Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Le Tour de France visit was a trip back in time to cheerier, gentler England

Belgium's Jan Bakelants climbs Palaquit pass during the thirteenth stage of the Tour de France

Belgium's Jan Bakelants climbs Palaquit pass during the thirteenth stage of the Tour de France - Credit: AP

So I’m cycling up East Hill, Colchester, one morning, when, about halfway up I’m overtaken by not one, but four young bobbies on bikes.

“Morning!” Chirps the first one as I look around in surprise. It used often to be said that you knew you were getting old when policemen started looking young. This is true, but I also wonder if the police ever remark how old we the public are looking nowadays. I digress. I found the sight of four coppers on bikes quite cheering.

In the wake of two gory knife murders, some of the locals are currently wary of where they walk. There’s a concomitant wave of goodwill from public towards a more-than-usually visible constabulary. I’ve become aware that quite a few people have changed their walking routes or temporarily re-thought their outdoor exercise regimes.

My own thoughts are that since the murderer can’t be everywhere, I’m damned if I’m changing any of my routes. I hadn’t, however, considered, that I myself might be an object of fear, until cycling along an empty stretch of the University Boundary Road last week, I noticed a lone female student regarding me nervously.

I had to consider this matter: an oddly-dressed old dude in dark glasses, wearing a back-to-front Lennon cap, cycling manically along because he’s late with a job. If you were lone female walking a deserted campus within weeks of a ghastly murder, that would probably do it, wouldn’t it?

I mean, she didn’t know that it was only Mya’s wacky old granddad rushing home to finish off recording a Christmas demo (don’t ask) which he’s promised a US record label for an end-of-July deadline, does she?

No. She just thinks, “Dodgy-looking geezer. Better speed up the walk and keep staring straight ahead.” What a shame. Entente cordiale, this is not.

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That was Friday.

By contrast, the following Monday’s trip to Rayne near Braintree to watch all of 45 seconds of the Essex leg of the Tour de France was a delight.

A small group of us took a train out from Wivenhoe to Witham. We were amiably prepared for a 50-minute wait for the Braintree connection, followed by a two-mile hike to Rayne, where we hoped to catch a glimpse of the Tour de France. It turned out to be quite one of the nicest days out that I’d experienced in recent times. I was reminded of a quote from George Orwell’s 1940 essay England Your England:

“The crowds in the big towns with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and their gentle manners are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single indentifiable character. Are there really such things as nations?”

I certainly felt as if I had been swallowed up by this gentle-mannered crowd of people. There seems to be a mutual love affair presently being conducted between the French and the English because of this cycle race.

There are a a few reasons as to why this might be so. The first is that the Tour de France has been somewhat revitalised during recent years by British interest in the sport of cycling. There’s the Wiggins effect, of course, but I also believe that there’s a sizeable chunk of us who are fed-up with all the greed, vanity and big money histrionics associated with certain other sports. Cycling, despite the Lance Armstrong scandal, seems by comparison, friendlier and more inclusive. In a Europe still gingerly examining its finances, too, cycling is in a manner of speaking within our household budget.

As I stood among this good-natured crowd lining the route, something was restored in me, something which had been ebbing away for a very long time. For here again, were the people with whom I grew up. Good mannered, cheery and well-behaved. Perfect strangers quietly joking with each other, looking out for each other. Not drunk, not show-boating, not yelling, or on the make – just all glad to be there on a lovely sunny Monday in mid-Essex. And all of this for only the most fleeting view of a big cycle race. There was talk of “The German”, “The Slovak guy”, or of “Our lad’s dislocated shoulder.” Some people had brought picnics. On the cycle route itself, meanwhile, a postman finishing his morning delivery reportedly received a round of applause. Now the French sponsors’ vehicles came hooting past, throwing out freebies and shouting “Senk you and goodbah!”

Best of all, the police – ours and the gendarmerie – were enjoying themselves, regularly speeding past the crowd, full blues & twos and grinning.

As for the race itself, there was a “breakaway” group, followed a few minutes later by the main peloton. It was over in less than a minute. Then, the crowd, many of whom had arrived on foot or by bicycle, gradually began to drift away. Our group did the leafy two-mile hike back along the Flitch Way from Rayne to Braintree station and all too soon, it was over.

I would think that almost everyone there came away from the event feeling somehow better about themselves. As I said, it had been like a trip back into the past, a distant time before road-rage, food banks, weekend binge-drinking and ghastly unsolved stabbings. It was a holiday for the heart.