Monday, 9 May 2011

Careful where you step, there's history under there..........

You think you know where you live? Think again! I've lived in Colchester for over forty years, yet last Saturday I went down a town centre street that I had never before visited. And what a story it has to tell.

So what has been happening? Walk Colchester is a local organisation promoting the cause of pedestrianism. The group has been around for about a year, and their first big task was the development of a community mapping site. The next big project was to place itself amongst the international community of "walking as transport" advocates. And later this year Walk Colchester are promoting a series of practical projects to make the town more walking friendly.

Last weekend was Jane's Walk weekend, where there have been a series of local walks led by local people, celebrating the legacy of Jane Jacobs . Colchester was the first town in the UK to take part in this international festival. Eleven exciting walks and events were set up, the publicity machine was set rolling, the sun shone, and the crowds turned up.

And what's the story behind the uninspiring looking place, in the photo at the top of the page? It's Arthur Street (a road, not a person), and Dorian Kelly, standing on a red stool, is getting near the end of a fascinating tour of the "Theatres and Lost Theatres of Colchester".

Now I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about Colchester and its history, and I thought Dorian might have maybe a dozen places to show us or talk about. And he came up with over thirty locations, varying from Roman amphitheatres, to halls used for AmDram, to old music halls, to flea-pit cinemas, to professional theatres. The photo is the location of Colchester's Bear and Bull-Baiting Ring, identified from a medieval map of Colchester. Looking back eight hundred years, not many bears were baited, as they were rare expensive items, but plenty of cattle had suffered on this spot. The tradition continued for centuries, with a slaughterhouse very nearby. Indeed this was the last surviving abattoir in the town centre, until closure a few years ago. However the meat tradition continues to this day, with the long established butchers "Allen's" in adjacent St Botolph's Street.

And from these facts, we move into speculation. Why were animals baited at this location? Maybe this was where the Romans had their amphitheatre (Camulodonum must have had one somewhere, but where exactly?), and the medieval people took over the ruined oval shape for their activities? And what happened after it was a bull ring? The town must have had an Elizabethan theatre, but no site has been identified. Think of Shakespeare's "The Rose" or "The Globe" theatres on London's southbank. Maybe a theatre became the next tenants of the circular arena of the killing floor, on waste land just outside the town walls?

What we see now are the remnants of some Victorian housing, and a big shed now being used by Emmaus, the charity that helps tackle poverty and homelessness, and helps recycle old furniture. All trace above ground of the bull ring has gone, but the disused slaughterhouse remains, and Allen's trade on, with 800 years of meat history under the fingernails of this corner of town.

So when you next walk to work, increase the sense of occasion by thinking about the history of the places you walk through. There's a tale to tell, wherever you tread.

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