Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
“The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Dr. Emmet Brown –
Back to the Future
When I meet the inventor-mechanic, Mark Singleton, in bright November sunlight outside his Thorpe le Soken workshop, he isn't quite what I'd been expecting. Another mechanic who knows him told me: “He's been working on an electric chopper bike. It's pretty good. Only costs about penny a mile to run.” An inventor in Thorpe le Soken? How could I resist it? Before I met him I'd pictured a sort of cross between Doc Brown and maybe, Barnes Wallis, the Dambuster boffin. Mark Singleton actually turns out to be a boyish forty-something, with the build of a bear, and an enthusiasm for his subject that reminds me of somebody whom I might have known in my youth. He would have been the type of kid on our estate who, while the rest of us were still bolting pram wheels to planks, would already have made a super-cart, complete with steering column, working brakes and full suspension. In front of me is his recent creation, The Frinton Flyer, a small, electric-powered chopper motorbike. It will travel fifteen miles on a four-hour charge from a standard electric socket, costing only 2 pence. While he admits it would possibly do about 30 mph, he also points out that the legal limit for it is 15 mph. With no tax, insurance or MOT required, it could be a perfect vehicle for an average local commute. Or it could be modified into a shop-mobility vehicle– one which needn't take up an entire pavement each pension day.
The Frinton Flyer is not much bigger than a bicycle, yet, nowhere near as heavy as say, a moped. New lithium-polymer batteries, have gone some way towards solving the old problem of the cumbersome batteries which once blighted electric vehicles. The battery on Mark's invention, in appearance is svelte– almost as chic as the bike itself. To paraphrase Clarkson, if this bike were a woman, I'd probably ask her out to lunch around the corner at Julio's, in Thorpe High Street. More is to come. Outside the inventor's workshop is a futuristic-looking blue chopper bike with extended forks. It looks like the type of thing that an off-duty Judge Dredd might use if he were trying to get in touch with his feminine side. Unbelievably, it's actually a cannibalised Lambretta scooter with a conventional petrol engine. Everyone loves it: “Except for old mods.” sighs Mark. “They absolutely hate it.” What staggers me, though, is the contoured beauty of its design. It belongs in a space comic or a sc-fi film. And if this particular vehicle were a woman, I'm afraid it would have to be at least a long romantic weekend on Alpha Centauri for us.
Inside one of the tidiest workshops I've ever seen, is another strange vehicle, a half built dragster-style car, its chassis currently flat to the floor. The car's suspension system is, apparently, what lifts it clear of the ground. The said suspension is powered by a strange-looking cylinder at its rear. “Came out of an old American B17 bomber.” says Mark. Before I can ask, he says, “I found it on E-Bay. The steering wheel is from an old Ford Model T. It's got 1925 chassis rails on the front – it's got lots of old parts.” he says. My companion, Hilary, who knows about such things, is highly-impressed by the quality of design on all of Mark's inventions. There are certain basic principles in design, she tells me, which lecturers have to spend time trying to drum into their young students.
Mark Singleton, ostensibly, a humble mechanic by trade, who has never even studied the subject, seems to be naturally good at design. His bread and butter money, though, comes from manufacturing parts for racing bikes. He'll also tell you that he's not very good at talking about himself– which is true. There is a slight nervous reticence to him, though, he becomes quite animated when he begins to discuss his inventions and their design. “I can see everything I make, before I make it.” Mark now begins to talk at some length about Einstein, rather a hero of his, and how the scientist scrawled the E = mc2 formula on a bit of paper, which he then reportedly, left lying around for others to find.
Now, when I consider the type of thing that we British are good at – not including drinking or having a fight – inventing things has to be up there in the top five. But look at how we either ignore or lampoon our inventors. The great Sir Clive Sinclair for instance, is mostly remembered because of his one disaster. Or what about the cavalcade of jittery people who feel forced to run the gauntlet of Dragon's Den, often, just to get finance? It's reassuring, therefore, to learn that a wild strain of native boffin is thriving in the Essex countryside. If Mark Singleton couldn't sell his stuff to wider public, and I hope he will do, I can think of one or two Hollywood film-makers who'd be interested. But he's an inventor, you see, one whose main drive is to invent things rather than market them. He ought to have a manager. He's an Einstein in need of an Epstein.
An Inventor, yesterday.
Back to Maldon – once the scene of my mispent youth – this time in middle years, to attend the Essex Book Festival. Our car grumbles up steep Market Hill as the yellow lights of its handsome old houses flicker on at twilight. The town still looks attractive and well-heeled. In fact it bears all the quiet contentedness of an old girfriend who married well.
And I got to thinking about that statue of Earl Byrthnoth– Saxon hero of the Battle of Maldon in 991. The erection of the monument in Promenade Park in October of 2006 caused a bit of a song and dance at the time. Some people thought that it ought to have been situated nearer to the actual site of the battle, just south of the town. Others thought it shouldn't be there at all, since Byrthnoth actually lost his fight with the Danes. From the townspeople themselves there were three hundred letters of objection and only seven in favour. The planning-officers at the time concluded that the statue should be put up. The council voted against it. Well, it's what councils do, isn't it? It's their job. In the end however, the Saxon warrior's ten-foot tall statue went up anyway and stands proudly near the water with its sword aloft, today.
A Battle at Maldon, recently.
Byrhtnoth though – the name has been spelt a variety of ways over the years – was a beautiful loser and exactly the kind of unlikely hero that we English love. He was improbably tall – estimated at about 6 feet 9 inches. We know this because his decapitated skeleton was discovered and measured at Ely in 1769. The silver-haired Ealdorman was also getting on a bit by the time the Danish army sailed up the River Blackwater – then called the Panta – during that late summer of 991. The Norsemen were estimated at 2,000 to 4,000 strong and outnumbered Byrthnoth's men, who were rather a Sunday-side by comparison – albeit a good one..
Imagine Maldon if you can, as a very different and much wilder sort of place with thick forest stretching inland beyond the marshes. There would have been ravens – perhaps even an eagle or two – circling overhead. Ravens haunted battlegrounds, since, once the fighting was over, they became the avian equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. When news of the marauding Danish army's approach filtered through to the locals, a force had to be hurriedly mustered. It was deeply inconvenient for all concerned as it was early August and harvesting would still have been underway. Under Saxon law though, a man had to be 'mootworthy, foldworthy and fyrdworthy'. This meant that as well as having to attend local courts, and prove himself an able herdsman, he was also expected to be part of the local militia – the 'fyrd'. Byrhtnoth's warriors therefore, would have been a mixed crew of ex-soldiers, retainers, farmers and just about anyone who could chuck a spear or wield a sword. The raiders though, were a formidable team of seasoned 'slaughter-wolves' – professionals who only existed to cause mayhem and to plunder weaker settlements. Back then, before we'd joined the E.C. there were only two ways of dealing with the difficult Danes. You either bought them off with silver and gold, the 'Danegeld' – which worked to an extent though was ruinously expensive – or in modern-day Essex parlance, you offered them out.
Byrhtnoth took the second option. The Danish forces initially found themselves stuck on nearby Northey Island with their only access to the mainland a narrow causeway, covered by the tide and barred by the Saxons. At first it only took Byrthnoth's three best fighters to hold off the Danes. But then, something rather silly happened. Historians are still debating why at low-tide, Byrhtnoth decided to let the Vikings across the causeway for a fair fight when he could probably have held them off indefinitely. Was it simply good cricket – a Saxon chivalry of sorts? Was it because the Earl thought that if he didn't tackle the matter now, the raids would have only have continued elsewhere? Or was Byrhtnoth just over-confident, up for the ruck and a little bit vanglorious? A thousand years on, the jury's still out. Either way it proved to be a disastrous decision. The raiders swarmed over the causeway and although the Saxons put up a heroic fight causing many Danish losses, Byrthnoth was killed, decapitated and the locals lost the day. A pyrrhic victory it may have been for the Vikings, but by the time the ravens finally got their running buffet, it was still worse for the Saxons. They eventually ended up with Canute, a Danish king and then, within a short few decades, William the Conqueror – a Frenchman with Viking blood in him. .
Which is why Maldon got its statue. It's in a great British tradition of celebrating our finest military disasters. From the Battle of Hastings and the Charge of the Light Brigade, through Dunkirk and the Blitz, right down – on a smaller personal level – to my grandad the Home Guard, dropping his rifle on my gran's foot, or my late father losing his Long Service and Good Conduct medal for being sick on the Colonel's boots. For these are the things that we remember and these are the things that make us great. The successful stuff, as a rule, we hardly ever talk about – let alone erect monuments to.
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be given a tour of Colchester's Roman wall, much if which still survives, by Philip Crummy, Colchester's top archaeologist. The following (for you history fans) was the resultant feature in The East Anglian Daily Times...
Colchester's Roman Wall's in trouble ‒ and not for the first time. Since its construction almost 2,000 years ago, various attackers have taken their toll on it. In addition, over the centuries, the Essex terrain being short of building stone, the townspeople have been borrowing bits of it for projects such as mending churches and underpinning their houses. During the Civil War Siege, Cromwell's Parliamentarian forces cannonaded it, and, having won the battle, tore parts of it down to make sure it couldn't be utilised in another siege. Our venerable old wall's biggest adversary, however, has been time itself. General Winter and Mother Nature have both played their parts in its decay and now, says Colchester's cash-strapped Borough Council, it needs over half a million pounds spending on it, in order to repair and maintain it. This may not seem much, compared with the costs of certain other ongoing local building projects but there's also a time imperative here. Someone's got to get cracking soon ‒ before the wall itself does.
I have known this wall for a large part of my life. I have dawdled by it. I have walked past it daily on my way to work. In my youth, in common with numberless other young gallants, probably, I have courted in its shadows. I have drunk pints of beer in its shade. I even lived right opposite a section of it for a couple of years. Yet, how much did I really know of it? Only that it was Roman and that the aggregate bodgery of centuries had roughly maintained what remains of it today. This was about the extent of my knowledge.
I thought that I ought to find out a bit more and so, decided to walk its entire perimeter. I then realised that I might need a guided tour. I telephoned Philip Crummy, who has been the Director of Colchester Archaelogical Trust since 1970, the year, coincidentally, in which both he and I first arrived in the town. I wanted to see if I could borrow one of his archaelogists to take me along the wall. It was pure cheek on my behalf, I suppose, but then I ventured that he himself might show me round. He was going away, he said, but if I could manage a Sunday morning, first thing, yes, he'd be willing to do it. It was a Jim'll Fix It moment. One random phone call and I'd got the Grand Vizier himself ‒ forty years on the case ‒ offering to show me around the Roman Wall. Best archaeology trousers on, then.
We met on the corner of East Hill and Priory Street, nearly opposite my former home. “I'll only stop talking if you ask me to.” he said ‒ and we were off. Philip did his valiant best, over the ensuing two hours, to crash-course me through the salient facts ‒ a sort of Roman Walls for Dummies
The wall was commenced in the AD 60s, shortly after Boudicca had burnt the cakes ‒ and everything else. The structure is 1.75 miles in length and is in the shape of a rectangle. Headgate and South Gate are to its south, with Duncan's Gate and North Gate to its north. Over its orginal circuit ‒ and this really surprised me ‒ some 90 percent of it still exists, albeit rather damaged. About 65 percent of the wall is still visible above ground. It was originally nine feet thick, built on footings four feet deep and reckoned to have been somewhere under twenty feet high. The wall which was crenellated, boasted a defensive ditch in front of it, had seven gates and at least twenty internal guard towers along its length. Its builders also confected a water resistant cement, by mixing bits of ground up-brick in with the mortar. This gave the resultant admixture a pink-tinge, which can still be seen in certain places along its span.
I should now like to pause and consider these Romans for a while. They were here for about 400 years and left a fair amount of stuff lying around. This is quite apart from the fact, which I once noted in an earlier account, that they wore dresses on their days off and all went to the bathroom together. My personal theory about their long-term success, however, was that, in modern business terms, they had a strong branding policy and a good product, which they were prepared to franchise out to the more trustworthy people whom they'd conquered.
You didn't even have to be a Roman to rise up through the ranks. If you could prove yourself of the right management material, you might be a Spaniard, a German, a Gaul, a Syrian or a North African and they'd probably give you a job and a bit of their empire to run.
The Emperor Claudius took a number of months travelling to Britain but he arrived in style. He also brought a team of elephants with him. This would have impressed the locals. Elephants in Colchester? Possibly. Philip Crummy allows me this. Hell, it would stop the traffic if it happened today, let alone in 43 AD. Charismatic as the Romans may have been, however, they let their guard down just at the wrong time and in AD 61 a recently-scourged and justifiably enraged Boudicca roared in and sacked the place.
Colchester, after all, was not just Britain's first Roman city, it was Britain's First City, period. You couldn't have sundry locals burning it down just because they were in a bad mood with you. After such a disaster, the Romans badly needed a Plan B. A strong defence structure was integral to that plan. They built a very good wall indeed, which is why so much of it still remains. The more obvious bits, which run down one side of Castle Park and all along Balkerne Hill, you may already have noticed. Thanks to Philip Crummy, though, I've seen some of the less obvious sections There's a small slice of it, for instance, next to a barber's shop at the bottom of North Hill. I must have passed it hundreds of times and never even noticed it. There's also a chunk hidden behind a metal gate in an alleyway opposite some my old East Hill home. Some of the south wall is behind shops in Crouch Street. Other parts of it nestle in underground gateways of the delivery bays and car-parks in St Johns and Vine Streets. A small section of it can be seen through an iron gate in the outdoor smoking area of a Vineyard Street club. It's mostly, all there. You just have to look for it.
As I mentioned earlier, the wall's been getting bodged and patched-up now for centuries. In one or two sections it's been done with neat little 17th century bricks. In other places the patching is rather less well-executed. More often than not, though, you'll find yourself looking at mediaeval facework built over the original Roman core. Where this has occurred you'll see 'putlog' holes, places where square scaffolding poles would once have been. There were also some effective, if not particularly attractive repairs done around the 1920s. They've preserved the wall fabric adequately, it's just that end result looks rather 'Heritage Anytown' The original Roman facework, where you can still observe it, is vastly more impressive, though. It consists of layers of red bricks in tiers of four, alternated with layers of Septaria. Septarian stone was what the Romans hauled off the beach at Walton on the Naze for their building purposes. It's thought that they then sailed it up the Stour to Mistley, which has a good deep quay, and then carted it overland on the old Roman road which once ran from Mistley to the Hythe. After that they would have dragged it up a then, rather-steeper East Hill before pressing it into service.
For the archaeologist, Philip Crummy, who probably knows more about this wall than many men know about their own families, the piece-de-resistance is the Balkerne Gate, with its surviving pedestrian archway and the remains of its guardhouse, which, he told me, was in later years used as a pigsty. It's all that now remains of the Emperor Claudius's triumphal archway. To have walked the entire length of Colchester's Roman wall on a quiet Sunday morning, was an experience. To have done it with such a distinguished talk-through made it an unforgettable one for me. The walk along the north wall, through Castle Park to Northgate Street, was especially so. Once upon a time, Philip said, the council had a work team available to conduct wall repairs as and when necessary. This made me think. They should resurrect old-fashioned guided tours. Volunteer guides. Parties of ten. Two a day. Five days a week. Two hours duration. Tenner a go. That would buy a bit of mortar, wouldn't it?