As seen today on the rear wall of a house in the Dutch Quarter, backing on to Colchester Castle Park, Essex. A feast for the eyes and food for thought.



The Green Man

Perseverance. It all started with a Sunday sermon at St Leonard’s Church in Lexden, Colchester a while ago and, from there, the theme grew on me.

Home, in Colchester, whenever I walk past Number 47, I give a grateful nod to my history. If I stroll on from there, through The Dutch Quarter, it’s all the better to reflect on my Flemish ancestors, religious refugees, who settled there in the sixteenth-century. They persevered, surviving persecution and forced migration, to make Colchester one of the leading cloth-producing towns in England, and give their ancestors an enduring bond with this place.

From time to time on my stroll, the door to St Martin’s church in the Dutch Quarter is ajar when I pass, with a large white sign sellotaped to it, saying, in clear, black font: OPEN. COME IN. Impolite not to, wouldn’t you say? By the way, there’s also a smaller, faded, sign on the gate prohibiting alcohol in the graveyard (it is in Essex, after all). I enjoy being the only visitor, when there is no attendant, so we (the building and I) can be alone together. For me, the perfect visit. My Flemish ancestors may well have worshipped there, though possibly spoilt for choice, as St Martin’s was one of eight churches in the town centre (of which six have survived to the present day) at the time.

An object lesson in perseverance, the building stands over a Roman street and aligns perfectly with a Saxon one. So, it may be late Saxon in origin, as it fits with that period’s replanning of the town. The Normans are easier to find here, they built the tower. The materials used also have their own story; flint rubble, Roman brick, Norman tile. Most of the structure we can see today took shape in the fourteenth-century. Later on, The English Civil War had Colchester under siege and, in 1648, the Norman tower was damaged (and never repaired). A history of the town written 300 years later, describes the building as in a ruinous condition and not fit for services.

Not until the late nineteenth-century was extensive restoration work carried out, when pre-Reformation wall paintings and wood carvings were discovered (including The Green Man, shown in my photograph). The very paint used to obscure those forbidden images (in line with then-new theological practice) had, thankfully,preserved them. However, for the next hundred years, the church remained neglected and little used, until 1996 when The Churches Conservation Trust took over its care. From time to time, theatre performances are held there, and from time to time, its door is open to the public. Through time, it perseveres.


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.