Martin Newell’s joy of Essex: A shiny new oasis where the wayfarer can stand and dream
- Credit: Archant
On Wednesday, the new square at Colchester Town Station was officially opened. The magistrates’ court, which waiting rail travellers will notice overlooking the platform, opened for business last year amidst some controversy about its design. A futuristic archway by the urban artist Jo Fairfax now crowns this south-eastern gateway to Colchester, and Colchester council’s regeneration team can chalk up another job well done. It’s been a long time coming.
When, as a 20-year-old, I first knew the station once known as St Botolphs, the pub on the corner was called The Fountain. As I passed by its door, I’d sometimes see Derek, an old busker with a cowboy hat, playing authentic bar-room piano and bawling out rock’n’roll songs.
The pub’s clientele back then was a lairy-looking crew of men who appeared as if they wrestled bears for a living. Whenever I came into Colchester by rail from Great Bentley, I’d notice how the shabby old trains groaned and rattled as they dragged their way down that last bit of weed-ridden track. It was like the crotch seam of Colchester’s tattered old work-jeans – the Last of Industry. It seemed almost as if the trains themselves were reluctant to arrive at the place.
The St Botolphs area is one I’ve known nearly all my adult life. It possesses a distinctive psycho-geography. I dislike that last word. It’s clunky and pretentious-sounding. Unfortunately it describes something for which, so far, I’ve found no better word.
Psycho-geography is the study of the way in which events occurring in, and the people habituating, a particular area will, over time, shape its general ambience. Areas such as Soho in London, St Pauli in Hamburg and Montmartre in Paris are all examples of places with their own psycho-geography. It’s as if such places haunt themselves, so that newcomers have no choice but to be swept into their flow.
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When I learned that the new magistrates’ court was to be built at St Botolphs, it did give me a small frisson of recognition. St Botolph was the patron saint of itinerants or “wayfarers”. The area is certainly much-associated with transit, both physically and spiritually. The new courts overlook the ancient ruins of St Botolph’s Priory, founded circa 1103. England’s earliest Augustinian priory, St Botolph’s had no rich patron or sponsor bankrolling it and was therefore never well-heeled. So far as its gradual ruination went, it suffered less from Henry VIII’s dissolution than during the English Civil War, when a besieging Parliamentarian force south of Colchester cannonaded it.
Lurking darkly beside the priory is its gothic-looking Victorian namesake, St Botolph’s Church. Built in 1836, it was designed by a brilliant young Ipswich architect, William Mason, who also built St James Brightlingsea and St Lawrence Rowhedge, before emigrating to New Zealand.
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Around the new town station square, the ceaseless roar of traffic is heard as it converges upon St Botolph’s Circus from Southway, Magdalen Street, Queen Street and the Mersea Road. Underneath the Circus is a small municipal garden where the underpass emerges to light. This urban oasis has in the past been the regular haunt of street drinkers and beggars.
Over two centuries or more, St Botolphs has also witnessed many thousands of soldiers on their way to and from various barracks located up Mersea Road. During the Great War, 2,000 horses from the cavalry barracks were entrained at St Botolphs Station for the coast, en route to France. Most never returned.
The people around here have always been in transit and, like all places of transit, there’s a sub-economy of bars, fast-food joints and clubs.
St Botolphs in medieval times stood just outside the city walls. This area, one of the town’s poorest, says historian John Ashdown-Hill, was a place of prostitutes and human dungheaps. Off Queen Street, also outside the walls, was Vineyard Street, then called Bere Lane, where bear-baiting went on.
Around the corner from the station is a metal sculpture. It commemorates Paxman’s Britannia Works. The old factory was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in February of 1944, when 1,400 incendiary bombs were dropped.
Here, in the general vicinity of the station, you will still meet some of life’s more weathered travellers. On certain occasions, the police will be seen running a check on them at the station’s entrance or ticket barriers. You may sometimes glimpse one of these wayfarers, together with his dog, lurching flinty-eyed off to some vital appointment. Who is he? Where did he come from? I doubt even he could tell you. But you will recognise him. Because you’ll have met him in every bus park and town square from Portsmouth to Pisa. He’s one of St Botolph’s clients and he’ll know very well what it’s like to stand blinking, unshaven and hungover, in the harsh morning glare of a magistrates’ court.