A flash of Mother Nature’s well-toned thigh and a ‘foe’

The Joy of Essex with Martin Newell

THE trains still rattle and groan from Hythe station to Colchester Town, much the same as they did when I first knew them in the early 1970s. Just past the Hythe, within sight of the pinnacles of St Leonard’s Church, lie the 20 acres of that mysterious wilderness known as the Moors.

The Moors is bounded on all sides by houses and former industrial land. It is dissected by a railway and a cycle path. The River Colne also runs through it. It is busy with wildlife. Within its unkempt confines are muntjac deer, foxes, cats, rabbits, bats, birds, lizards, newts, insects and arachnids. Where the river narrows, too, as it winds its way through the thick sedge reeds, other occupants of the Moors, its waterfowl, come out to splash and bicker. To find such an unspoilt natural haven in the midst of a much-developed part of modern Colchester has always seemed a miracle to me.

The Moors were and probably still are home to the beewolf wasp, regarded as so important – to conservationists at least – that for some years the first cycle path was diverted in a slight loop, in order to help conserve it. It does sometimes strike me, though, that conservationists now have powers which border upon the feudal. All it seems that they have to do is to classify a species as “endangered” and the rest of us must immediately cease whatever it is that we’re doing and pay fealty – especially if it’s anywhere near the abode of the conservee. You can’t switch on certain Freeview channels these days without being belaboured with award-winning po-faced guff about our disappearing planet, instead of, say, a cheerfully-violent Tom and Jerry cartoon. I’m bored with it. It’s a classic case of conservation killing the art of television.

I discovered, incidentally, that the beewolf wasp is not a nice creature at all. She gets hold of a honeybee, stings it, carries it still alive but paralysed back to her burrow, scoops the body out and then lays her larva in there. Sometimes the beewolf wasp will squeeze its victim for a last bit of nectar, to give itself some extra flight power. So despite the brilliant name, the beewolf wasp – a great name for a rock band – is a nasty beast. And has anyone bothered to consult the local bees on the matter?

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I happen to know that just up Hythe Hill there’s a very old bee colony – said to be the oldest in England – which has lived in the front wall of St Leonard’s for long centuries. The hive entrance is to be seen just to the left of the porch. I bet those bees would have been delighted if the conservationists had run the beewolf wasp scenario past them.

It would have been like me suggesting in the mid 1970s that we cheered up the Women’s Studies section of Essex University library by suspending a go-go dancer in a cage from its ceiling. Enough of this nonsense, though, it’s time for a joke.

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Q) Where do they send ailing wasps? A) To waspital. Had to bung that one in.

The Moors, seen from a train while it dawdles on Colchester’s eastern flank, is also a flash of Mother Nature’s well-toned thigh, glimpsed through a rip in the town’s industrial outskirts.

Those marshy acres once belonged to Mr James Paxman, founder of Colchester’s world-renowned engineering empire. He grazed his small herd of cattle there. The land, being liable to flooding, may not have been good for building estates on, but the cows liked it well enough. Paxman also planted cricket willows, their wood originally intended – though never harvested – for cricket bats. They’re still there. Old Mr Paxman also planted orchards on the Moors. As the summer turns to autumn, when the train slows sufficiently, if you glance out of the window you can pick out the ruby and gold highlights of apples and the various plum species nestling amidst the Moors’ deep green tangle.

James Paxman, however, may have kept the place slightly more trimmed perhaps than it now appears. The path running through the Moors once had a picket gate at its Spurgeon Street end and another at its East Bay end, so that townspeople could enjoy walking its length, too.

A group of local volunteers, The Moors Movement, hold occasional working days at weekends throughout the year. They do a bit of pruning and clearing, note the flora and fauna and, generally, seem to love and care for the place. Apart from its passing daytime traffic, however – dog-walkers, cyclists, schoolkids and parents with pushchairs – the Moors belongs chiefly to itself. It has a charged, fecund wildness, which even certain more rural areas seem to have lost.

In my own boyhood, it would have been the type of place which might have been teeming with gangs of boys, building summer dens and reconstructing old battles. I hate to say it, but I don’t think boys do that sort of thing anymore. I was also told that former prisoners or discharged soldiers sometimes camp there for a while before moving on elsewhere.

Evidence of it – half-burnt rehabilitation documents, addresses of halfway houses etc – is sometimes discovered at their abandoned campsites. It strikes a poignant note that such people, upon being confronted with lost or now-unfamiliar freedoms, will more willingly turn to this wilderness within a town than re-engage with the society from which they became estranged.

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