The Only Way is Essex

Essex, the home county to the east of London, has the reputation of being, well, a bit chavvy. But there’s more to Essex than big hair, gaudy bling, fake tans, assisted tits and impossibly white tombstone teeth – and that’s just the men.

Beyond the faceless towns of the commuter belt, Essex is a green and pleasant land, and its county town, Colchester, has ancient roots. Although not officially awarded city status until 2022, Colchester can reasonably claim to be Britain’s first proper city, sitting as it does on top of Camulodunum, the first major settlement of Roman Britannia and the province’s first capital.

Even before the unstoppable Romans slashed and burned their way through village, forest and field, the settlement was already a centre of power for the locals, including King Cunobelin – Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. When the Romans displaced the tribal huts with their first legionary fortress, it was like saying ‘we’re top dogs now’.

Following the Boudican revolt of AD60, when the seriously pissed-off Queen of the Iceni slaughtered everyone and burned everything in her path, a defensive wall was thrown around the town in an after-the-horse-has-bolted kinda way. Not long after, Camulodunum lost its status as provincial capital to the better-placed Londinium but continued to thrive as a garrison town, something which continues to this day.

We’ve passed through Colchester many times – it’s on the mainline from Londinium to Norwich – but we’d never stepped off the train for a gander. So, we thought, let’s give it a go, and we stayed overnight. The main event for us was Colchester Castle, which sits in a pretty park populated by picnickers and grey squirrels. The park also contains remains of that post-Boudica Roman city wall – the earliest ever constructed.

The castle keep is eleventh-century Norman, built on the foundations of the massive classical temple of Claudius the Divine; Roman emperors just loved to be worshipped. The castle is now a rather splendid museum dedicated to the long history of the city. Roman-era relics are what really draw in the punters. We were lucky enough to avoid the modern-day legions of over-excited schoolkids in hi-vis jackets screaming their way through the exhibits.

Museum’d out, we took a slow stroll around the ruins of St Botolph’s Priory, where Liam caught forty winks; then we withdrew to a local tavern for a bottle and a bite.

Our bed for the night was at the historic George Hotel, along the High Street. We chose well. Behind the hotel’s Georgian façade lies a timber-framed building said to date back to the fourteenth century, although the hotel’s extensive cellars may be older and feature the ruins of a Roman gravel pavement. A few years back, the hotel underwent extensive renovation and refurbishment. We fell for the lavish and distinctly quirky style.

I posted this image on Faceache of little ol’ me in a funky, over-the-top, oversized wing-back chair. It prompted this response from an old mucker of mine…

PUT THAT CHAIR IN YOUR HANDBAG AND STEAL IT FOR ME *NOW* PLEASE! 

If only I had a handbag big enough.

A Right Royal Do

My dad took the King’s shilling in the late forties and made a career out of soldiering for the next twenty-something years. Despite swearing allegiance to the monarch, Dad was a soft leftie, voting Labour all his life. He liked and respected the Queen but he didn’t think much of the motley crew of incidental royals – the  ‘hangers on’ as he called them. My mother, on the other hand, was a devoted royalist and had a picture of Her Maj hanging on her bedroom wall.

In my adult years, I’ve always been conflicted about the entire notion of a hereditary head of state. My head questions its relevance in our modern, more egalitarian world but my heart tells me different. I was genuinely saddened by the Queen’s death. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s my age. And when I look around the world at the assortment of elected nobodies, ne’er-do-wells and nasties, particularly those who would sell their children to the Devil to cling to power, I think, well, if it ain’t broke

Today, we have the right royal do of the Coronation with Charles and Camilla riding the golden Cinderella coach to their ball at Westminster Abbey, the venue for such rituals for nearly a thousand years. The Crown Jewels will be dusted down, oaths will be sworn, heads will be anointed. And yes, we will be joining the locals at our local for a glass of bubbly to watch the fairy tale on the big screen.

Across our twin villages, the streets are decked out in fluttering flags and bunting of red, white and blue, and shops have gone all out to put on the best stately display. Here’s a taste…

And tomorrow, our villages are throwing their very own right royal do with a big Coronation party. We’ll be joining the festivities because let’s face it, we could all do with a party right now.

Fifteen-Year Itch

For our fifteenth wedding anniversary we were itching for a big city scratch with a difference. Despite my heathen leanings, I do like an impressive church, and few are more impressive than London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren’s tour de force topped with its heavenly dome. The earlier Gothic pile was torched along with much of the old medieval city in the Great Fire of 1666. It’s reckoned the blaze started in a bakery in the appropriately named Pudding Lane, bringing a whole new meaning to the hallowed phrase ‘give us our daily bread’.

Meandering around the flashy Baroque splendour brought back happy memories of my first pilgrimage – back in my spotty teens when I accompanied my grandmother, who was over from Ireland.

According to the annals, there’s been a church on the same spot since 604 AD, and possibly as far back as the late Roman period, as suggested by a plaque listing the pre-Norman bishops with their glorious tongue-twister names.

In stark contrast to the lavish decor above, the crypt is simply appointed and stuffed with the tombs of kill and cure notables from days long past, from Florence Nightingale and Alexander Fleming – who discovered penicillin quite by chance – to the victors of Trafalgar and Waterloo, Nelson and Wellington. Napoleon must be spinning in his monumental Parisian grave. Wren is there too, of course.

After piety came avarice, with indulgent afternoon tea and bubbles in The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre followed by mother’s ruin at Halfway to Heaven, the homo watering hole near Nelson’s massive column, where Liam and I first met. They knew we were coming judging by the ultimate gay megamix playing on the jukebox – Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Marc Almond, The Communards, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dead or Alive, Gloria Gaynor and Hazel Dean – with Liza Minnelli’s ‘Love Pains’ bringing up the rear. Liam’s shoulders shimmied to the beat. Perfect.

What’s Your Poison?

Every month without fail, Chet Contact drops on the mat. Produced by the Chet Valley Churches, the community magazine is packed with handy information about local community groups and services for believers and non-believers alike. There’s a lot going on round these parts. From bells to balls, bats to bowls, cakes to quizzes, pumping iron to eyeing up the birds, from stage to the silver screen, arts and crafts, knitting to nattering, foraging to growing your own, and much more besides – all country life is here.

I like the regular history piece in the mag. I knew Loddon has old roots – the earliest written reference to the village was around 1042 – but I was surprised to read that there’s been a pharmacy in Loddon on the same site for over 180 years. It’s now a branch of Boots. Long gone are all those jars full of potions laced with opium and mercury from the apothecary’s handbook of old wives’ tales. Maybe that’s why, back then, life expectancy was only about 57.

Back to Turkey

We were struck down with the dreaded lurgy over the festive period and it just went on and on. What’s a boy to do when he’s at his lowest ebb, snot-wise, and he needs to perk up the pansies? Book a holiday of course. And the holiday we booked is to Dalyan in southwest Turkey. We plan a week of R&R with a bit of sightseeing and beach-bumming thrown into the mix.

We all know about last month’s catastrophic earthquakes, which flattened large swathes of Turkey and Syria, killing tens of thousands. It’s truly heartbreaking. We got a small taste of it when we lived in Bodrum. It was just a minor tremor, no damage done, but it still sent us fleeing into the courtyard.

The recent disaster will put some people off visiting Turkey but I hope not too many. The last thing the country needs right now is yet another blow to the economy. As most tourist businesses are family-owned, it’s the ordinary folk who suffer the most.

The situation is desperate and will remain so for a long time to come. If you’d like to help, please give what you can. It all makes a difference. There are plenty of appeals out there to choose from. Here’s one in the UK:

Disasters Emergency Committee

On a lighter note, Dalyan is a long way from the disaster zone. This is how I described it in Postcards from the Ege, a tongue in cheek guide book I wrote many moons ago:

“Back in the day, Dalyan was a quaint and sleepy village on the banks of the Dalyan River. The town first hit the headlines in the mid-eighties when an international campaign successfully defeated a plan to develop the nearby Iztuzu Beach where endangered loggerhead turtles famously lay their eggs. Turtles and tourism now co-exist (just). The soft, white sand is well worth a visit but take a packed lunch, slap on total sunblock and don’t step on the eggs. You don’t want to be responsible for wiping out an entire species.”

And the nearby ruins of Kaunos:

“Stuck in the bog of the Dalyan river delta with a chronology dating back to the 9th century BC is Kaunos, a city lost in the vegetation for over 300 years. Originally a Carian settlement and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ruins are a jumble from different periods – Greek, Roman and Byzantine. Kaunos was a regional seaport of some note. However, like Ephesus, the silting of the harbour left the city high and dry and sealed its fate. The site is best reached by small boat from nearby Dalyan. You’ll gently put-put through the crystal-clear river past majestic reed beds belly dancing in the breeze. Today, the city is appreciated as much for the prolific wildlife as it is for the scattered stones. Also, as with Miletos, the surrounding swamp is particularly popular with holidaying mosquitoes. The city was finally abandoned in the 15th century following a malaria epidemic. You’ve been warned.”

The last time I was in Dalyan was over 25 years ago. I can’t wait to dip my toes in the warm waters of the Aegean again. I might even persuade Liam to take in a mud bath with me in a vain attempt to regain our long lost youth. Yes, this was me back in 1997. It didn’t work then either.

Inevitably, the resort will have changed but I hope not too much. I’ll keep you posted.