Saturday, 10 March 2007

Out and About in Colchester

I am just back from Colchester. Not the obvious destination for a trip on a sunny Saturday afternoon in early spring, one might think. And one might very well be right; however, master Slightly, in his increasingly worrying mania for all things cycling (he and his man apparently plan on dedicated a room in their future home to their bikes! And, yes, I know, I intend to have a room for my books (a library or bibliotheque, I think they are called), so why not one for bikes (a cyclotheque?)...), has bought himself a bike off ebay (for a fraction of its value) and I had been invited to tag along with him as he was collecting it: in Colchester.

the new bikeIn Slightly's defense I must add however that it is not any old bike. This is an early 1960's racing team bike. That alone would probably make it quite special. What is even more of interest is that this particular bike (and its wheels) was handmade by Barry Witcomb, in Deptford. Witcomb Cycles, who have been going since 1949, are one of the last traditional independent frame builders in the country and are renowned in the cycling world for the quality of their products. What makes me (otherwise an ignorant in respect to cycling) so knowledgeable about this particular company is that Witcomb will be hand-making (and buy that I don't mean, like others, "assembling ready-made parts" but really, actually "building") the bikes Slightly and myself are going to be selling in our new commercial venture (soon to be properly launched) LIVE.PLAY.RIDE..

As you may be able to make out on the grainy, cameraphone, through-the-windscreen picture of the exchange, above, the bike is painted pink. Sorry: "Witcomb Lilac"...


This is, as far as we are aware, the only known example of the colour specially created for the Witcomb team, which will be invaluable when we start working on a merchandising range for Witcomb, later this year.

Slightly, who is all excited, tells me that the bike and its accessories are completely original and that only a few things which undergo normal wear and tear need to be replaced. From what the seller told him, the bike was rescued by him from a skip where it had been through after the death of its aging owner. The seller, who is apparently an amateur cyclist recognised the quality of the bike when lifting it (it is incredibly light!), even though he did not know about the Witcomb brand. He asked whether he could have the bike and was told that it had been hanging in its last owner's living room. Was that as a trophee of this man's past glory, him being a member of the team? We don't know but this was a luck rescue. It should be interesting to be a mouse, next week, when Barry Witcomb, the maker, is reunited with his creation.

The OuthouseAs we were in the area, and to take full benefit of all the carbon dioxide generated by the 3 hours return trip, we had decided to look up JG, a friend of ours, non-singing member of the Chorus, who lives in their. JG is also the editor of The Journal, the Colchester Gay Switchboard's newsletter. Since he was going to the theatre that afternoon, rather than meeting at his place, we had decided to meet at the Outhouse (picture). This is the home of the switchboard and also works as a gay and lesbian center for the area. When we got there, we found a dozen gay men comfortably seated on sofas, happily chatting away in a welcoming, well provided and accessible space. Something that not even London can boast!

JG gave us a cup of tea and a quick tour of the place: the lounge and kitchen area, the library and the small office. We then left to go and get lunch at the cafe of Firstsite, Colchester's contemporary art gallery. This is currently house in an building but a multimillion pound new gallery is being built at the back of the one (see website for "pictures"). This is apparently proving a little controversial in the area due to its cost.

On the way, JG explained to us that when he first moved to Colchester, the Outhouse was much more busy then it is now. We agreed that this was probably due to the greater visibility and acceptance that the LGBT community is currently enjoying. Places like this, however, still play a very important role, as JG reminded us when telling us of some new comer to the town who after having met him at the Outhouse, had one evening rung JG for help in quite a desparate state of mind. JG was able to help.

I could not help thinking of London at the point and the fact that while there used to be in the 1980's a Gay and Lesbian Center (in the Farringdon area), the city has currently no facilities of the sort. We often think that, as gay people, we are at the end of the tunnel in London, but I was told, only last wednesday how a Chorus member had been beaten up twice in a bus for no other reason than having his arm around his friend's shoulders. I have heard of several other such incidents in the past few years and, of course, there has been two deaths too. A Center could probably not help prevent such attacks but it could certainly help the myriad newcomers to the city and also the members of ethnic minorities who can hope for very little support in their own environments.

JG also has a passion for the Theatre and its history; after lunch he took us for a whistle tour of some of Colchester's theatres. One has been converted into a spectacular pub by Wetherspoon (who are the biggest theatres owners in the country, despite not putting on any shows) while the other is apparently currently a club. We also saw the high street, the lanes with their market stalls, the Town Hall, some lovely old houses (lots of which are painted either pink, blue or yellow, for some regional idiosyncrasy I am not fully au fait with) and, of course, the 12th century castle.

Soon, it was time, for JG to leave us to go and see his show and after a little more exploring, we got back in the car and drove back to our beloved London; Slightly quite impatient to play with his new toy.

As we were almost at Slightly's place, I spotted Graham Norton. He was, with his dog (which I had already seen, with it's hunky walker at the Royal Albert Hall, in June) in the back seat, in deepest Deptford (he lives there apparently), in his black Lexus coupé (no idea which one), stopped on the side of the road talking in his phone. The possibly fitting conclusion to a fairly gay day in England.

More pictures of my visit here.

This post also appeared in a slightly edited version in the spring issue of The Journal, the newsletter of the Colchester Gay Switchboard. The cover of the same edition featured a picture taken by myself at the LSE when representatives of the Switchboard presented the Hall Carpenter archives with a set of copies of The Journal.

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