Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: All change on High Street, though footfall seemed fine and buses ran on time

Colchester High Street stakeholders and businesses gathered outside the Town Hall in Colchester to p

Colchester High Street stakeholders and businesses gathered outside the Town Hall in Colchester to protest against the proposed traffic ban in the high street. - Credit: Archant

“Tis spring come out to ramble, the hilly brakes around...” AE Housman

’Tis indeed spring. Just about. By slow degrees. Like drawing teeth, actually. The first I knew of it was last weekend, when I was informed that some of the young blades had been seen sitting down outside the local quayside pub, with their shirts off. This was in all of eight degrees centigrade, you understand, with a light easterly breeze hacking up the River Colne like a scimitar.

That’s the thing about Essex, though: ask not what the prevailing temperature is; ask only whether the sun is shining. And, if it be the case that Old Sol is out, then on with the trainers and shorts, down with the convertible top and out to a riverside drinker or beer garden for six pints of extra-cold lager. These people seem impervious to the cold. Maybe it’s a generational thing.

I can remember, for instance, in my own glam-rock maytime, shimmying out of doors clad only in scoop-necked shirt with wizard sleeves, split-knee loon pants (ask your dad) and half a can of hairspray to armour my bird-nest hair against the tempest.

“You’ll catch your death out there, dressed like that,” warned my elders. Well, I never did. Although I do remember feeling colder than I pretended. I also had chest infections and sinusitis every winter. But what was a bit of seasonal distemper in such halogen days to a sparkling young drink of water such as myself? I couldn’t have the chicks seeing me in a dufflecoat; or worse, one of those terrible army greatcoats that all the students and hippies wore. So I either stayed in or I suffered the cold.

The youngsters these days, though, are a different breed. I don’t know when it was that the shirtless and be-shorted look came in. Somewhere between half-past Thatcher and a quarter to Cameron, I reckon. Then it spread to our postmen, so that if you ever see the post nowadays being delivered by anyone not wearing shorts, then it’s a pretty good indicator that it’s only about a month either side of Christmas.

Then New Labour railroaded in the smoking ban, whilst simultaneously introducing us all to “continental cafe culture”. Suddenly, our provincial pavements were cluttered with lightweight steel furniture, occupied by shirtless smokers, all belching, cackling and yelling “Oy oy!” at each other. That was halfway through the summer of 2007. Young Essex took to the change with considerable zest. Through all but the grimmest winter months, this style continues, today – and they tell us that our high streets are dead?

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As you’ll know, all the best comedy, like all the best tragedy, is born of dashed expectation. I promised, a few weeks ago, that I would keep an eye on Colchester High Street following the introduction of traffic restrictions running from 11am to 6pm. The restrictions dictated that only buses, bicycles, motorbikes, taxis and emergency vehicles would have access during these hours – all other traffic being banned.

The latest development, however, is that two days ago the whole experiment was suddenly scrapped after widespread protests, demonstrations and even a threatened court challenge.

I have to admit that up until recently I’d not paid too close attention, because, like all matters pertaining to cars, car-parking and traffic, the finer details have managed to fill up entire local newspaper columns and letters pages without doing anything much more than boring me to the point of muscular paralysis.

A few interesting points arose, however. Some traders complained about something called a reduced footfall. Footfall? Who let that word into the party?

“...and here are the Colchester Footfall results: Williams and Griffin 12, Red Lion Books 6.”

If Colchester High Street saw rather fewer people these past weeks, it may have been something to do with the character-forming force eight zephyr which blew without remit throughout most of March. This meant that even the simplest task of, say, venturing down the road to post a letter required a Captain Oates-like fortitude.

However, I was in Colchester High Street only last Saturday, when the ban was in force. Even in a comparatively balmy 8C, there seemed plenty of footfall.

I went into Emmaus, which in House of Newell, for some reason, we all pronounce E-Mouse. Emmaus, incidentally, is the best-dressed charity shop in Colchester, It always has interesting window displays and the furniture for sale is often cheered up with artificial flowers. This endows the shop with a breezy spring-like feel, during even those less-clement English months. By this, I mean, from October through to the following October.

E-Mouse was so footfallen last Saturday, in fact, that I couldn’t even get a close look at the pre-loved books and clothes. Over the road, the banks and building societies also appeared busy-ish. Pavements were relatively crowded and Eld Lane, meanwhile, which has never even featured motorised traffic, was so comprehensively feetfelled that, because I was in a hurry, I had to cut through Lion Walk to escape all the falling foots.

Another thing I noticed about the High Street traffic experiment was that the buses ran more efficiently, many bang on time. I was beginning to like the traffic experiment. Too bad. Another one in the net for King Car, I suppose.

Next week: Why all the freezing weather we’ve recently had is clear evidence of global warming.

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