In spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love...

Whereas a slightly older chap, such as myself, will usually dress more plainly, especially if he’s heading towards Manningtree, former home of the Witchfinder General, to look for a bit of furniture.

With a population of 900 Manningtree is England’s smallest town. For its size, the town has a surprising number of shops and its High Street – which rivals that of the rather more loudly-trumpeted Dedham – possesses some of the finest Georgian buildings in the region.

The back lanes from Great Bromley Church to Cox’s Hill in Lawford are a positive delight on this fine spring morning. If you were to compile an I-spy list of seasonal English bucolia to spot, you’d possibly tick off the lot here: tiny lambs gambolling in fields, hosts of daffodils, enclosures of poultry, sundry contented ruminants, horses, picturesque mediaeval churches, large agricultural vehicles coming unexpectedly out of side turnings and lorries dropping gobbets of clay onto the windscreen, making the driver gasp, “Wow! What was the hell was that?”

Now we pass the fields where the Tendring Show is usually held and here, I must relate a story from my kitchen portering days. A waitress who’d failed to come into to work the previous day was late on lunchtime shift.

The chef asked her: “Where was you yesterday?” She replied: “ Moi husband took me ter the Tendrin’ Show.” He looked her up and down and asked her, casually: “Did you win anything, then?” Well, you had to be there, really.


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Today, however, we’re heading for Farthing’s second-hand furniture shop which is now located in Manningtree High Street. Hilary, who is driving and also occasionally restores bits and pieces of furniture, is keen to see the place.

Over a decade ago, Farthing’s larger premises used to be in Colchester High Street. It was probably the best shop of its type in the region.

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But old furniture can take up quite a bit of space and, with the rates having gone up, they were eventually driven out of town into a brick-built industrial unit on Manningtree’s outskirts.

This was all good and well but I missed just being able to pop into an actual shop on a whim, to admire the sight of a pre-enjoyed 1930s wardrobe in all its varnished majesty.

As a person who does not consider a piece of wooden furniture to be finished unless it’s brown and has varnish on it, I am routinely amazed when I discover how cheaply the stuff can be now picked up. Furniture, such as might have been found in the houses of many of our grandparents, has been highly uncool since the mid 1970s.

Among the ranks of the dungareed and furry middle-classes of that time, a kind of stripped-pine mania was being conducted. In Colchester and its outlying villages back then, you couldn’t visit a house without finding someone frantically scraping perfectly good paint off the doors. Either that or they’d be outside, cramming a set of penny chairs into a van, to rush them off to a place which had a stripping tank, in order to divest them of their varnish.

Now, I personally, having bought a dresser, wardrobe or chair, would never consider stripping it, painting it in a pastel shade, distressing it – whatever that is – or sawing its legs off.

Barring a bit of a polish, in fact, I leave it exactly as it is. So far as I’m concerned, if like me, you live in a house that’s older than say, about 1920, you can’t go wrong with heavy brown varnished furniture. It looks right, it works, it’s durable and it’s cheap.

“I’ll bet those lovely old Georgian houses in the High Street aren’t full of stripped pine and smoked glass tables with tubular frames.” I hiss, as we walk around Farthing’s, admiring the tall-boys. Here, once again, I muse upon the stripped furniture craze and the corresponding tsunami of Nitromors which washed over the land in the 1970s. In a way, I suppose, it was a witch hunt all of its own ‒ an idea that to adorn furniture and fittings with paint and varnish was somehow sinful.

All of my furniturial fustiness aside, however, it’s worth walking into practically any shop in Manningtree High Street, just to have a look around, since so many of them still have their original beamed and cubby-holed features. It’s also very easy to understand why many of the locals don’t want a new Tesco store.

With all of these shops, they simply don’t need one. On the other hand, there’s also pressure group called Manningtree 4 Tesco, formed a few months ago, who appear to disagree. They claim it might help to boost trade.

If the superstore people do manage to push their planning application through, however, I reckon they should only be allowed to build the thing in sympathetic local style. That is, any new store should be thatched and beamed, with an oxen park and a blacksmith’s forge attached, instead of a garage.

All the cashiers should wear puritan bonnets, and be fluent in Early Modern English – and the trolley locks should only take groats.

For the kids’ amusement, there could even be a speaking Matthew Hopkins “Are Ye A Witch?” machine outside the door. They’d have covered all the angles then, and Manningtree could rest easy at nights, knowing that a retail mastodon had been forced to do the right thing at last.

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