Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Pursued by a Mega-Slayer in Land of the Petrolhead

Martin Newell opted for pedal power this week

Martin Newell opted for pedal power this week - Credit: PA

I’M cycling down Wivenhoe High Street one mid-afternoon when I become aware of a vehicle behind me. I sense that it’s in a bit of a hurry, so I quickly nip in between two parked cars and wait for it to pass.

The car is one of those large paramilitary-looking things, to which the manufacturers give names like “Intruder” or “Slayer”. The youngish woman at the wheel speeds off rather more quickly than might be prudent on such a thoroughfare or at such an hour of the day. She seems cross.

Although I have never driven a car, I swear that I can sense when a vehicle’s being driven angrily. Even if there’s no obvious revving or clunking of gears, when you’re a cyclist there’s something about a crossly-driven car which tells you so. It’s as if there’s some invisible aura or atmosphere being given off. My way of dealing with it is to pull in, give way, or sometimes to gesture with a cheerful wave of the arm that the driver should pass me. Their need, after all, must be greater than mine. No point in being antagonistic. That’s their turf.

The default setting of the English, as the critic AA Gill has observed, is one of anger. In recent years anger on the roads has increased substantially. Essex, however fond of it I may be, is the Land of the Petrolhead. North to south, it seems, we love our cars. No amounts of taxing by governments or tsk-tsking by the Holy Global Warmists can change us. You may protest at the side of the road with your bicycle-trailer as much as you wish, Young Crusader, but if you wave your green swastika at Captain Colchester when he’s driving home from a hard week’s collar, he will spring, grille-teethed, from his car and break your jaw with his best roundhouse punch; and all the other drivers will laugh heartily as they pass your prone body.

I think the rage problem is not just caused by overcrowded roads but is also a by-product of years of car manufacturers’ selling techniques. Thanks to the brilliant effectiveness of their advertising campaigns, to an owner a car is no longer merely a tool to get one from A to B and back. Nor is it even that cliché: “an extension of the home”. I fear it’s rather more extreme than that.

Many of us have reached the point where we believe we are one with our cars: “Chippeth not my paintwork, for you lacerate my soul.”

If the vehicle manufacturers could market a chic little tank in bright magenta – say an FV107 Scimitar (other makes of light armoured reconnaissance vehicle are available) – it would be a roaring commercial success. On weekday mornings, Colchester’s Lexden Road would be even more full of yummy-mummies parked in the cycle lane, perched in their gun turrets, re-applying their lippy and muttering at the traffic wardens: “Go ahead, punk – make my day.”

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Clingoe Hill, following a tense afternoon school-run, would resemble the retreat from Stalingrad. Maybe not a great idea from a health and safety perspective but it wouldn’t half jazz up the drive-time bulletins on Radio 2. “Now here’s Sally Traffic with the latest on another school-run firefight just outside Elmstead Market.”

“Thank you Simon – that Telecom van’s still burning on the A133 but Essex Police say they’re expecting Mrs Catchpole’s ammo to run out within the next 15 minutes. For the time being, though, the diversion through Great Bromley remains firmly in place.”

Colchester is one of the fastest-growing towns in Britain. During the past decade, the town itself, along with villages within its environs, have had vast chunks of housing welded on to their flanks. These in turn have spawned corresponding numbers of personal and service vehicles attendant upon such expansion. Our roads are overcrowded, public transport is inadequate and expensive. Accommodation, too, is expensive.

So, despite improvements in communications technology, a significant proportion of people is still forced to commute to London. Because of this daily grind, understandably, many of us feel the need for regular breaks away, thereby causing even more traffic congestion. It’s Hell’s Own Merry-go-round.

The North Station roundabout, for instance, is an ideal illustration of modern chaos. Nationally notorious nowadays, in terms of traffic problems, it’s Colchester’s solar plexus and, like a human solar plexus, doesn’t require much of a blow to bring the entire system puffing and blowing to its knees. No wonder everyone’s in such a flaming temper.

Who’s to blame? Well, no-one, actually. To lay the blame at any single doorstep would be spurious and only a fool, or a politician wishing to score points, would attempt to do so. In 200 years’ time, historians will write that the people of the early 21st century suffered terribly from overcrowding and traffic congestion. This, they will explain, was because of large population shifts to England’s south-east following the death of industry at the beginning of the Early Silicone Age.

In a few weeks, Colchester High Street commences an 18-month trial as a car-free zone. The ban on cars using the High Street between 11am and 6pm has seen emotions running high. It is a brave, many say a foolhardy, experiment. I wish them luck. As ever, I’ll be among you, taking notes.

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