Jail Time

On the way home from work on Friday, on the spur of the moment, I decided to visit Colchester Castle and make the most of my resident’s pass. It was dark, the gates to the park were barely open, and the Castle itself was about to close to the public for the night. Randomly, I thought I would shop local! in the museum shop. Specifically, I was looking for a Christmas tree topper with a difference and hoping for a Boudicca (ideally with chariot), but I would have settled for a centurion or Saint Helena (Colchester’s patron saint). Sadly, there were no such decorations, and nothing which could be adapted to suit.

As I was the only visitor, members of staff were eager to tell me what I was looking at; to act as my personal guides. I declined their help, I wanted to be alone with my ancestry, and I escaped to the Castle gaol. It ceased to be used for that purpose in 1835; but in its 600-year history, the gaol had held prisoners of war, convicted criminals, and suspected witches. A sound and light show is activated when visitors enter and reflects this latter part of the story – when Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’ came to Colchester in the 1640s. He was busy here; more witches were executed in Essex than in any other county in the UK. But we Colcestrians persist, as we must.

(Happily, dear reader, I headed home to make my own Christmas tree topper and – naturally – there is now a decorated dog topping my tree, to add to the two live ones ‘decorating’ its base).

Home from Home

Once upon a time, my grandparents lived here with my mother and uncle. Last week upon a time, I suddenly came across this house and realised it was the one. Now, the buildings and cars have encroached, but my family’s stories keep the place apart.

My Back Yard

Long ago and not so far away, was my first home: 47 North Hill, Colchester, Essex, UK. It was there that my sister was born, and there that I was raised to realise that we are our stories. There, too, I learned to respect other stories, others’ stories: to understand that history is always in my back yard.

I was reminded of this, last weekend, when a friend and I visited Colchester on the first of this year’s English Heritage Open Days. After a backstage tour of the Mercury Theatre, and before a tour of 3 West Stockwell Street, we braved the crowds to enter Colchester Castle Museum. I’ve loved the Castle ever since I can remember, but I hadn’t been in to the museum for four years. On Saturday, entry was free for the English Heritage Open Day, but a ‘special offer’ to local residents, of 13 months entry for £6.50, was irresistible. I shall now be a regular visitor. My ancestry remains on display, here the mosaic removed from the garden of what became number 47, previously the site of an extensive Roman villa. There, glimpses of the Boudiccan Destruction Horizon, glints of the recently uncovered Fenwick Treasure, and gasps of: Colchester, surrender?

To which, of course, I answer: Never!

Number 18

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.