A Visit to Colchester Garrison

On 18 June 2013, I went with my grandfather to visit Colchester Garrison to mark our family’s connection to Colchester’s military history. We spent a great morning in good company, with laughter and talk and toast and Marmite. The Garrison took good care of us on what was a difficult day for them (5000 British Army redundancies had been announced by the Government).

‘A 106-year-old man provides “a living link” to a little known incident in Colchester’s military and social history. George Manley is the great-grandson of one of 64 couples who were married on 20 October 1856 in a mass wedding at the former Garrison Church in Military Road, Colchester, now St John’s Russian Orthodox Church.

The ceremony was the peak of a rush down the aisle that saw 150 mercenaries from the British German Legion marry local girls in just three weeks. Getting married was a pre-condition for the Legionnaires, who had fought for Britain in the Crimean War, to be granted the right to settle in the Cape Colony, now South Africa.

Today (Tues 18 June) Mr Manley visited the church with Colchester Garrison Commander Colonel Mike Newman, 157 years after his great-grandparents Johann Uhrmacher and Jemima Wass were married there.’ (Colchester Gazette).


No Country for Me, Then: Unsettled Now

I was born in Colchester. I am proud of being an Essex girl. Always have been. Always will be. That landscape formed me as surely as did the generations of my family who settled and were born there. If I had to call anywhere ‘home’, that’s where it is. Or was. You see, now I’m not so sure anymore.

I lived there for the first five years of my life, until my father took a job in another town (one I can’t be bothered to name) and so, away we went. We came back every Christmas to see family and friends, occasionally we returned to mark other, happier or sadder, events. As soon as I could I moved back. Why? Because however infrequent my visits, wherever else I may have been, Colchester was ‘home’. The sight of the town from the train always made me smile. Returning from working abroad? Returning from a day’s work in London? No matter, the view never tired for me – until now. I’ve changed.

The place has changed, too. That’s all to the good; I love visiting museums, I don’t want to live in one. Adaptive change is healthy, people and places growing together. This year though, for the first time, I saw not Britain’s oldest recorded town, but Britain’s fastest-growing town. In my lifetime, Essex University has arrived and thrived, Colchester Garrison all but disappeared, and people have come and gone. Now, they simply come. And come they do, in great number, from all over. The pace and nature of growth is shocking, and not just to me.

“I must admit I’m a little shocked that we’re right at the top of the growth league for population.” Paul Smith, Colchester councillor responsible for resources (31-05-2010, Colchester Gazette). Way to go with planning, eh? He then said this meant there was more need for investment. No room to breathe or think, let’s just invest. With what? From where? In whom? For what? The Office for National Statistics predicted in 2010 that the town’s population would rise by 18.9% over the period 2008-2018. Private building projects march on, even while local and regional councillors make cuts in public services. Green space disappears, roads are gridlocked, the railway groans with the weight of the commuters, everyone’s going nowhere fast and somewhere slowly. Yet, people keep coming.

Do they know where they’re coming to? Do they care? Where are the Colcestrians? The greater the growth, the less space there is for me. Colchester, this could be the end of our affair.


Number 47

My name is Jane. I began at Number 47. It’s where I was conceived and spent the first five years of my life, though I was not born there. I was born at the Lexden Road Maternity Home. That is also where my mother (and some of the best people I know) came into this world. After some nights spent there, where the new mothers were given Guinness to build up their strength, my mother took me home to where she and my father had started their married life four years earlier.

Number 47 is a sixteenth-century house, already divided into a downstairs office with a split-level apartment upstairs by the time I arrived. We lived ‘over the shop’, as downstairs was my father’s drawing office. My earliest memory is of hiding under his drawing board and watching the legs of all the passers-by, until someone rumbled me and then it was all faces, not legs. I started running off at an early age. (There’s a little more about that, here)

When we lived there, no-one wanted older property; everyone wanted new places filled with new stuff. We had gargoyles, wall paintings and mismatched antiques. Others had fitted carpets, three-piece suites and wallpaper. That’s just how it was. Before my parents moved in, another newly-married couple had lived there briefly. They moved out because of the door thing. The woman saw a door that wasn’t there, but had been centuries before. It got to her, she said they had to leave and they did. So, we were there and we co-existed with the door thing quite happily.

The door thing also meant that doors occasionally opened and closed without being visibly touched. My parents were pragmatic about this; if we were happy and the house was happy there was nothing broke to fix. They were right, of course. You can’t live in the centre of ‘Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town’ without some story or other attaching itself to the property. An added bonus was that you never felt alone in any room in the house, especially the living room where we had the door that wasn’t there.

The only time history got in the way was in the garden. The house had been built on the site of a very large Roman villa (as had most of the top half of North Hill). As a result, my father, a man of few words and very rare expletives (the exact opposite of my mother, but that’s another story) would appear borderline garrulous and profane when digging. Shards of pottery, coins, tiles, and all manner of ancient refuse conspired to make gardening a chore.

I loved it there and felt at home. There was a sense of belonging that went beyond the tangible, the practical and the everyday. On my mother’s side of the family we go back for generations in that town. Number 47 was simply a five-minute walk from where some of my ancestors had arrived and settled as Flemish Protestant refugees in the sixteenth century. That same Dutch Quarter had, three hundred years later, also been home to my great-great-great grandmother. At the age of fifteen she left her family to marry a German soldier at Colchester Garrison and start a new life in South Africa. She came back, we always do. We run off, we come back.

Since we all left Number 47, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to revisit two times. The first was when it was on the market for sale in 2006. I posed as a potential buyer and the estate agent was ecstatic – it was (and still is) a difficult property to market (its design, its location and the fact that it’s Grade II listed mean that there’s very little you can do to the property). I was shown round, while the agent spoke nonsense, and a lot of it. So little had changed in the house that I was quite taken aback. I spent longest in the room where my sister was born, it felt good in there (especially as the agent left me alone while he took a call).

The second time I visited was this year. The front door was open, well actually it was off, so I went in. I met the man who bought it in 2006 – he and his family have only now put together the money to renovate the house. We had a long chat over a cup of tea, as you do. Then he asked me about the door thing, said he found it a bit odd but not troubling. I agreed, but for me it was never odd – I’d known no different growing up there. The door thing is a North Hill thing, too – at least two other buildings, to my knowledge, have it.

That comforts me, a sense of community and continuity in a time of increasingly swift change. Number 47 is still my home.