Inside Colchester’s long and fascinating history
PUBLISHED: 17:33 13 July 2020 | UPDATED: 17:33 13 July 2020
On a virtual journey through the county, Nicky Adams highlights the treasures of history that make Essex so unique, starting with the county town of Colchester
We used to call her Boadicea when I was at school, but as historians become ever cleverer at understanding the way our forebears used to live, they’ve got the hang of the way they spoke too (no mean feat in the days two millennia before voice recording).
However you pronounce it, the name of Boudicca (as we now know it should be pronounced) was on the lips of every Roman centurion in the area when she stormed into Camulodonum in AD 60 (or it might have been 61, the historians aren’t quite so sure about that) with her band of faithful Celts, dead-set on burning Britain’s first city to the ground.
For several days, Boudicca’s trademark red hair was not the only thing aflame in the settlement we call Colchester, as thousands of Roman foot soldiers and settlers had their toes burnt protecting their capital city.
This they did not manage to do: Boudicca was triumphant and much of the sophisticated Roman settlement of Camulodonum is now reduced to a layer of ash (known to archaeologists as the Boudican Layer) deep beneath the foundations of the mish-mash of buildings of this modern town.
Not all of it though. As anyone who has ever been to 21st century Colchester will know, the buildings of our forefathers were made of strong stuff (mainly stone and Roman brick rubble with a very large pinch of many poor unfortunates’ blood, sweat and tears) and they have more than stood the test of time, not to mention people leaning on them and quite possibly sitting and eating their chips on them.
And then there are those who haven’t been able to resist running a hand over the cool stone and feeling a connection to the Colcestrians who have gone before and who established the place where 112,000 of us now live.
Colchester Castle of course is the big picture on every postcard of views of ‘historic Colchester’, but the atmosphere is something that can’t be captured on camera.
If you’ve been inside, marvelled at the thickness of the walls of the Norman keep (the largest in Europe, built in the 1060s on the foundations of the original Roman Temple of Claudius), hidden in the window recesses and tried to comprehend the enormous age of the many artefacts that have been dug up from Colchester’s soil that are now neatly displayed inside, it’s a feeling you don’t forget.
All around Colchester, there is evidence of our historic predecessors that you don’t have to buy a ticket to see.
Remnants of originally bigger structures that were hugely impressive for their time – and in fact, any time – still stand firm around the town, alongside main roads and a pub (parts of the oldest and longest Roman wall in Britain and Balkerne Gate, the largest surviving Roman gateway in Britain), at the back of the station car park (St Botolph’s, England’s first Augustinian priory church, founded at the end of the 11th century), in the middle of residential housing (St Helen’s Chapel, built in honour of the town’s patron St Helena in the 12th century on foundations of the corner of the original Roman Theatre) and marked out on a field where people walk their dogs and play with their children (off the town’s Butt Road, the site of the only known Roman chariot racing circuit in the country, which is thought to have seated up to 8,000 spectators).
To live in Colchester is to live with history every day. Once the Romans had established Colchester as a place so important that Boudicca and her Iceni tribe felt the need to take it back from them, it continued to be a place of note.
In the Middle Ages (5th to the 15th centuries), the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans all kept Colchester on the map and the town got its royal charter in 1189.
In Tudor times, the town became famous as a lucrative hub for cloth and weaving, thanks to the skills of Flemish Protestants who took refuge in Elizabeth I’s post-Catholic England and the timbered buildings of Colchester’s Dutch Quarter, which were refurbished in the 1970s.
The scars of the English Civil War can still be seen on the faces of some of Colchester’s oldest relics – cannon dents in St Botolph’s, St Martin’s Church and the tower of St Mary at the Walls Church, and bullet holes at the landmark Siege House at the bottom of East Hill – as the people of Colchester became unwilling participants in the conflict’s final phase in 1648, when a section of the New Model Army laid siege to their town for 11 weeks, forcing them to live off Colchester’s rat population (so the story goes).
Having survived that crisis, just 20 years later half the town’s remaining inhabitants lost their lives when the Great Plague came knocking.
But Colchester showed its resilience and rose again. Georgian Colcestrians were wealthy enough to build smart mansions such as The Minories (now an art gallery) and Hollytrees (the lovely clock museum) and a grand Corn Exchange was constructed on the High Street in 1820 to embrace the agricultural boom-time, attracting even more wealth to the town.
It’s as a garrison town that Colchester is known around the world and since the mid-1800s troops have been stationed here, firstly in the austere Victorian Barracks, which have more recently been redeveloped into plush homes and apartments on Abbey Fields.
The town centre has some significant Victorian landmarks too – the famous Jumbo water tower that can be seen from far and wide dates from 1882, and the grand Town Hall on the High Street was built in 1902.
Complete with ornate stained glass and stone carvings depicting the people down the ages who have secured Colchester’s place in history, the Town Hall is still in use today and is an opulent reminder of the lively and characterful heritage of Britain’s first city.
No need to miss out
You can take a virtual tour of historic Colchester without leaving your sofa by downloading The Ancient Colchester App (available to download on iOS and Android), which was developed by Colchester & Ipswich Museums to take you on a heritage trail around Colchester Town Centre, bringing the historic sites to life.