Colchester: what keeps people coming to England’s oldest recorded town?
PUBLISHED: 13:00 10 October 2017 | UPDATED: 13:00 10 October 2017
If the Roman walls of Colchester could talk, what tales they’d tell. Petra Hornsby reveals what secrets there are to discover and what draws people to the oldest recorded town in England
Essex is a county rich in attractions to entice visitors. From castles to keeps, valleys and viaducts, Roman remains and rambling nature reserves – it seems the list is endless.
One of the undoubted highlights is Colchester, which has its own special timeline that stretches back some 2,000 years and numerous excavations and historic discoveries have helped piece together an historical picture of early dwellers from the Neolithic and Bronze ages through to the Roman, Saxon and Norman occupants of the town.
The Romans invaded Britain in 43AD and built a temple in Colchester which later became the site of the town’s famous Norman castle, built by William the Conqueror after the Normans invaded in 1066. The Normans established a garrison in the town and Colchester remains a military town with regiments serving in all major conflicts from the Crimean War through to taking tours in Afghanistan.
Along the northern edge of Castle Park runs a section of solid wall built by the Romans following an attack carried out by Boudica and her tribe, the Iceni. The original wall was six metres high and measured at least 2,800 metres long. It remains visible in many parts of the town, especially in Vineyard Street, Priory Street and Balkerne Gate.
The Romans also left the remains of the only known Roman Circus in Britain, uncovered in 2005 during the redevelopment of the Victorian army barracks. The Roman Circus Centre, overseen by the Colchester Archaeological Trust, offers a fascinating insight into sport and entertainment from a very different age.
The Siege of Colchester took place during the English Civil War. Colchester became a key battleground and Royalist and Parliamentary forces engaged in combat in the Maldon Road area on June 13, 1648, which ended with the Royalists moving back behind the town walls where they remained until August 28. The Royalists capitulated when they learned that their main army had been defeated at the Battle of Preston.
Colchester Castle and its museum is a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about the town’s past, with many artefacts being exhibited and interactive displays for everyone to enjoy.
Katharine Sheppard, representing the tourism office for Colchester Borough Council, is keen to encourage people to use their imagination when walking around the streets of Colchester and take part in a social media campaign at the same time.
Katharine comments: ‘We want people to imagine what secrets the walls around the town could reveal: accounts of battles, conspiracies being plotted or just the daily lives of people from a different age and what could be learned.
‘It could also be a location from modern day Colchester – as a town we are growing and prospering, and this should be celebrated too. We would love selfies to be taken against a favourite wall or significant location and then posted on our Instagram account for Visit Colchester.
‘The campaign will run throughout summer and the chosen winner will win an afternoon tea at Tiptree Tearooms, tickets to Peter Pan at the Mercury Theatre and a guided tour of the town’s famous walls.’
Colchester offers a great deal and a visit to the Firstsite, the town’s contemporary art gallery, is a tantalising glimpse of the modern vibrancy that is as much part of Colchester today as is its rich history. Walk from the High Street down through the charming Dutch Quarter, with its quirky, characterful houses that date back to the 1500s, and then stroll through the family-friendly Castle Park, with award-winning floral displays, a large children’s play area, boating lake and a pleasant riverside ramble for spotting birds, wildfowl and even the occasional otter.
Katharine also explains what a good base the town is for visiting nearby places of interest. ‘Dedham, in the heart of Constable Country, is a perfect choice for walks or hiring a rowing boat along the Stour,’ says Katherine.
‘It also has a stunning church, an arts and crafts centre and the former home of artist Sir Alfred Munnings, which is now a museum dedicated to his life and works. Mersea has fabulous beaches and excellent, freshly-caught fish is always available. Copford Church deserves a visit for its medieval angel wall paintings, while the Tiptree Tearooms and Visitor Centre, Chappel Viaduct and Layer Marney Tower are just some of the other great places for visitors to take in during their stay.’
Another rather creative and unique way to explore Colchester was devised by internationally-renowned street artist Joshua Sofaer, in the form of a treasure hunt – of sorts. Funded with a grant from Colchester Borough Council and presented by Colchester Arts Centre as part of the annual Roman River Festival, Street Hunt, in Joshua’s words, was a project to ‘encourage people to explore the town by really paying attention, spotting the previously unnoticed’.
Launched on September 16 at the Red Lion bookshop in the High Street and with a potential prize fund of £10,000, challengers used Joshua’s book and its contents as a reference to guess at various locations around the town. Joshua has written a poem using street names and in the book has published photos of street signs in various parts of the town, but with the names removed.
Joshua continues: ‘It seems especially appropriate to hold Street Hunt in Colchester, Britain’s oldest town. The challenge is a kind of visual crossword puzzle, a treasure hunt where the riches are road names and a story emerges from the page.’
The competition also aimed to raise awareness of those who are homeless in the town by working with Beacon House, the charity that helps those living on the streets, by presenting a programme of events including street tours, a photography exhibition and street cinema.
Find out more
For more information on Colchester and surrounding tourist attractions, forthcoming events and competitions, see www.visitcolchester.com