Living in the past and the age of English elegance

I return to Ireton Road, where I lived for a while in my mid-twenties. An attractive if ostensibly unremarkable street leading off Colchester’s Maldon Road, it remains much as I remember it.

We rented the garden flat of a pleasant 1920s built house. After the dodgy bedsits, house-shares and rooms which hard-up young couples usually encounter after first leaving home, it was a real find. My girlfriend at the time and I were probably the youngest couple living in the street. The neighbours were mainly people of our parents’ age, but all things considered, accepting of the ragged young bohemians who’d just moved into their neighbourhood. It was early 1977, the year of punk rock, the Royal Jubilee and the death of Elvis Presley.

Genteel Ireton Road, though, even in Jubilee Year, didn’t quite run to anything as folksy as a street party to commemorate the event. Instead, it held a garden party. Two distinguished doctors, a married couple living in a big house up the road, hosted it in their equally-large garden. We were invited and – scruffy urchins that we were – were both on our best behaviour.

Nearby at the time, lived our landlady and her husband, a retired army major, both of whom were also incredibly nice. You never went up to pay the rent without being invited in for a cup of tea and a chat. I wonder, nowadays, where they went, all those kindly older people, who’d look at you with your dyed hair and strange apparel and still, recognising you as young humans – probably from perfectly good homes – would treat you as such, despite their initial shock upon seeing you.

Much of the Maldon Road area is remarkable for its handsome late-Victorian and Edwardian town houses. Unless you take your time to stand back and really look at them, while walking around the side streets, you might not even notice them. They are solidly built, many with beautiful windows, porches or porticos. Often they have the faux-Tudorbethan gables common to their time. In a way the houses could be straight from the world of the children’s writer, Edith Nesbit, and her creations, the Bastables.

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Many of the facades of these houses remain for the most part, unaltered. Although their style is not currently regarded as a sexy period of architecture, I’d like to think that in a century or so, this may change, since they epitomise a vanished English elegance.

I went back there last week, just to wander round: “Come on,” I said to my partner. “I used to live round here. I’ll show you some really great-looking Edwardian houses – they have to be seen.”

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Ireton Road still has its own working garage which, when I knew it, used to have two petrol pumps. “Proper old family garage, that was.” I said. “That still is a proper old garage.” interjected its owner, Dave, who’s run the place for the past 20 years. So we stood on the corner and had an amiable chinwag with him. I pointed to my former home. There’d been a few changes. It had possessed French windows when I’d lived there and in the garden were two old apple trees, now gone, between which I’d once slung a hammock. It was still a nice neighbourhood, said Dave. A very famous old rock star had bought one of the houses up the road, he told me. I was suitably astonished to hear this. Don’t worry, probably no one under 50 will know how impressively famous he once was, but old rockers like Dave and I blimmin’ well do. It was only later, when I’d rounded the corner, that I realised it was my old landlady’s house, which the former rock god had bought. There was nothing to give this fact away. He hadn’t parked a pink Cadillac with tiger-skin upholstery outside and changed the house’s name to ‘Dungiggin’ or anything. The place looked much the same as it had 30-odd years earlier, when I’d shuffled round there each Friday evening to pay my landlady her rent.

Around another corner, I met Peter, a retired primary school teacher who’d lived there for 45 years. We got chatting. It turned out that he’d worked at nearby Hamilton Road primary school where he’d taught a friend of mine, the now-famous artist, James Dodds. His own daughter is an artist too and lives in Aldeburgh. “I know her.” I exclaimed. “I visited her, there, once.”

As the American humourist, Steven Wright once said: “It’s a small world – but you wouldn’t want to have to paint it.”

Back into Ireton Road, tucked away in one corner, is a church. Walk through the churchyard and there’s a sign at the back, with the last two letters missing from it. It points the way to St Mary’s Chapel. Behind the church is a leafy old alley, Cambridge Walk, running between Cambridge and Inglis Roads. Again, it has that Edwardian feel to it. With back gardens each side of it, it’s bordered by lapped fences which might have once invited a younger edition of me run a stick along them. You wouldn’t be surprised even now, in fact, to bump into a boy in a peaked cap bowling a hoop through there.

So, after a quick mine-sweep of memory lane, this was what I concluded: The past, is indeed a foreign country, a favoured old holiday destination, if you like. It’s still quite nice but rather more expensive than the last time you went.

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