Take a walk through Colchester’s fascinating history
PUBLISHED: 11:50 16 January 2018 | UPDATED: 11:50 16 January 2018
Elizabeth Lee Reynolds takes a journey through Colchester’s past and explores how landmarks of today are demarcations of some of our country’s most famous moments in history
The first glimpse many visitors to Colchester get of the Roman walls is a mismatch of bricks from different eras, overlooked by peeling billboard signs for fast food. Built around this south-facing piece of the walls is a concrete car park and the top is fortified with an array of national shopping chains over which streams of town-goers wander to and fro, few considering the historic foundations laid into the brick they walk on.
Colchester is proud to call itself the oldest town in Britain. It stood as the capital of Roman Britain for at least a decade before being destroyed by Boudicca in 61AD and also served as a seat of power for the ancient Britons, now known as the Celts, as early as 20BC.
Although her rebellion was eventually defeated, Boudicca’s legacy was firmly built into the history of Colchester with the erection of the Roman walls to protect against similar raids in the future. Staggeringly, today much of the original structure, which once covered almost 3km, still stands.
Following the walls takes you on a simple circular track around the outskirts of the town centre. The council occasionally runs guided walks, but it’s easy enough to lead your own, either by following the well-maintained information boards erected by the dedicated Friends of Colchester Roman Wall, or with a helpful leaflet which are readily available.
I started the walk at Balkerne Gate on the east side of town, next to the Mercury Theatre and Jumbo Water Tower, an impressive Victorian structure which is regularly called home by a pair of breeding peregrine falcons who can often be spotted stooping for passing pigeons. Balkerne Gate is the only Roman gateway into the town still, partially, standing and although it was once a grand Triumphal Arch, today only a few feet of curved brickwork and a small open chamber remain.
Following the wall around northwards it began to tower several feet above my head and engulfed most of my view, leading on into the distance, unbroken, although this is not the case throughout. Soon new roads broke up the ancient stones and I found myself walking down streets lined with genteel terraced houses and eventually at the gates of Castle Park, where the wall reappears.
Through the dark green moss, the distinct layers of the structure became clearer, with uniform layers of red brick in between the more chaotic grey stone.
As the path around me became busier, it was evident that the wall is still important for people in Colchester. Two young kids were scaling the stones defiantly, ignoring (or perhaps because of) the sign beside them saying this was not allowed.
They had jumped or slid down – there was some debate over this – by the time I reached them. The girl could see I was interested in the walls and started to ask her dad questions before excitedly claiming that someone had apparently moved the castle, and occasionally dropping me discreet glances to check if I was listening to her.
The Norman keep, the centrepiece of the park and whose towers we could just about make out in the distance, had never been moved. It was, in fact, built on the podiums left from the Roman Temple of Claudius, but it was reassuring to see a little girl being so enthusiastic about her town’s heritage, much of which is encapsulated in the walls and their surroundings.
To the south-east corner, for instance, are the remains of St Botolph’s Priory, the first Augustinian monastery in England. It was built in around 1102 with the repurposed materials from the Roman remains, the scant local resources for building forcing a kind of co-operation between distant eras.
The defensive uses of the walls have rarely been overlooked, leading to their relatively well-maintained condition. Edward the Elder repaired them to keep back the Danes in the 10th century and a few hundred years later they came in handy for Henry II to defend against his own son. During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 the walls were strengthened with the addition of a number of bastions, some of which remain intact, just one piece of the varied history of the town which can still be seen today.
This constant refortification through the centuries was thoroughly appreciated by the Royalists who tried to defend the town during the English Civil War and, a few hundred yards from the Priory, a large chunk of the wall has been replaced with newer brickwork after the Parliamentarians besieged the town.
Memories from this turbulent era in British history can be traced and touched near St James’ Church, where bullet holes are riddled across the wall and layers of different brickwork tell of destruction and reconstruction. There is even history from before the Romans to be found a short walk from the Colchester Arts Centre and across the road from a Chinese buffet restaurant, where the spiralled forms of fossilised creatures peek from the stones.
This history, however, can be quickly forgotten when venturing into the streets to the south of the town, which run parallel to the wall’s original path. After walking on the outskirts for so long when I was plunged back into an undeniably modern and urban environment, the contrast was stark.
Similar experiences can be had throughout this varied town. You walk down one street to see tired-looking shop fronts and unsightly graffiti, but turn a corner to find hip cafes and a historical building repurposed into a bustling local pub.
By walking the Roman walls I got a taste for every piece which makes up this important Essex town – sifting through its past and present, reading the layers in stone and making me hungry to uncover more.