There was an article on the Guardian website last week with the title “Please, no more white people writing smug articles about leaving London”. As you can probably guess just from the title it was rather a provocative piece and halfway through the day the title changed to something slightly less contentious but the content remained the same.
Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the week since it was posted. I’ve been thinking, worrying mostly if people might think I’m smug. After all, I write the odd blog about my new life in East Anglia. I also post things to Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis. I have posted pictures of the Zoo, Mersea Island, Frinton, Fruit Picking, Alpacas, the Roman Castle etc but I feel anything but smug about leaving London. I actually feel very lonely and a bit of an idiot. I would NOT recommend making a life changing decision 3 months after having a baby. After 18 years in East London I sold my flat 6 months before the property prices there exploded. Not only is my old 1 bedroom flat in Hackney Downs now worth more than our 4 bedroom house in Colchester, we also moved away from our friends. So when I post things online, I am certainly not feeling smug. When I post things online I am doing it to stay connected with the people who I now, rarely see. I’m pretty lonely and isolated most of the time to be honest. But perhaps from my postings you would not think so. Don’t believe everything you see folks.
As well as the publication of the article last week, something else has prompted me to really think about our life outside of London. I received an email from a friend asking me for advice on moving 'out'. The first thing I wanted to say was “the grass definitely is not greener”! The way I feel about things at the moment is that we can give it 6 more months here. Yes, we have more space, which was the main reason for moving, and there’s no doubt that the local Nursery our son goes to has enabled me to work in a Freelance capacity (I would never have been able to pick and choose hours for my son at a Nursery in London), but I still don’t feel at all like this is home. And actually, moving out of London has been HARD WORK! Not just physically moving, but trying to meet people/make friends is not easy as an adult.
Luckily we have very nice neighbours, which was huge relief so it has been easy to get to know them (also all from London and not at all smug). We have looked after rabbits, watered plants, held spare keys, invited them to BBQ’s and birthday’s, helped arrange for the communal Car Park to be refurbished and given them honey. We call it 'Pigeon Street'. One of our neighbours works on the local Market and we have also emailed her with suggestions for the Market here.
Also in our aim to get in with the locals we have branded a local Tearoom for free and been to Church.
I have also been very proactive with local ‘issues’ (“scarily proactive” one neighbour remarked. I don’t think he meant it as a compliment). Last October I was invited to a Focus Group organised by the Council to discuss various aspects of Colchester. I was so chuffed to be invited along, another place for meeting people I thought, that I woke up at 4am the morning after the group and wrote a very detailed email with my feedback. (This was never acknowledged by the Council even though I knew they had received the information). There is a lot of potential here and things have improved even in the last 2 years but when the people in charge of the Town aren’t even able to reply to an email that’s trying to help them, well, you have to question what sort of a place it is.
Some suggestions I sent were:
* First of all, anyone working for the Council in any capacity that makes decisions for the Town should go and do a recce of other UK Towns that are thriving (Bath, Bristol, Brighton, Cambrigde etc etc). Get some ideas, get inspired, see what is going on elsewhere and what could be happening here.
* Let Local Businesses pitch on Local Council Projects (ie Architects, Designers, Consultants etc). CBC expect us to support Local but I don’t think they are. I think what needs to happen in order for Colchester to start building a positive reputation to a wider audience is to almost become a brand. Thus bringing in more businesses/interest to support the local industries here, not just creative ones, but all businesses. It seems to me that there are building blocks in place for Colchester to become a really vibrant successful place but is not quite there yet.
* Get some positive PR going about Colchester. CBC almost needs to take on a 'Creative Director' to take control of its image. There are lots of people at the moment, particularly from East London, looking to move out of London for an alternative way of life. Just like us. Late 30's, having kids, still working in the creative industries, predominantly in East London, this should be the logical place for them all to move to, its a no brainer. Direct trains to Liverpool Street in under an hour. Yet, Colchester has no almost no media presence outside of the Town despite being one of Britain's Fastest Growing Commuter Towns.
* CBC should have a small team of 'Local Creative/Artistic Advisors' so when a new business wants to come to Colchester they could suggest these preferred local companies. I'm sure there would be some kind of procurement issue but I'm also sure CBC would be able to at least make suggestions of Companies they like working with. And even if the things I suggest (Council Creative Director, Local Creative/Artistic Advisors) aren't standard then even better! It would be a great bit of PR for the town. "Local Council sets up Creative Department to improve Town". This type of approach would create a more sympathetic, consistent appearance to the town, thereby smartening it up, attracting more people to the area, bringing in more business etc etc its a ripple effect which I have seen happen elsewhere. It is after all a very Historic Town and should be on the same level aesthetically with Bath but sadly is way off at the moment. North Norfolk is a great example of this and also places like Aldborough, Southwold and Woodbridge. The community seems to be in harmony much more so than it is here, it just needs someone to pull it all together. Im sure it doesn't help that Essex County Council and Colchester Brough Council share the responsibilities of running the place. CBC should just take all control, back.
* The local paper needs to report some ‘Positive News’ for a change. Very important.
* I emailed Firstsite and asked them, among other things, why they don't do more outdoor film screenings. I'm still waiting for a reply... People love that sort of stuff, and regardless of if Firstsite want to do it or not there are loads of other places it could be held. Castle Park (I went to an outdoor screening years ago where the film was projected onto the side of Corfe Castle), the Priory, and they could also have outdoor Theatre Productions (even Jimmy's Farm does this), the possibilities are endless here and all these type of things would be a huge. (This email was sent on October and there has now been a Screen in the Park and there is to be a screening at Firstsite. Of course I am taking no credit for this).
* Finally Colchester needs a different/better website that reflects all that is unique about the place, more presence on Social Media informing the world what is going on here and the surrounding area, maybe nuggets of it's history etc (lots of places in Suffolk and Norfolk are VERY good at this type of promotion).
About 6 weeks ago I put forward the following suggestions for Colchester. I don’t know if they will be taken on board or if they are possible but it would be great if they did come to fruition. And lets face it, they are not exactly unique suggestions, these things are happening all over the Country. Maybe if these things were happening here I would feel smug.
The Café in the Park:
With respect to the owners, the existing one in Castle Park definitely needs a refurb. Branding, menu, décor etc could all do with an overhaul.
It needs to be a destination and is in a great spot n the park. It could be a great meeting point for Cyclists. Last Summer we spent a lot of time at ‘The Level’ in Brighton. Not only does it sell great food and a good range, good coffee and healthy children’s snacks (Fruit Lollies, Bear Fruit packs, etc etc), it also has a solar panel roof and does bike repairs. They have a screen in there that plays Tour De France and other Cycling stuff.
The newly refurbished Café in Victoria Park, Hackney is also hugely successful. It’s a destination in its own right, we often couldn’t get a seat for breakfasts on the weekend as it was so busy.
Lots of parks /open spaces have water fountains in them for the kids these days. Since the Town doesn’t have a Lido (although apparently from September 4th we will . . . ?) it would be great to have a water fountain area down next to the new Sand play area. There must be access to water as there is a drinking fountain plonked in the middle of it.
Again, here is an image from the ‘Level’. We spent a lot of time here last summer and it was busy the entire time.
PARK / COMMUNITY BEEHIVES:
There could be Beehives in the Park somewhere near the Park Keepers Hut (fenced obviously). A Local BeeKeeper could manage them, the honey could be sold in the Castle / Visitor Information Shop. He could do Beekeeping Lessons/Courses for the local schools or for adults that want to learn who could pay a small fee. Local Schools / Businesses could sponsor a Hive etc. It would be great to show local Children and to get them interested in Bee’s and their role in the environment. My local Babysitter (Colchester local, 25 years old) has never even tasted Honey.
Firstsite could get some hives for the roof and sell the produce in the shop. This is happening all over the World and would be a great idea to bring it to Colchester.
Morden Hall Park, London
Battery Park, NYC
Somewhere in Paris...
Everybody I have spoken to locally, complains about the lack of Information disseminated here. There are things going on but the publicity for them is pretty poor. The Visitor Information Office is very small and would be almost impossible to find if you didn’t know it was there.
There is virtually no information about what’s here and what’s on as you get out at either station in Colchester (yes, the town has 2 stations!), just the bog standard, uninspiring rack of leaflets. I am often being told what a Creative place Colchester is but I haven’t seen a huge amount of evidence of this it. It’s certainly not your first impression as you arrive into the Town via the Station.
New places are opening up more and more lately yet there is virtually no PR for them. Mostly its word of mouth or simply people don’t realise they need to promote themselves. Perhaps Colchester Borough Council should give new businesses an info pack on self promotion etc when they open up if this is not done so already. I already mentioned this in my email to the council after the focus group.
I find most information about local events via Twitter but its taken me a long time to find the useful Accounts. Most people doing interesting /independent things locally seem to know each other which can seem very cliquey to a new person. Basically if you don’t know where to look, you wont know what’s here. Unless you follow them on Social Media you have little to no idea of events.
Colchester needs to open up. It also needs to connect with all the young adults here (students/sixth formers/young families) who seem to have no idea about the things going on under their noses. I almost never see them at any events, in any promotional films / press photos of events. I see a lot of grey hair (being 40 myself, this is not an ageist remark, its true. Where are all the young people? Its like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!) I’m sure the younger lot would love to get involved with events round here but they aren’t really being told about them / included.
With this in mind, I have a couple of thoughts to help promote the Town.
THE INFORMATION STATION
A mobile Information desk. This is one of my more abstract ideas and have no idea what is possible regarding moving it round/parking it/paying for it, but it’s quite fun and would serve a purpose.
You could have a small Sentry Box / Shed type thing that could be placed around Town on certain days of the week in busy locations ie on Fridays at Colchester Station, Saturday at the entrance to the Park etc etc.
A person would obviously sit in it and tell people what’s going on over the next week or so, give them a weekly / monthly schedule of events (all information in 1 place) and hand out maps. (And this is my favorite idea). An illustrator (local) could draw up a lovely map of the Town with all landmarks on it and hand it out for free. Perhaps The Print Room at The Waiting Room could lend their presses for this. You could run a competition at the Local Sixth Form College / University to ask Art Students to draw it with the prize that it would be printed if it won. It would involve them more locally and get it drawn for free.
You could also distribute them at Liverpool Street every now and then, to get Colchester on people’s radar. We have a lot of friends coming to stay who still say they have never heard of Colchester let alone visited but once they have been once they always ‘book themselves in’ to come back.
Perhaps each week / each month, a different local Company / Independent Business could ‘hire’ one exterior wall of the Information Station, to advertise themselves and there could be a poster space on one side of the box for hire.
Alternatively, one of these. Perhaps not as much as a talking point but could be moved round a lot easier:
Finally, I am very surprised that there isn’t one of these already at both stations.
DUTCH QUARTER CELEBRATION DAY
I wrote a blog about the Dutch Quarter, a Conservation Area where we live:
All the people I have met who live in the Dutch Quarter care very much about the history and maintenance of it. We have a vocal Residents Association and feel we get virtually no support from CBC and certainly not from ECC who are not just neglecting the area but actively destroying it (Recently removing our Traditional style lamp posts). It’s a very special area to be celebrated and protected. Currently, neither of those things are happening.
It would be great to have a 1 day Celebration each year, to perhaps raise money for its maintenance (since neither Councils seem to think it important enough to spend any money on it) or at the very least, let people know about the history.
Here are my initial thoughts that I have passed on to some Locals at the top of the Food Chain:
* First and foremost DECENT BRANDING (again we could do this for free). Then get some illustrated maps drawn up to hand out prior to the day to show where/when/what etc . Put them at the Stations/Liverpool Street/Local Cafes/ schools etc
* Hold the Festival / Celebration Day on the same day that the Landmark trust have their open house day of Peakes House on East Stockwell Street. That way people could visit the house for free, and maybe even come back to stay. I think its every September so we realistically and to do it well, we could try for next September.
* Invite the Local Embroiders Guild to come and do some spinning/weaving/textile work outside one of the houses. OR if any of the houses are empty we could find out who owns it and use one of their rooms for the day? The Spinners did this outside Red Lion Books last year and it was very interesting. (It was the wife of Red Lion Books). This would highlight the Textile History of the area. I have asked them to call me about this but no one has so far...
* Have an ‘Arifacts’ area/display of things that have been found in the Dutch Quarter. There must be something and the building behind the Castle is apparently stuffed full of local artifacts.
* Get some Musicians to research some music from the period the Dutch arrived and play it inside the Church on West Stockwell Street. Roman river Music could maybe put us in touch with the right people for this.
* Get the Walking Tour people involved to do hourly walks/talks.
* A couple of local seems to have written books about the area, maybe they could do readings / Q+A session in the church.
* Invite ‘Annies Fantasies’ (Colchester clog Dancing group) to do some dancing. http://anniesfantasies.co.uk
* Ask Gunpowder Gertie to come and do something for the kids with a Dutch Theme. She can also read some books ie Twinkle Twinkle. She is great. https://www.facebook.com/gunpowdergertiehoipolloi?ref=br_rs
* Local Foodies could come and have a stall, possibly using the Dutch as a theme or possibly not if it doesn’t sound very appetizing...
* Get the Oyster Meister involved.
* Speak to Kentwell Hall, can they put us in contact with dressing up enthusiasts to walk around in costume, whittle some stuff or whatever etc
* A local Flower enthusiast has said she wants to do something ‘floral’ so we could have that too.
* Be great to get The Stockwell involved in some capacity.
* See if the Greek Church want to get involved.
* In the evening, we could screen a film in the Church on West Stockwell street (something family orientated, maybe with a Dutch theme or a Roman theme, haven’t got that far yet...)
* We could also offer limited ‘Champing Places’ for a night camping in the Church. http://www.visitchurches.org.uk/champing
So as you can see I have been busy and it's been very tiring. Not the relaxing time I was hoping for. I have decided to post all this publicly as I don't know if the people I have passed it into are interested in my thoughts or willing to explore them so by posting it here someone might see it and think they are interesting ideas. Colchester could be great and I might feel smug one day, but not today. Perhaps I am hoping Colchester would be more like London in which case we should move back. I don't know. Its confusing. I need a Crystal ball.
So, we'll see how the next few months turn out and go from there. But anyone thinking of moving out of London, should think very seriously about it. As I said I have not found the grass greener. Maybe it suits some people more than others but for me the jury is out. Its very easy to look at what people post online and think they are being smug / showing off whatever, but maybe they are just trying to convince themselves they have done the right thing.
To be continued . . .