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.

Home Comfort

Home Comfort

Last night, I left work with a colleague – we both walk to work and when we work together our paths cross awhile. We chatted about Spring – it was a mild evening for January and the birdsong was loud, there was an air of hope. As we do, we went our separate ways just outside the Roman walls marking the boundary of old Colchester. As he headed due south, up Balkerne Hill, I headed due north to cross the River Colne at the foot of North Hill. I stood on North Bridge and took this view as it took me. The warmth of home reflected on the river as I reflected on similarities with Hopper and Van Eyck and the intimacy of painted detail. Lighter nights are coming on, but real home comfort is now.

The Number 10 (Number 47.1)

My name is Jane. I was born in Lexden Road Maternity Home on the tenth day of the tenth month at five in the morning. I cherish the hope that the bottle of Guinness my mother received that day on the NHS went some way to giving her feelings of joy at my arrival. In any case, my parents had been told to expect a boy. Blue it was. A name was chosen. Then a girl arrived. Me. Blue suited me. The name didn’t. A cool, calm chat was had. My father knew a good Jane. I was named for her.

They wanted a name beginning with J, the tenth letter of the alphabet. They wanted ten letters to my name. Choice was, as you can imagine, quite limited. (Remember, these were the happy days before makey-uppy names and the celebrity cult). Middle names were out of the question (deemed unnecessary in, what would become, an increasingly rare consensus of parental opinion). My father went down to the Registrar’s Office on 11 October and I officially came into existence and came home.

Subsequently, my baptism was a straightforward affair – decisions were taken with ease. My mother had fallen out with the vicar of St Peter’s Church at the top of North Hill. He’d refused to marry my parents there four years earlier as my mother was not of that parish. For her, that church and that vicar simply ceased to exist. We went back to my mother’s parish, where Gran and Grandad still lived and ran the grocery store. We went to West Bergholt on the fifteenth day of the first month of the following year where I was baptised by the Rev Colin Douglas, assisted by my three godparents (two women and one man, as tradition then dictated).

My father, 42 at the time of my birth, declared that one child was enough. I spent the first three years of my life thinking so, too. I was the first girl born into the family and the first blonde and was the centre of attention. Where my older, male, cousins would be told off; I could do no wrong. We had all, foolishly, reckoned without my mother; 25 at the time of my birth. She decided that a second child was a good thing and, after a decent interval, promptly fell pregnant.

On the tenth day of the eleventh month, three years and one month after my arrival, the midwife came to Number 47 and set out her stall in the front bedroom overlooking North Hill. My mother had taken herself in there when the labour pains started, while my father called the doctor. Once the midwife was there, my father and I were sent off to do our thing, while my mother did hers. We returned in time for my sister’s delivery. When Alys came into the world my father and I were perched side-by-side, holding hands, on the edge of the bed in the adjoining room.

From that day to this, I have believed that midwives are special. This is where it started. The midwife checked all was well with mother and baby, wiped my sister off, wrapped her up, came into the bedroom next door and put my baby sister into my arms. My father reported that, for one of the only times in my life, I was speechless – until I came out with the word ‘wonderful’. The midwife then involved me, as far as was safe, in preparing my sister for this world. She thought she could encourage me to become a nurse. I thought for a while that I might do this if I had to grow up (Peter Pan and the Lost Boys were my earliest role models), but I was already sold on being a cowboy.

This time, my parents knew they were having a girl and my mother had chosen her name based on a medieval French history book she was reading whilst pregnant. By then, my father knew better than to have his own opinions on the matter. In any case, the name suited us all very well and my sister most of all. It begins with the first letter of the alphabet and gives ten letters to the full name. What’s not to like?

Many years have passed since then, and we’ve come through a great deal, but much remains the same. My sister is still wonderful and now has two wonderful daughters of her own. I still have a cowboy thing, I still have a Peter Pan thing and I still believe there’s something special about The Number 10.

Number 47

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.