Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Pub tables declared to be a traffic hazard

- by Mike Page

Wivenhoe - by Mike Page

Big trouble in Little Bohemia, apparently. A classic handbag fight has broken out just down the road from me. I write about this not only because it’s local, nor from any particular sympathy for opposing factions but because the source of the dispute is symptomatic of wider problems currently afflicting waterfront developments in our region.

This is a story of property, cars, overcrowding: that which certain intellectuals call Lebensraum and what we call “room to swing a cat”.

For some decades, Wivenhoe’s remaining quayside pub, the Rose and Crown, has sported tables outside. There were once only two small tables in front of the pub’s bay window, along with three weatherworn wooden ones on the quayside itself. In the laid-back 1970s, locals and tourists alike were happy to stand, or even sit on the rough concrete of the quay with their pints of warm Skol, their goblets of Chateau Peintstrippeur and their crisps.

At some point during the “up-cycled” Noughties, however, the number of quayside tables almost quadrupled. The tables became smarter with parasols and one point, heaters. The lager became cooler and the quayside itself, on sweaty summer days became an over-crowded, badly-served tourist caravanserai.

There was always a problem with cars on the quay. For as long as I can recall, the throughfare by the pub suffered, especially at weekends, from an unceasing cavalcade of slow-moving cars, each driver believing that he alone would be the one to find that last legendary parking space.

But still the drinkers sat there while cars chugged their lead-laden breath all over young children. The interface between cars and drinkers was sometimes tetchy, but rarely was it angry.

This was until a fortnight or so ago, when the tables directly in front of the pub were declared a traffic hazard – and ordered to be removed.

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Practically as soon as the pub tables were removed they were replaced by...? Have a guess. Yep. Parked cars. The online debate has been brisk.

It’s a crying shame that the people most qualified to govern us are unable to do so because posting their wisdom and expertise up on internet forums takes up so much of their time. The most active members of our own local internet forum, a type of online garden fence, must stay up all night posting helpful facts, figures, antiquarian maps, and their own opinions on various subjects.

In a town which has breathed so deeply of nearby Academia’s rarified air, you may only imagine how long and detailed these discourses can become. Did some heretic whisper the word “boring”?

Listen: these luminaries have, in theory at least, solved nearly all of the town’s most serious problems. The online think tank has already come up with a gleaming new medical centre, a footbridge over the River Colne, a second cycle-path to the university, a much-needed arts centre in a derelict railway warehouse and a public slipway for “the people’s” canoes.

That all of these yet-to-be- funded projects must remain imaginary is besides the point. It is to be hoped, nonetheless, that our local politicians are taking an avid interest on what they say, since people on internet forums, along with those who write letters to newspapers, may well be the saviours of humanity.

Back on Planet Earth, meanwhile, two tables have been removed from outside a popular pub. As petty as this situation may appear, the building of many new riverside dwellings and an accompanying population growth, have raised the stakes. Such disputes are likely to become more common in the future.

What may have surfaced as a simple cars versus pub-tables dispute has only highlighted the mission-creep of housing developers and resultant overcrowding. From Wivenhoe’s western marshes to the Colne Barrier, a little under a mile in distance, almost the whole of the town’s riverfront has now been built upon.

All along that span, over time, people have placed benches and tables. Others have built jetties or small extensions, created little gardens, or quietly appropriated parking spaces. Blind eyes, traditionally, have been turned.

With much new housing boasting tiny gardens, or more usually, no gardens at all, the situation is changing. It occurred to me recently, as I gazed up at one particular crammed-in wedge of waterfront shangri-la, that I might actually be looking at a new, if more genteel, type of tenement. In certain lights the buildings possess a looming quality mimicking the long-demolished shipyard sheds which they replaced.

Gradually the occupants of the new riverside apartments have placed planters and other decorative objects in front of their homes. Are they to be penalised if they colonise a few feet of paving and then come out to sit on their benches drinking wine? You can hardly blame them.

Everyone wants a slice of the Watercolour Challenge lifestyle which they were promised in the developers’ brochures. In reality the exact useage and rights-of-access to every inch of Wivenhoe’s crowded waterfront may soon be under question.

What, incidentally, of the town’s original old lotus eaters, the Boozebury Group, as I once called them, who made the town’s name synonymous with such desirable boho living? The answer is that mostly, they either passed on or moved out years ago. Bohemians couldn’t afford to live here now.

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