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. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Den at 23, 23 Crouch Street, Colchester - Vegan Cafe

Nice new places seem to be popping open in a steady stream around Colchester Town at the moment. Yay. And this type of Cafe is a new one even for me, someone who has eaten her way around the world. Yesterday, the March Hare experienced her first Vegan lunch, and you know what, I liked it!

Last Friday The Den at 23 opened its door's for the first time to a wondrous reception. Even though they have been open less than a week they have been selling out of some dishes completely and on Saturday (their 2nd day!) had a queue out the door and down the road! If there was proof that the Vegan market was in dire need of attention, this is it. I'll be honest, I am extremely ignorant in the ways of the Vegan diet but after such a wonderful experience in this little place I think I will be coming back here very regularly. I love the fact that there is now so many great places to eat in town these days (Three Wise MonkeysEast Coast DinerHudson + Hudson etc etc), but, I'll be honest, one doesn't always fancy meat and actually as a society I think we are realising that perhaps it is not good for us to eat so much of it, not to mention all the Dairy products we consume. I have been on a bit of a mission since moving here to try and persuade some healthy restaurants to come here. I miss the choice you get in London for healthy options, salads, sushi, and the like. But now that little gap in the market looks like being filled.

The Den is a great name for this place as the space it occupies is quite small, however, they have made a good job with the room hey have and it doesn't feel cramped at all.  It may be small, but it's perfectly formed. I think the danger would be to stuff it full of tables and chairs but then it's not a relaxing environment to be in. My son and I had a lovely time, sitting in the window, in the sunlight, waving at the people walking past. 

They do also have an upstairs area, which is bright and clean and a lovely place to sit.

These guys have got things spot on, which I am sure will mean they are a great success. I predict they may grow out of this space pretty quickly if the last few days are anything to go by:

* The couple that have opened The Den are very friendly. As well as having lunch there yesterday, we also popped our snouts in on their opening day to say 'hi'. (We like to do this when new places open as we are total nosy parkers but also to show our support. I think it takes big balls to set up your own business so anyone that does it deserves a bit of a local pat on the back). Both times, they have had big smiles, have been very chatty and are extremely personable. It's super important to make your customers feel welcome and although not rocket science, a few other places around here might do well to remember how critical this is in building a regular and supportive customer base. The more places that open up, the more choice people have of where they want to spend their money. No one needs to put up with bad customer service anymore. There is one place in town in particular which does a very nice cooked breakfast but we don't go there anymore as the owner is a douchebag.

* They have made great use of the space. It isn't cluttered, it's clean, bright and relaxing. A simple interior but well done. They also commissioned an sign writer to paint the sign on the exterior and its these little touches which make this place special.

* The food we had was tasty, fresh and good value. As the pictures show, we did only have a sandwich and cupcake but that was because the Chilli and the Salad had both sold out (must get there earlier next time). Any preconceptions I may have had about Vegan food were eradicated here. It's going to sound a bit of a stupid thing to say, but I'll say it anyway, I wouldn't have known it was Vegan!

So there you have it. It's a must for Vegans but also non-Vegans. It's an education in a different type of cuisine for me and one that I am grateful to be able to experience on my doorstep.

Thank you The Den, I would wish you luck but I don't think you're going to need it.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Pump Street Bakery, 1 Pump Street, Orford, Suffolk, IP12 2LZ

54 minutes away from Colchester lies the pretty village of Orford. It is our little family tradition to go there on Mothers Day and eat delicious food.

I say it's a tradition but today is only the second time we have been as my son is only 2 and 3/4. The first time we went there, last year, I decided I would like to retire there. It's beautiful. There is a lovely church, 2 pubs and a post office but what sets it apart from many other rural villages is not only the added bonus of a Castle (Orford Castle), an award winning Smokehouse (Pinneys of Orford ) and a wonderful fish restaurant (The Butley Orford Oysterage) it is the gorgeous (in every sense), Pump Street Bakery.

It really is a must visit place for anyone traveling through Suffolk. It has had lots of super reviews from some very highly regarded food critics (including Jay Raynor and Thomasina Myers) and it was even mentioned in a thank you speech by one of this years Oscar Winners! (Mat Kirkby offered free Pump Street Bakery doughnuts for life ).

When we went to Orford last year unfortunately there was no room for us to sit in, it has just one long refectory table for those wishing to eat/drink in, but today we were in luck. I know not everyone is a fan of communal tables but I find it a great opportunity to chat to people. The family next to us had moved to the area from South West London so were in a similar boat to us. It always makes me feel a bit better to meet other people who have moved out of London. Communal tables also give me the opportunity to eye up other peoples food at close range. The South West London guys were having the French Toast which looked amazing. If we weren't about to have lunch over the road at the Oysterage I would have ordered a couple of portions and probably passed out.

However, we opted for a coffee and a Cinnamon Danish instead (although we did bring doughnuts and sourdough home for an afternoon treat...), which was delicious of course.

Then as soon, as we had finished our mid morning pitstop we walked across the road to the Butley Orford Oysterage.

It's a no frills fish restaurant which serves lovely fresh seafood from the local area. As with the staff in the bakery, the staff here are very friendly and its another 'must visit' if you are in the vicinity although you may have to book a table in advance. It gets very busy.

When we looked through the menu we realised, if we ordered everything we wanted to eat we would have been ordering 5 starters and 6 mains for the three of us, it was very hard to choose which dishes to have! However, we eventually settled on the Brown Shrimp, 3 Oysters and Whitebait to start . Delicious. My son only ate the heads of the whitebait and I only wanted the bodies so it worked out pretty well.

Then we moved onto the mains and had an amazing spot of good luck. There was nothing remotely unusual about the insides of my delicious smoked trout but inside one of Wig's mussels, he found a tiny pearl!I think I'm going to try and get it set into a little ring.

It really was a perfect day out made even more memorable by our little pearl. I feel after all the upset of 2014 this is our little symbol of hope for 2015. Thank you Orford, for a really wonderful Mothers Day. See you next year.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Centre Parcs, Elveden Forest, Suffolk

I feel like we have just been let in on a secret that loads of people knew about but we didn't. Until now. Centre Parcs. What a revelation! We have just come home from a great 4 night break in the Elveden Forest. After we had booked our trip (last minute, 2 weeks ago) loads of people we knew remarked "Oh, yes, we go there all the time". Well, thanks for not telling us.

We chose the Elveden Forest location as its only an hour from Colchester and was £100 cheaper than the same holiday in Longleat. I have no idea why as I think they are all pretty much the same. Anyway, it was great and we'll definitely be back. Our son had a wonderful time being driven around in a bike trailor, flopping around in the awesome indoor pool (complete with rapids, slides, waves, complimentary life jackets) and being given balloons at every meal time. Sometimes I am really jealous of my son.

We stayed in one of the hundreds of 6 person 'lodges' deep in the forest, actually furthest away from the main 'plaza' but we needed the exercise frankly. The lodge had 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, another WC, a main living area with kitchen, dining table and lounge area. Outside, all the lodges have their own patio with barbecue and table and chairs. All lodges come with 1 highchair and cot as standard so its perfect for anyone with young kids. Some of the larger places to stay have their own saunas and hot tubs which would have been brilliant if we had stayed in the summer time, and they also have tree houses.

The plaza had places to eat if you didn't want to go completely self catering (Cafe Rouge, 3 Starbucks, a couple of burger places, an Indian Restaurant, and most bigger restaurants had softplay areas in them!). There is a well stocked supermarket (complete with Krispy Kremes), a top shop and they offer a food delivery service if you are feeling super lazy.

We saw this peacock sniffing around one of the coffee shops.

Aside from the pool and the bikes (which you have to pay extra to hire), softplay areas, out door playgrounds, Birds of Prey, there were loads of other things we could have done, but my son is still a little too young. Archery, Quad biking, badminton, zip wire....They did have little kid events on and a creche where you could leave your children for a few hours, but being helicopter parents we didn't like to.

We did try to enjoy a nice family 'treat' of pottery painting but I don't think it was that successful. 2 hours painting a side plate was not my son's idea of a good time. However, I painted this plate which I am pretty happy with:

Overall, it was a triumph and I would recommend it to anyone that has small children, and even anyone that has big children. The only downside was our terrible sense of direction. We lost the car on the first night, the bikes on the second day and trying to get out on the last day was reminiscent of 'Picnic of Hanging Rock' as after I dropped my bike off I tried to locate the car again. And failed. But we eventually found each other and the Exit and reluctantly headed home.

On the way back we popped into the Elveden Estate and saw a chicken. The perfect end to a perfect week. We are all still knackered, hence this rather brief post, but looking forward to planning our next visit.