A view north from Trinity Street, Colchester on a day in late May.
My GP (general practitioner, or family doctor) is based at Durlston House, or number 18 North Hill, Colchester. I have a long connection to North Hill, perhaps longer than I realise, specifically number 47 with its key place in my personal history.
Number 18 lies on the east side of North Hill and has its own stories to tell, of course. It was given Grade II listed status in 1950 – recognising its late 16th-century structure with Georgian facade and its 18th-century oriel window over the central doorcase. Yet earlier, in the 19th-century, Roman tessellated paving and medieval walling had been discovered in the back garden.
There are exposed wooden beams throughout the house, perhaps the most eye-catching of which are in the north room downstairs, now the surgery waiting room. Here, the walls are covered with public health notices, an electronic screen flashes the names of patients, doctors, and rooms, and the obligatory leisure magazines sit, neglected, on a corner table.
If those waiting (sometimes) patiently only look up to the beams, they can see there painted inscriptions. The medical practice has thoughtfully transcribed, printed out and framed them as a poster for the patient to read and make of what they will. Here, as so often in life (and medicine), there is no explanation.
I was back in my home town of Colchester, at Colchester Institute, studying for my teaching diploma. These notes are taken from the diary I kept at the time.
Up at 5 a.m. after very vivid dreams in which I’m haunted by visions of my college tutors. Is there no escape? Spend the time I’ve gained from being startled awake on writing an assignment. As ever, I keep BBC Radio 4 on in the background – they cheerfully announce that January was the dullest since records began in 1909. Great. I’m tired, it’s cold and it’s dull (though to be fair, it does brighten up later). Assignment done, I go to get a haircut, then visit one of the tutors who’s haunting my sleep. I’ve passed my teaching practice, he tells me. Massive relief until I realize that I now have to plan the next one and finalize my project proposal. Briskly teach my two hours’ cover class at a nearby school (the extra money is very welcome). After college, I go with half a dozen other students to ‘The Hole in the Wall’ ( the nearest pub – built in a hole in the Roman Wall. The joys of living in Britain’s oldest recorded town). I treat myself to a swift tomato juice with way too much Worcester sauce, then make my excuses and leave as the assessment post-mortem begins. I can only take so much. To switch off, I head to the Odeon to watch ‘Heat’ – decide that as life mantras go: ‘Have nothing in your life you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds flat when you spot the heat around the corner’ is pretty cool. Fixate on the Pacific-view villa used as a location in the film – it’s stunning. My two hours of escapism done, I catch the bus back to my railway-view house – it’s dark. There appears to be a large black bin bag on the doorstep. Luckily, I carry a torch as there are no street lights. In the flashlight, the large black bin bag turns out to be a former colleague who has found out where I live and wants to bitch about work while fishing for it. Get rid of him sharpish as I’m unlocking the front door, though he continues to lurk, Hammer-horror style, outside for a while. Cook, eat, bath, write, then to bed – after checking the street view. All the shadows have now joined forces and there’s a blanket of darkness in the sky and on the ground. Good night.
I was born in Colchester. I am proud of being an Essex girl. Always have been. Always will be. That landscape formed me as surely as did the generations of my family who settled and were born there. If I had to call anywhere ‘home’, that’s where it is. Or was. You see, now I’m not so sure anymore.
I lived there for the first five years of my life, until my father took a job in another town (one I can’t be bothered to name) and so, away we went. We came back every Christmas to see family and friends, occasionally we returned to mark other, happier or sadder, events. As soon as I could I moved back. Why? Because however infrequent my visits, wherever else I may have been, Colchester was ‘home’. The sight of the town from the train always made me smile. Returning from working abroad? Returning from a day’s work in London? No matter, the view never tired for me – until now. I’ve changed.
The place has changed, too. That’s all to the good; I love visiting museums, I don’t want to live in one. Adaptive change is healthy, people and places growing together. This year though, for the first time, I saw not Britain’s oldest recorded town, but Britain’s fastest-growing town. In my lifetime, Essex University has arrived and thrived, Colchester Garrison all but disappeared, and people have come and gone. Now, they simply come. And come they do, in great number, from all over. The pace and nature of growth is shocking, and not just to me.
“I must admit I’m a little shocked that we’re right at the top of the growth league for population.” Paul Smith, Colchester councillor responsible for resources (31-05-2010, Colchester Gazette). Way to go with planning, eh? He then said this meant there was more need for investment. No room to breathe or think, let’s just invest. With what? From where? In whom? For what? The Office for National Statistics predicted in 2010 that the town’s population would rise by 18.9% over the period 2008-2018. Private building projects march on, even while local and regional councillors make cuts in public services. Green space disappears, roads are gridlocked, the railway groans with the weight of the commuters, everyone’s going nowhere fast and somewhere slowly. Yet, people keep coming.
Do they know where they’re coming to? Do they care? Where are the Colcestrians? The greater the growth, the less space there is for me. Colchester, this could be the end of our affair.
My name is Jane. I began at Number 47. It’s where I was conceived and spent the first five years of my life, though I was not born there. I was born at the Lexden Road Maternity Home. That is also where my mother (and some of the best people I know) came into this world. After some nights spent there, where the new mothers were given Guinness to build up their strength, my mother took me home to where she and my father had started their married life four years earlier.
Number 47 is a sixteenth-century house, already divided into a downstairs office with a split-level apartment upstairs by the time I arrived. We lived ‘over the shop’, as downstairs was my father’s drawing office. My earliest memory is of hiding under his drawing board and watching the legs of all the passers-by, until someone rumbled me and then it was all faces, not legs. I started running off at an early age. (There’s a little more about that, here)
When we lived there, no-one wanted older property; everyone wanted new places filled with new stuff. We had gargoyles, wall paintings and mismatched antiques. Others had fitted carpets, three-piece suites and wallpaper. That’s just how it was. Before my parents moved in, another newly-married couple had lived there briefly. They moved out because of the door thing. The woman saw a door that wasn’t there, but had been centuries before. It got to her, she said they had to leave and they did. So, we were there and we co-existed with the door thing quite happily.
The door thing also meant that doors occasionally opened and closed without being visibly touched. My parents were pragmatic about this; if we were happy and the house was happy there was nothing broke to fix. They were right, of course. You can’t live in the centre of ‘Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town’ without some story or other attaching itself to the property. An added bonus was that you never felt alone in any room in the house, especially the living room where we had the door that wasn’t there.
The only time history got in the way was in the garden. The house had been built on the site of a very large Roman villa (as had most of the top half of North Hill). As a result, my father, a man of few words and very rare expletives (the exact opposite of my mother, but that’s another story) would appear borderline garrulous and profane when digging. Shards of pottery, coins, tiles, and all manner of ancient refuse conspired to make gardening a chore.
I loved it there and felt at home. There was a sense of belonging that went beyond the tangible, the practical and the everyday. On my mother’s side of the family we go back for generations in that town. Number 47 was simply a five-minute walk from where some of my ancestors had arrived and settled as Flemish Protestant refugees in the sixteenth century. That same Dutch Quarter had, three hundred years later, also been home to my great-great-great grandmother. At the age of fifteen she left her family to marry a German soldier at Colchester Garrison and start a new life in South Africa. She came back, we always do. We run off, we come back.
Since we all left Number 47, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to revisit two times. The first was when it was on the market for sale in 2006. I posed as a potential buyer and the estate agent was ecstatic – it was (and still is) a difficult property to market (its design, its location and the fact that it’s Grade II listed mean that there’s very little you can do to the property). I was shown round, while the agent spoke nonsense, and a lot of it. So little had changed in the house that I was quite taken aback. I spent longest in the room where my sister was born, it felt good in there (especially as the agent left me alone while he took a call).
The second time I visited was this year. The front door was open, well actually it was off, so I went in. I met the man who bought it in 2006 – he and his family have only now put together the money to renovate the house. We had a long chat over a cup of tea, as you do. Then he asked me about the door thing, said he found it a bit odd but not troubling. I agreed, but for me it was never odd – I’d known no different growing up there. The door thing is a North Hill thing, too – at least two other buildings, to my knowledge, have it.
That comforts me, a sense of community and continuity in a time of increasingly swift change. Number 47 is still my home.