How well do you know Colchester?
PUBLISHED: 11:00 15 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:00 15 May 2017
All too often, our visits around our county only scratch the surface of what there is to be discovered. Essex Life editor Julian Read resolved to dig a little deeper in Colchester
How well do you know the county of Essex? All too easily, the places that we see every day, whether on our way to work or as we travel through the local countryside, can be the places that we actually explore the least.
Essex is one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations and home to some of our country’s most celebrated and treasured national landmarks, but do the people of Essex take them for granted?
Take Colchester for example. While many of us may be able to reel off the fact that it is the oldest recorded town in Britain and point in the general direction of the castle as we bustle through for a business meeting or a shopping trip, how many of us really know the remarkable history and heritage of this ancient landscape? Maybe it is time for us to take a fresh look at our county and really get to know what treasures we have on our doorstep. With this in mind, I got together with Katharine Sheppard from VisitColchester to put together a two-day trip around Colchester and the surrounding area, to show just what this part of the county can offer visitors from both near and far.
Walk the Walk
After parking up in Colchester, it was around £6 for the whole day at the Priory Street Car Park, I met Claire Partner at Hollytrees Museum, which also acts as Colchester’s Visitor Information Centre. Claire took me on the fascinating Colchester to Camulodunum walking tour, which is the perfect way to take in the real essence of Colchester and pick up on some of the history that can so easily be missed. The tour takes you through Castle Park, the Dutch Quarter and the High Street – only minutes away from each other, but each with a very different story to tell.
Even after being editor of Essex Life magazine for nearly 10 years, there was still much to learn. For example, why has St Helena given the Borough of Colchester its famous symbol of a cross and three crowns? What really enraged Boudicea so much that she gathered together an army to attack the Romans in Colchester? And why does a sycamore tree still grow from the roof of Colchester Castle? I won’t spoil the surprise, so for the answers to these questions, and many more, book yourself on the tour.
Find out More
You can book a walking tour through Visit Colchester, email email@example.com, visit www.visitcolchester.com or call 01206 282920. Tours cost £4.30 and public tours run all year on Saturdays, with additional tours in July and August. If you’d like to explore Colchester’s unique historical sights at your own pace, the free Ancient Colchester App is available for download onto both Apple and Android devices. It takes you on an interactive journey through the town’s past with a walking trail, augmented reality, 360 degree panoramic reconstructions and a fun-based camera feature. Find details at https://cimuseums.org.uk/visit/venues/ancient-colchester-app/
A Spot of Lunch
Just over the road from Hollytrees Museum is The Batte Lay Tea Rooms and the Minories art gallery – perfect for a spot of lunch. The Batte Lay Tea Rooms are run by the world famous local preserve makers Wilkin & Sons, so expect the very best Tiptree Jams, the most sensational afternoon teas and a delicious selection of lunches and light bites. And don’t miss the chance to enjoy the art on display at the Minories art gallery, which is in the same building.
Find out more
The Batte Lay Tea Rooms are open from 9.30am to 5pm during the summer. Visit www.trooms.com for details.
More to explore
From The Batte Lay Tea Rooms you are perfectly placed to continue exploring Colchester. If the art of the Minories art gallery has inspired you, you might want to head for Firstsite. Built in 1994, this fabulous building is now a thriving art gallery and cultural centre in the heart of Colchester. Entry is free to the gallery and once inside you will find a range of exhibitions from both local and internationally-renowned artists, plus arts events and activities, learning workshops and a wide range of films, plus live opera and ballet performances screened in the state-of-the-art Auditorium.
Or, stay on the history trail and head inside Colchester Castle. Colchester Castle is the largest Norman Keep in Europe. It is built on the foundations of the Temple of Claudius, and the temple itself was built when Colchester was the first Roman capital of Britain. Today, a guided tour around the Castle Museum allows visitors to explore these fascinating layers of history, including everything from the vaults running underneath the castle to the rooftop turrets which have their own stories to tell.
And if your afternoon allows, there is always the chance for a spot of retail therapy. Colchester has a sparkling mix of stores which really do offer something for everyone. A stroll along the High Street through Red Lion Walk, then Trinity Street and Culver Square will incorporate everything from Primark to Superdry, plus a surprising choice of independent retailers and plenty of charming coffee shops for refreshments along the way.
But make sure you leave time to visit Fenwick Colchester on to the High Street. This jewel of Colchester’s High Street has recently undergone a multi-million pound refurbishment to offer the very best shopping experience, and many of the top brands.
Find out more
Guided tours at Colchester Castle are priced £3 per adult and £1.50 per child. Book your tour in advance as this is the only way to gain access to the castle vaults. Visit https://cimuseums.org.uk/visit/venues/colchester-castle or call 01206 282939.
Dinner is served
So, you have just picked up a dazzling new dress at Fenwick Colchester… now, where to wear it. The answer, GreyFriars. GreyFriars is an exquisite, Michelin recommended, luxury hotel with a superb restaurant and lounge bars, which opened in 2015. I was fortunate to be able to meet up with my wife here for cocktails in one of the charming snugs, which instantly melt away the tensions of the day. This was followed by a sumptuous early dinner in the fabulous restaurant. Situated at the top of East Hill, at the eastern end of Colchester’s High Street, GreyFriars is perfectly located to help you explore the town or, as was the case for us, if you are heading to the theatre.
Find out more
Visit www.greyfriarscolchester.co.uk/about/location or call 01206 575913 for more details on this luxury hotel and fine dining restaurant.
A Night With the Stars
The Mercury Theatre is a quite staggering hub of creativity. It is the most active producing theatre in East Anglia and is a vital centre of excellence in the east’s growing creative economy. On the night of our stay in Colchester we were treated to the excellent production of Bang Bang, adapted by John Cleese. This certainly was a show not to be missed, but, since you’ve missed it, there is still the chance to catch a number of great performances.
In May alone there is the chance to catch Spamalot on tour and also Arthur Miller’s highly-acclaimed The Crucible. The theatre is just a five minute walk from Colchester town centre, just head for Jumbo.
Find out more
or call 01206 573948.
Time to Rest Up
Of course, from the theatre, we could have headed back to GreyFriars for the night, but why experience just one luxury hotel when you can enjoy two. Just a ten minute taxi ride from the town centre is Wivenhoe House Hotel. This four-star hotel is surrounded by glorious parkland, combining the romance and charm of an 18th century Grade II listed house with all the comforts of contemporary living.
It is also the home of the pioneering Edge Hotel School, where dedicated undergraduates work towards a respected degree in hotel management with the University of Essex while working in a commercially-run luxury hotel. The service really is first class, and with rooms starting from just £79 plus a fabulous menu to enjoy in the restaurant, a stay here would be a highlight of any trip.
Find out more
Visit www.wivenhoehouse.co.uk or call 01206 863666.
Morning has Broken
Day two of our Colchester tour began with a short drive from Wivenhoe to Elmstead Market, home of the Beth Chatto Gardens. The gardens were created by award-winning gardener, author and lecturer Beth Chatto, who won 10 gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show in 10 consecutive years.
Now, they are an inspiration to gardeners and garden lovers, welcoming visitors from all over the world, and there is also a renowned nursery which stocks more than 2,000 varieties of plants, many propagated from plants in the gardens. Entrance to the nursery, tea room and the gravel garden, made famous by Beth Chatto, is free, while there is a small charge for adults wishing to explore the wider gardens and lake.
Find out more
Visit www.bethchatto.co.uk or call 01206 822007.
From one character inspired by nature, to another. A few miles from Elmstead Market you will find Dedham, the boyhood playground of one of the world’s most famous landscape artists, John Constable. This small town has a charming appeal that is easy to enjoy at any time, but to make the most of your visit and learn more of its history, a town tour should not be missed.
I have visited Dedham on many occasions, but it was the guided tour that revealed to me the historic connection between John Constable and Winston Churchill. I also knew about Dedham’s connection with both John Constable and Sir Alfred Munnings, but not about the third famous artist linked to the town. Similarly, the reason that the tale of the American Sherman tank can be traced all the way back to Dedham was news to me too. There really is always something new to learn.
Find out more
Guided tours of Dedham take place throughout the summer. Tickets cost adults £4.30 for adults and children (five to 15) are £3.10. For details see www.visitessex.com
The Late Lunch
After two packed days of delights in and around Colchester, the cosy lounge at Milsoms, just a two-minute drive from the centre of Dedham, was a welcome break. Milsoms has a fantastic reputation for excellent service and stunning food, all served in a relaxed but elegant setting.
You can’t book, but that is part of the charm here and the restaurant is open all day, so there is no need to rush. This is a restaurant which makes you feel that you are visiting a friend’s for dinner, just a friend who is very talented in the kitchen. Food includes duck tacos, a meze board to share, lamb shanks, superb steaks from the local Dedham Vale, salads, open sandwiches or delicious burgers. It really was a perfect end to a fabulous two days.
Find out more
Visit www.milsomhotels.com/milsoms or call 01206 322795. Milsoms is open from noon to 9.30pm, 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
Now it’s your turn
Is it time you gave Colchester a second look? If you do visit, why not join in an interactive game of I Spy? Simply look out for content on social media to showcase all the wonderful sights and experiences available in Colchester and throughout the borough, ranging from its heritage and arts through to its modern and contemporary offerings. You’ll also find out some of the less well known and quirky facts about Colchester and its local characters, as well as focusing on the many places to stay, eateries and businesses available to visitors. To join in, just get out and about in Colchester with phones, cameras and tablets and join in the game by uploading your photos, videos and posts about your favourite sights and experiences in Colchester to social media using the hashtag #ispycolchester.
There is also a new Instagram competition, I Spy Seven Wonders, running until the end of June where VisitColchester is inviting residents and tourists to share their favourite ‘Seven Wonders of Colchester’ in return for the chance to win luxury prizes.
To enter, simply snap or upload an existing image to Instagram ensuring it fits into one of the Seven Wonders categories and tag @VisitColchester along with the hashtag #ispycolchester7. Entrants must also like VisitColchester’s Instagram page to be entered into the prize draw.