Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
HYTHE OF INDUSTRY
You are standing on Hythe Station. The Hythe has been described as the engine-room of Colchester. If this seems an obvious comparison, there isn't really a better one. From the middle of 19th to the late 20th century, this area, with its factories and workshops, was the hub of our local industry. Up Hythe Hill, by Port Lane, was once the famous Paxman factory, which, in its time, manufactured everything from bicycles, to engines for trains, ships and submarines. Down the hill, around the corner were Colchester Lathes, whose hand-built precision-engineered machines are still internationally, highly-regarded. Things in those days were built to last. Even today, you can travel to practically any corner of the world and find a Colchester lathe or a Paxman engine still chugging away somewhere, doing its job. Until fairly recently, when you looked up the name Colchester, in the world's travel books, under Industries, the entries always mentioned engineering. Sheffield had its steel, Manchester its looms and Colchester had engineering. It was what we were good at.
The Hythe, though, was more than just a manufacturing centre. For at least a thousand years, it was a busy working port too. The River Colne, upon which the Hythe stands, has its sources in two tributaries, which converge near Great Yeldham in the north-west of the county. From there, the river threads its way through the fertile farmlands of the Colne Valley until it reaches east Colchester. Here, it widens for a few miles, its estuary flicking back like a serpent's tongue at Brightlingsea and Mersea, before merging with the North Sea. From its sources, however, it was not until it reached the Hythe, on Colchester's eastern flank, that the river first widened sufficiently to enable the growth of the port, which did so much to boost the early economy of the town.
The Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes and the Normans would all have known this river in their time and would have seen from their wooden ships, the shallow wooded slopes beyond the muddy marshes which skirt its shores. In mediaeval times, the rich merchants of the Hanseatic League – an early trading cartel formed by north German and Baltic states – came to the Hythe. They brought with them cargoes as diverse as iron ore, fur, wheat, amber, spices, copper and cloth. If you were to imagine a mediaeval multinational with its own parliament, security force and fleet, you'd be somewhere near summing up what the Hanseatic League was. Some of the merchants settled and had warehouses in the town. During the mediaeval period, other trade was also vibrant: wine came in from Gascony, while Russet and Colchester Grey cloth went back across the sea by return. The Hythe port was strategically important enough in English Civil War times for the Parliamentary forces to secure it before a battle ensued, with the Royalists holding out at St Leonard's Church. The history of this area is labyrinthine and endless.
The story of the Hythe, in fact, is one of trade and industry. The site of a 19th century forge on Hythe Hill, for instance, when it was investigated by archaeologists, was found to have been a forge of some sort since very early times. The area's atmosphere was one of a rude, take-as-you-find vitality. Here, after all, for centuries, had been sailors, soldiers, merchants, prisoners, prostitutes, pubs and ships. All of life was here, in a giddying fusion of wealth, poverty, nobility and squalor. Clustered around the river, which served as the main artery to the throbbing heart of Colchester, lived a large community of people. Into their port came citrus fruit from the Azores, ice-blocks from Norway, coal from Northumbria and timber from the Baltic. Back out along their river went grain, cloth, ale, livestock and machinery.
Fuelling this entire smoke-blackened, clattering engine of industry, since the early 19th century, was coal. The coalyards – and there were many of them – stood all along the river and around the area. Coal was even piled next to the railway station upon which you now stand. Sag-roofed cottages once huddled next to the weatherboarded ships' chandlers. Boatsheds leaned into old Victorian grain warehouses. A Georgian merchant's townhouse jostled the timber and lath hall of his mediaeval predecessor. Running between the buildings were the filthy alleys and broken-cobbled pub courtyards. The Hythe with its sprat barrels, coalyards, stables, cranes and machinery was neither a pretty place nor a fragrant one. But it was lively one, unapologetic for itself and belonging to no one but the people who lived and worked here.
And yet, for all those busy centuries, St Leonard's Church on Hythe Hill was thronged each Sunday, stewarding its flock in and out of the world and marrying soldiers and seamen to their sweethearts. Outside, meanwhile, next to its ancient porch, a congregation of bees buzzed in and out of what is still thought to be England's oldest recorded beehive – almost as if in homage to the bustle of the place in which they had chosen chose to settle. For despite the industry of the Hythe, the place is surrounded by the natural world on its flanks, as well as possessing a wildlife haven at its centre. Between Hythe Station and Colchester Town are the twenty acres of tangled wild land known as The Moors. Here is where old Mr Paxman once grazed his cows, planted an orchard and grew cricket willows. Just downriver, within site of the port, are fields, water-meadows, marshland, woods and farms. And right through the Hythe itself, runs the river, playing host to water fowl, waders and seabirds whilst it ebbs and flows, twice a day, to and from the sea. You are standing at the Hythe, Colchester's most venerable and ancient port.