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Jumbo the water tower, Colchester

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The first sight which greets anyone approaching Col- chester is a huge red-brick tower that dwarfs even the fine Edwardian town hall.

Walk towards the tower and it seems to fill the skyline. If you pop into a local shop and enquire about this monster, people simply murmur, "Oh, that's Jumbo". Ask for further details and they usually go blank. Here, it seems, is a building with a name, but nothing more. When you finally reach the top of the hill you can only marvel at its dimensions. The ancient Roman gate and wall standing nearby look puny by comparison.

So who or what is Jumbo? Sharp-eyed landscape detectives will come up with a number of clues. The first is the weather vane in the shape of an elephant. The second is Jumbo's height and the knowledge that Victorian water towers were always built on hills. The third clue is the existence of nearby St Mary's church which, like the Roman remains, appears to be child's play.

Put the clues together and you have a Victorian clergyman objecting to the construction of a gigantic water tower and likening it to the world's most famous elephant, Jumbo. Elementary.

The Colchester water tower was opened in September 1883, in order to service a burgeoning town which dates back to Roman times. More than one million bricks went to make up this 131ft-tall structure. The Rector of St Mary's was furious and called it "this tower, this monstrosity, this Jumbo".

Jumbo was the elephantine superstar of Victorian times. A massive African elephant, he lived happily at the zoo in Regent's Park with his companion who was called Alice. But in 1882 the directors of the zoo controversially sold Jumbo to the American showman PT Barnum for pounds 2,000 for exhibition in his internationally-famous circus.

Public opinion was outraged and popular songs were composed and sung in the streets. The most famous went like this:

"Jumbo said to Alice

'I love you'

Alice said to Jumbo

'I don't believe you do

For if you love me truly

As you say you do

You wouldn't go to America

And leave me in the zoo'."

The furore explains why even the other-worldly rector of St Mary's, Colchester, had heard of Jumbo.

By the 1980s, Anglian Water had no further need of the tower. It was taken over by an evangelical Christian group who wanted to be "closer to God". Financial problems now mean that it is up for offer and the listed building may well be turned into offices. A sad fate indeed.

But no sadder than what befell Jumbo the elephant. Like many other immigrants to America, he found the rapid pace of life a bit confusing. In 1885, upset by the lights and sound of a passing locomotive, Jumbo decided to register a complaint. He heroically charged the oncoming train and was no more.

And no one dared tell Alice what had happened.

Jumbo is on the top of Balkerne Hill, Colchester, Essex

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