3 ISSUES FOR JUST £3 Subscribe to Essex Life today click here

Cultural Colchester

PUBLISHED: 10:19 10 February 2015 | UPDATED: 10:19 10 February 2015




Colchester is most famously known as the oldest recorded town in England, but those local to it recognise it as a modern town too — a good place to shop, to eat and to enjoy yourself. Colchester is also thriving culturally with three museums, a visual arts centre, a performing arts centre, an art gallery and a very popular theatre. Petra Hornsby takes a look at what some of these venues have to offer

At the centre of town life in Colchester, just as it has been for centuries, is Colchester Castle. The castle (of Norman construction) was built on the foundations of the Temple of Claudius, which dates back to when the Romans occupied the town.

The museum which is housed within the castle presents the full timeline of the history of the castle with exhibits and interactive experiences which include building a Norman archway or excavating a Roman doctor’s grave and a fantastic sound and light show projection which depicts the recently discovered Roman Circus. There are many displays and collections of artefacts from around the world that cover more than 2,500 years 
of history. Throughout the year, the castle holds several family-friendly events and, for a small extra charge, tours can be taken down into the Roman vaults or onto the castle roof.

Overlooking the castle grounds is Hollytrees Museum, which houses an extensive collection of toys, costumes and examples of decorative arts spanning three centuries. The displays give a fascinating insight into childhood and domestic life from past eras. The building itself is a beautiful Georgian townhouse which was used as a private residence until 1929. Entrance to Hollytrees is free to the public.

Another free museum in close proximity to the castle is the Natural History Museum. With plenty of hands-on activities on offer, visitors can learn about wildlife habitats, how climate affects our bio-diversity, historic local natural events such as the Colchester earthquake in 1884 along with the surprising discovery that mammoths and hippos once roamed our county.

Both performing and visual arts are also of great importance to the town. 
In 2011, Colchester’s firstsite opened its new contemporary visual arts base to the public after years of anticipation. 
The building itself is iconic, a low level building that arcs around the existing D-shaped garden of East Hill House.

The structure is built from TECU gold, a malleable copper-aluminium alloy. Designed by the Hungarian architect Rafael Viñoly, its fully glazed front entrance reaches 11 metres in height and this, combined with the gold cladding, makes it an impressive sight.

The building has several dedicated spaces including galleries, an auditorium for film screenings and a University Space that displays research and exhibitions courtesy of the University of Essex. 
The aims of firstsite are to present contemporary and sometimes ambitious works to the public, supporting both established and fresh artistic talent, and to challenge people across the generations to review their perceptions of art.

The original home of firstsite, The Minories, sits close to its successor on Colchester’s East Hill and it remains a professional, contemporary art gallery which continues to serve the local art community and promote local, national and international artists. Another impressive Georgian building with plenty of character, the gallery is run by the Colchester School of Art. The walled garden café is also well worth a visit.

One of Colchester’s most important and successful cultural venues is The Mercury Theatre, built in the early 1970s and now regarded as, ‘the most active producing theatre in the East of England’.

Executive director Steve Mannix explains: ‘We have just broken all box office records for regional theatre for our panto, which shows that our community does have an appetite for live performance. As well as our panto, our programme offers something for everyone from ages five to 95.’

The theatre is a charity receiving some financial support from the Arts Council England, Essex County Council and the local borough council. The main criterion for receiving this funding is that The Mercury is a producing theatre. 
Every year, the theatre auditions for and produces a show in Colchester and then takes it on tour. This year, The Mercury acquired the first regional rights to Betty Blue Eyes and toured nationally with it for 26 weeks to much critical acclaim.

The Mercury’s programme features drama, dance, comedy, children’s theatre and music. The spacious and comfortable theatre and the studio theatre seats 580 people and there is a welcoming bar area. The team build their own sets and props and have a wardrobe department. 
It is an important employer in the town and offers apprenticeships via the Colchester Institute.

The Mercury Theatre is very much part of its community and in partnership with the other arts venues, including firstsite and the Colchester Arts Centre, works with people of all ages in a number of ways, but in particular with schoolchildren.

Steve continues: ‘We work with schools on a number of educational projects. 
For example, we have recently worked with students around the subject of World Aids Day, in partnership with the Terence Higgins Trust. Following our visit, schools will then come to us to perform their pieces.

‘We also work with new teachers, offering forums for primary and secondary staff members to advise them on how to work the arts into the curriculum. The Royal Shakespeare Company and Random Dance Company come in to support our workshops on how to teach Shakespeare and dance 
in schools.

‘Schools also come to us for our shows. During our panto run, we do two shows a week for younger children. For many, 
it is their first experience of going to the theatre and they certainly seem to enjoy it — they are definitely our loudest audience!’

The Mercury runs a variety of workshops throughout the year as well youth groups and clubs for older people, too. So what does this successful theatre have planned for the future?

‘We are busy fundraising to refurbish our studio, which we need for both performance and participation, but we also do need to develop the site due to the production of sets and our growing costume department. In short, we really need some more space to accommodate our growing needs.

‘Looking ahead in 2015, I am particularly excited by the production of Educating Rita, Avenue Q – an adult version of Sesame Street, the comedy farce Noises Off and the very entertaining Little Shop of Horrors,’ Steve concludes.

So, whatever your interest, from history to performance art, dance or fine art, there is much being offered by Colchester to enlighten and educate. The Romans would surely be impressed by how this town has developed and matured, yet retained its strong cultural identity.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Essex Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Essex Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Essex Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

Yesterday, 12:56

This walk from the town of Bures on the Essex and Suffolk border leads you through the Essex countryside to the little villages of Alphamstone and Lamarsh | Words and photos: Laurie Page Public Rights of Way Team at Essex County Council

Read more
Yesterday, 11:43

A popular Southend escape game venue has launched a new room inspired by the town’s seafaring past

Read more
Thursday, September 20, 2018

The history and heritage of our county’s historic homes is not only contained within their walls but it also stretches out into the land surrounding it. We’ve found 11 great walks that allow you to experience that history first hand

Read more
Thursday, September 6, 2018

Your favourite county magazine, Essex Life, has joined forces with Channels Estate near Chelmsford for another Strike it Red event — an Autumn Splendour Supper and Fashion Show on Thursday, September 20

Read more
Tuesday, September 4, 2018

If you have never been to a ploughing match, this month is a great time to put that right as the The Ongar Ploughing Match marks its 100th event. Ralph Metson explains more

Read more
Tuesday, September 4, 2018

New research by TotallyMoney suggests Essex is one of the best counties for London commuter hotspots. Based on average house price, length of commute by train and the cost of an annual train ticket these are the best commuter towns in Essex

Read more
Sunday, August 26, 2018

Essex is home to some of the most stunning vistas in the UK. From the estuary of River Thames to the North Sea coastline, the county’s scenery is a diverse patchwork of stunning sea views, ancient architecture and vibrant gardens. We pick 9 of our favourites

Read more
Thursday, August 16, 2018

Words and photos: Laurie Page Public Rights of Way Team at Essex County Council

Read more
Thursday, August 16, 2018

Spend Halloween hunting down ghouls and ghosts in the county’s most haunted places and spaces. We pick 10 absolutely terrifying locations to visit this October.

Read more
Thursday, August 16, 2018

No one knows Essex better than the people of Essex; we asked where the prettiest places to live were, and you let us know. So, without further ado, here are the prettiest places, suggested by you

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Follow us on Twitter

Like us on Facebook

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory

Job search in your local area

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search