Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Plans are afoot to give St Botolph's Priory a bit of a spruce-up. It's long overdue of course.In heritage-industry terms, St Botolphs, in all its shattered grandeur, is Colchester's most neglected old lady. Founded circa 1103, only decades after the Norman Conquest, it was England's first Augustinian priory and in 1116 was recognised as such by Pope Pascal II. The problem was that it had no major 'sponsor' no aristocrat or royal was bankrolling it. Despite its nominal seniority, therefore, compared to later but wealthier priories, St Botolphs was not particularly well-heeled. This, as northerners used to say, was a fur-coat-and-no-knickers situation, similar in fact, to the one in which the monument finds itself now.
St Botolphs, like so many religious houses, fell into decline after Henry the Eighth's row with the Church of Rome in 1536. In the mid-seventeenth century it sustained severe damage during the Siege of Colchester. Over the ensuing centuries, rather like our regional rail network, the place changed owners several times again, though, seemingly without the re-branding, the paint jobs or the regular weekend improvements.
As a result, St Botolph's Priory is a ruin, a beautiful ruin. Its entrance is tucked discreetly away in Priory Street, though, one of the best views of it may be obtained from the platform at Colchester Town rail station. From there, peering over the red-brick wall you may get some idea of its proportions not just what remains of it now but what had once existed. It's attractively set too, with trees overlooking its northern flank and its floors long-reverted to a rich swathe of uneven greensward.
St Botolph's chief problem as a heritage site and tourist attraction seems to be that it remains a favourite hang-out of stunt-drinkers, drug addicts and sundry other no-goodniks. The poor, as the clergy are fond of saying, are always with us. Every town has them. Their faces, unshaven and unloved, have the complexion of weathered cider apples. Their eyes glint watchfully at strangers as they loll around mumbling and laughing gap-toothed among themselves. Periodically, one might get up and stagger over to another for a furtive exchange of goods or a slug on a bottle. Naturally, many members of the public find them intimidating. The authorities have recently recognised this fact and now acknowledge that the ruins of St Botolph's deserve better They want to make the place more attractive, perhaps even to stage open-air theatre productions there and to clear out the mendicants, the boozers and the druggies.
I find it interesting though, that the perceived swarf of society should congregate in such a place. If you examine the psycho-geography of the matter, St Botolph's is an ancient holy site, close to a railway station, a bus station and a gothic Victorian church all of them in their own ways places of transit. At night the area comes alive with fast food eateries, night clubs and taxis. Only a kebab's throw away from here, the young revellers arrive at weekends to kick the working week in the head and sometimes, each other. In mediaeval times, just outside the old town walls, this is where you'd find the poor, the bear-baiters and the brothels. It's a classic location the lonely and the lost have always drifted here. You'll meet them lurching baseball-capped and grubby, dragging their squat dogs past Colchester Town station where the police will occasionally stop and search them.
But who are they and where did they come from? How, in our still-wealthy modern society do they slip through the net, invisible and uncared-for? A significant proportion of homeless men, if you should ever stop to speak to them, are former soldiers. Talk to one before he's shotgunned his second tin of super-lager and you may find that he was once in Kosovo or Iraq. He's the modern counterpart of the maimed, half-blind soldiers from Wellington's army who, upon return from Flanders or Spain cluttered England's squares and church steps in the years after Waterloo. He's seen the world. He didn't like it much. He didn't talk about it because no-one who hadn't been there, could possibly understand what it had been like. And gradually, as he tumbled darkly through the tunnel, arguing on the way with all the people who might have helped him, he got lost. Finally, he found the company of all the others who stagger from booze-shop to bench and back again. Move him on and like pushing down a bubble in bit of wallpaper, he'll pop up somewhere else. Perhaps it'll be the St Mary's churchyard or somewhere near Colchester Castle. But it will nearly always be somewhere ancient, the type of place, which for centuries people in straits have been inexplicably drawn to. No-one ever chooses such a lifestyle as a career move. They just fall by gradual stages into ruin much like St Botolph's has done.
St Botolphs, though, deserves and must get its thirsted-for makeover. Maybe a theatre company could take charge of it? Perhaps they could stage Beckett's perennially-popular Waiting For Godot a play about two tramps waiting for somebody, or something that never turns up? That would be suitably ironic wouldn't it? Actors in the role of tramps to replace the real ones. Look, I don't write the news. I only read it.
St Botolphs -- minus gentlemen of