Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Ah, Roman Essex. Fish, bears, and no radio spoiling the calm

Martin Newell outside Balkerne Gate, part of Colchester's Roman wall

Martin Newell outside Balkerne Gate, part of Colchester's Roman wall - Credit: Andrew Partridge

So, on a fine weekday morning I decide to cycle down to Alresford Creek. It’s a good time to go, because it’s almost deserted, which means I can get an uninterrupted listen to the classic old song of the Essex saltings: a mix of seagulls, curlews and the halliards of moored boats rattling in the breeze.

Unfortunately, there’s a bloke in a parked car who’s there before me. With one window open, he’s listening to his radio, top volume and max bass-boost. He’s tuned to one of those stations which specialises in adverts for tyre-fitting companies and double-glazing firms.

These sonic gems are compressed into the gaps between the worst examples of daytime chart porridge on offer. Sample: Thump thump thumpity-thump “I’m takin’ back mah luurve...” repeated ad nauseam for three minutes. You’ll be familiar, I’m sure, with the type of thing: composed on laptops, sung by robots, sold by corporations and listened to by androids. Call me a snob if you wish, but if I don’t say it nobody else is likely to.

So, it’s about 9am and this chap’s driven all the way down to one of the most secluded beauty spots in north Essex on a June morning just so he can sit in his car, listening to Radio Roof Insulation FM.

I mean... why? Beyond the all-pervasive whoomff emanating from the car, I can hear a nearby rooster crowing. Farther off, somewhere on a distant farm, another is answering back. The roosters and the river birds aren’t about to give up. But I am.


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So I’m cycling back up the hill, fully intending to pop in at Alresford’s old ruined church, when I suddenly remember something. There’s supposed to be an old Roman villa around these parts. I’ve occasionally heard that the remains are underneath a much newer house somewhere down the lane leading to the creek.

The Romans, from what I can gather, were successful partly because they were a giant franchise: a bit like Waitrose, say, only with a large army. For a corporation they were quite egalitarian in their way. In theory, you could be a Spanish, Gallic, Teutonic or a North African army recruit and, if you served them well, you could rise up through the ranks and do rather handsomely for yourself.

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If you’d been a diligent soldier or administrator you could retire to Britannia whilst you were still relatively young. You’d be granted a few acres of land overlooking the River Colne, a vineyard, a couple of slaves and a few sheep or cattle. Before global warming, when Britain was reportedly warmer than it is now, you could grow reasonable grapes for your wine, marry a nice blondie Brit woman, raise some Romano-Celt rug-rats and generally enjoy the fruits of your labour.

It’s true that if you settled in a colonia such as Colchester, should the hun ever reappear at the gate you might still be expected to pick up a sword now and again. Generally, though, most of the time, no-one touched you because the Roman franchise was the biggest game on the board.

If you’d built a villa at a place like Alresford Creek, the only thing to disturb your peace would be the same seabirds which we hear today, the lowing of the beasts in your stockades and maybe the kids bickering in the backyard. It must have been fairly idyllic. You’d have to watch out for the wolves, mind, which were numerous in Roman Britain. There were also still brown bears roaming around, although probably not that many.

One imagines that life might have been rather sweet if you were a retired legionary in your mid 30s. There’d have been plenty of fish in the sea, with oysters plentiful on the river bed. The forests teemed with game, and then, out of your bedroom window of a morning, you might have caught sight of the odd galley wending its way up the Colne towards nearby Camulodunum.

But: supposing it’s about AD60 and, one day, you overhear one of the wife’s relatives saying there’s a massive crew of furious Iceni tribesmen on their way down from Norfolk, hell-bent on mayhem. So you bury the chest of gold coins and other valuables, you pack a few things and you chivvy the missus and the kids. Because you’re an old soldier, right? You’ve met these people before, when you were stationed up near Scotland, and you have absolutely no intention of allowing the family to meet them.

Well, it so happens that you do a deal with the captain of a galley whom you know. He’s sailing to Gaul on the next tide and from there you can make your way to Nimes, a handy highway for access back to Rome. So a bit of gold changes hands and you skedaddle, intending to return at some point. But you never do.

So, about 1,200 years later, some medieval peasants digging a well find your chest of coins. Since there’s no such thing yet as treasure trove, they melt it down, split it up and move it around. As a consequence, nobody ever learns anything about you or your life.

Meanwhile, nearly 800 years after that, somewhere really near to the place where you and the wife got onto the galley to flee Boudicca’s horde, there’s a man parked in a car, playing his radio too loudly.

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