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.