Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Dutch Quarter, Colchester V Council Bureaucracy

I don't like to use this blog for negative posts and haven't felt the need to since the balls up surrounding the birth of my son at Homerton hospital in 2012, however a situation is occurring that is making me so angry that this is the only way to get it out of my system and into the open air. And maybe someone reading this might be able to help.

As I have mentioned before, we live in the Dutch Quarter of Colchester. It is a relatively small Conservation area in the heart of Britains Oldest Recorded Town. It is full to the brim with listed buildings, located next to Colchester Castle and many of the houses are built on top of a Roman Amphitheater. The area came to be known as the 'Dutch Quarter' due to the Flemish Settlers that arrived here in the 15th Century to avoid religious persecution in their own country. The Settlers that arrived were predominantly weavers and brought great wealth to the area. (They made 'bays' which snooker fans now know as 'baize'). Their efforts and industry made Colchester one of the most important wool towns in England. Many of the ground floor windows in the houses here are huge as it enabled the weavers to use the natural light to do their work whilst also giving passers by a glimpse of their weaving. Its an important area not only due to the land it sits on and the buildings that remain but also for anyone remotely interested in textile history.

There are walking tours through the Dutch Quarter for tourists who are taken on a route taking in the following sights. I am by no means an expert and there are some wonderful books written about this area, but in a nutshell...:

The Old School House on East Stockwell Street, funnily enough used to be a school.

Peakes House on East Stockwell Street, part of which dates back to the 14th Century.
An old Weavers building currently run by the Landmark Trust and available to hire out.

Georgian Townhouses on East Stockwell Street

Georgian Townhouses on West Stockwell Street.

The Taylor House on West Stockwell Street. You can't really see the plaque very clearly here but the Taylor Family used to live here from 1796 - 1811.  The family were all published authors, the most famous being sisters Ann and Jane Taylor who wrote childrens' poems, including 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. This was written in the attic room here, inspired by the night sky over Colchester.

The back of the Town Hall on West Stockwell Street.

17th Century Timber framed building on West Stockwell Street.

This building on West Stockwell Street is a great example of Queen Anne period Archtitecture. Designed by local Architect James Deane who designed many other important buildings in Colchester.

The top of Maidenburgh Street.

The bottom of Maidenburgh Street leading down the bottom entrance of the Castle Park.

St Helens Orthadox Church on St Helen's Lane. Ancient tradition states that St Helen was a British Princess born in Colchester in AD 242 and that she built the Chapel herself!

The Stockwell (Arms) dating back to 1380. During the recent refurbishments they found all sorts in here including some manuscripts and a quill allegedly belong to Daniel Dafoe who used to live here. Moll Flanders was written about a girl who lived in Mile End, an area just outside of Colchester.

St Martins Church on Quakers Alley. Badly damaged by Canon fire during the Civil War, now protected by the Churches Conservation Trust. One of six surviving Medieval Churches within the towns Roman Wall.

Middle Mill House, St Peters Street. Opposite the entrance to the Park. In close proximity to the river Colne and historic water mill. Many pictures have been painted of this over the years, even Constable painted it.

Bottom entrance to Castle Park at bottom of Maidenbergh Street.

Park Keepers cottage in Castle Park.

Pretty special isn't it? One would think, that the Council would think it a pretty important place too. A relatively small area (you could walk round it in 10 minutes) bursting with the history of Colchester's journey through the ages. A jewell in the Crown of the Town, to be cherished and celebrated. Not so. 

Here are a few pics of what I call the 'common parts' of this historical patch, parts that Essex CC and CBC are responsible for:

Knackered bollards.

Paint job on a street lamp they put in while taking away a traditional black one.

Most of the roads look like this.

Washed out, bent road signs.

Neither Essex County Council or Colchester Borough Council have, in over 2 years of me living here, shown any interest in protecting or promoting this area. They have shown themselves to be ill equipped to manage its Conservation status and exceedingly retrogressive in their attitudes. Their decisions are contributing to the erosion of this unique part of the Country not enhancing it.

We have had many many dealings with CBC (Planning and Environmental) since moving here and not received 1 single positive, supportive forward thinking response. And now, in the last month I have also been dealing with Essex CC (based in Chelmsford, responsible for the highways and apparently street lighting, probably never even set foot in the Dutch Quarter) who are proving to be even more unhelpful. So unhelpful in fact they have not have not had the good manners to respond to my emails and refuse to speak to me on the phone. They will not even engage. If I behaved like that in my job, I wouldn't have a job! 

The reason for my latest correspondence is that in their 'wisdom' Essex CC, enabled by CBC, have been removing the traditional black lamp posts from the Dutch Quarter (a 'Conservation Area') and replacing them with modern ones, completely unsympathetic to the surroundings and not wanted by the residents.  

In the last 5 weeks of trying to get the black traditional lamp posts reinstated I have tried to speak to Essex CC on the phone (they will not speak to me), I have emailed them (they haven't replied to my emails) and Colchester Council have also ignored my emails. The only answer I have had in 5 weeks was a message passed through the receptionist at Essex CC who told me "They said to say they can do what they like". Wonderful attitude. Just peachy. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should and just because that's the way you may have done things in other areas does not mean it is right for this area. 

In desperation I phoned the local Gazette and asked if they would be able to speak to Essex CC on my behalf, perhaps they had a contact, and maybe do a story. They seemed more interested in taking my photo (we shall agree to disagree on this point) but I did not want a photo of me pulling a sad face and pointing up to a new lamp post in the paper. If they had space in the paper for a photo I would rather they used it for words wrote the details of the issue rather than take up valuable space with my boat race. So they contacted the Local Councillor, took his sad face photo instead and sent me this. (I didn't mention the typo in the headline):

This week we have also tried to add the original lights added to 'Colchester's Local' list which would apparently give them some protection but while the surrounding buildings are on the list, the highways and lights (under Essex CC) can not be. Mind boggling.

I then spoke to the Conservation Officer at CBC, "she must be able to help" thought I. Wrong. I was told that while she understood the frustration of the residents' there was nothing (thats right, NOTHING) she could do. However, there is something the residents can do. We are at the point now whereby if we want the appropriate lights reinstated, we, the residents, have to pay for it ........ We need to organise a 'Fundraiser'.

While this may be off putting to some, it isn't to me. I have spent the last 19 years working in a 'YES' industry (unlike all the people I have dealt with at both Councils). Nothing is impossible. I have worked on shoots all over the world. We were the first people to get a film crew into the new Wembley Stadium. And Westfield Shepherds Bush. I have got film crews onto Roller Coasters and into Royal Sandhurst, Navel Ships, Wind Farms, Animal Farms, London Zoo, Heathrow (airside), Twickenham Stadium, Borough Market, Train Stations, Tube Stations etc etc etc. So, if we have to organise a fundraising event here to get our lights back, fine. If there's one thing I'm reasonably good at, its organising. While local Fundraising would be new to me, I think half the battle is enthusiasm and I have plenty of that. If Essex CC and CBC won't protect the Dutch Quarter, I will give it my best shot.

So, moving forward, this is next on my agenda of things to do after being a mum, Freelancing and wrangling the sewing machine. I am currently waiting for figures back on exactly how much we will need to raise. If it's a smallish amount and do-able then that's great. But if its a huge amount (which I fear it will be) then I will use any money raised to send Essex CC and CBC on a road trip of other Conservation Areas around the country to show them what they should be doing.