on my road during the 1648 siege. Moreover, Colchester feels safe. A few bad things have recently happened which have sullied its image, but in general I don’t need to worry when I walk home; don’t need to keep turning my back like in Nottingham.

Constable country is on our doorstep and is one of my favourite areas of England. Although I live in suburbia I love that in a ten minute drive I’ll be surrounded by the North Essex/South Suffolk border, where John Constable painted the Hay Wain.

The Haywa
John Constable’s the Hay Wain, showing the Essex/Suffolk border
Crossing the border on the train

In the summer it’s just glorious, from boating on the Flatford or Castle Park Lake, surrounded by countryside. Or, I can turn the other way and amble to Tiptree Jam factory for lunch. I always feel a tug in my heart when I’m abroad and they have Wilkins and Sons condiments accompanying breakfasts. Or, even better, down my road is the fantastic Colchester Zoo. There is nothing that makes me love Colchester more than I walk through the famous Sea Lion tunnel and realise: wow, for all its faults, all these animals are well cared for and happy, almost on my doorstop.

Feeding the elephants at Colchester zoo

It may not be the most exciting place to live – the town centre is absolutely dead on Mondays and Tuesdays. But I’m glad I grew up here, and I always have Colchester as my birth place on my passport.

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