The Only Way Is Colchester

Essex is not a place that one would immediately associate with the archaeology of the ancient world. Its proximity to London and its Victorian seaside resorts have dramatically altered the features of the region over the last century: leaving behind a somewhat tarnished image, and a fairly reliable rail network. From London Liverpool Street you have the whole of East Anglia at your toes, and, if you’re brave enough to face the tsunami of commuters, you can get a fast train to any of the larger towns, resting in relative comfort as you travel. The journey takes around 45 minutes, and it is rather pleasant to see the city’s eastern suburbs peter out and become wheat fields and pasture. I arrive at Colchester North station early, I could switch trains, and take a direct route into the town, but I decided to step off here and walk in order to catch some of the best views the town has to offer.


Colchester is situated in North-East Essex, just below the Suffolk border, and is surrounded by ‘Constable Country’ famous for the beauty which inspired the artist John Constable, amongst others. Art is still an important aspect of the town, and there are scattered art cafés and galleries including the newly opened ‘Firstsite’. As I head out of the station and toward the town centre, I can see the perfect synchrony of art and history in the sand-cast aluminium statue ‘Boudica’ by the British sculptor Jonathan Clarke; she stands proudly on the middle of the roundabout, just before ASDA. It’s an odd juxtaposition, not least of all because the statue celebrates the woman who massacred the town’s inhabitants.

Pliny the Elder, one of the victims of Vesuvius which erupted in AD79, makes reference to Colchester in AD77; when describing the island of Anglesey, he explained that ‘it is about 200 miles from Camulodunum, a town in Britain'. Camulodunum being the pre-Roman name for Colchester. This is the first known reference to any named settlement in this country. Although it would have been established long before, and would certainly not be the oldest settlement in the country, it is the first written record we have of a town on this island, and thus it is the reason behind Colchester’s claim to the title of ‘oldest recorded town’.

Camulodunum was an Iron Age tribal centre, home to Cunobelin's (often referred to as the King of the Britons) royal seat, and the focus of the Emperor Claudius’ successful invasion of AD 43. Just five years later, the Roman military garrison was replaced by a civilian settlement which became the first capital of the new Roman province of Britannia. The city was inhabited, mainly, by retired soldiers and their families and although there is evidence that many of the military buildings remained part of this new city, there was also extensive building work, including the largest known classical temple in Britain; the temple of Claudius. It was here, during the rebellion of AD 60-1 that the inhabitants of the town huddled together hoping for safety, but were destroyed along with the building.

Rome learnt its lesson from Boudica, and after her defeat, the town was rebuilt, this time with a large defensive wall, which is now a scheduled ancient monument, and can still be seen in places around the town. I turn off the main road, past a row of timber framed cottages and make my way along the River Colne, which the Saxons may have used to give Colchester it’s modern name; meaning ‘fortress on the Colne’, I cross over the bridge and arrive at the vast Victorian park.

It is in the lower end of this park that events such as the oyster fayre, with local oysters from nearby Mersea, are hosted. Alas, today it is quiet, but this means that I can freely wander through the park and take a good look at the remains of the wall. Some estimates have the original wall at a height of six metres, and many sections are still too high to see over. The Roman tile can still be clearly seen running in causes along the wall, and it is amazing to think that it has been defending this town, with only a few medieval additions, for over two thousand years. There is still an annual parade by the Town Watch and the Lord Mayor, they can be seen in full regalia parading around the full extent of the wall on the vigil of St. John the Baptist (around the 23rd of June), or if you’re after something more informative there are regular tours of the wall.

The park is also home to at least two 2nd century Roman houses uncovered in the 1920’s, their outlines and an information panel can be seen near the Victorian bandstand in the middle of the park. But you cannot visit Colchester without going to see the great feature that gave Castle Park its name, and that is of course the vast Norman castle. Built on the large foundations of the temple of Claudius, just 10 years after the conquest, before even the tower of London was started, Colchester castle is not just the earliest Norman castle, but also the largest keep they built in Britain, and the largest surviving in Europe.  

It was built using scattered and abandoned roman material, and it is the combination of classical material, and Norman architecture that led the Victorians to believe that this was in fact a Roman castle. Their attempts to ‘restore’ the building have left it with a rather unique appearance; what should be the grey stone turrets familiar with Norman defensive architecture, have been replaced with a Victorian attempt at a Roman tiled roof, giving the castle a rather Mediterranean look.

The castle now houses the town’s main museum, and its exhibits tell the story of the town from the Stone Age to the end of the civil war. There also tours into the Roman foundations, where, it is said, the screams of Boudica’s victims can still be heard, at the dead of night.

Not being in the mood for a ghost hunt, I decide to take a wander through the cobbled streets of the Dutch Quarter, so called due to the influx of Dutch Protestants in the Elizabethan period. Many of their timber framed houses remain, and even on a busy weekend the streets are peaceful and still, with most people sticking to the High Street, and the main shopping district, which is just a stones throw away. Hidden down one of the many streets of this little time capsule, is a roman theatre, large enough to seat up to 3,000 spectators. Although only a short section of wall is on display, it is another reminder of Rome’s influence, and the status of the ancient Camulodunum.

Skirting around the busy town centre, past the timber framed post office, The Georgian corn exchange, and Nandos, I head over to the Mercury theatre, named after the beautiful bronze statue of Mercury discovered in a local field and kept in a barn for several years, before it was discovered to a be roman bronze, and moved to the castle museum. It is not this modern theatre that I am after, or the Victorian water tower, which itself is protected by English Heritage, but the Roman Archway now known as Balkerne Gate.

Balkerne Gate was at one time the main entrance to the city, and would have been home to a great triumphal arch. However it eventually went out of use, and was blocked up, as a result it was only discovered a century ago, and has survived to become Britain’s most complete Roman Archway, even the guardroom survives. It is quite an experience to be able walk under the same roof as the Roman citizens of so long ago, and to be able to do so in this country is a very rare treat. Especially as this Roman archway happens to be right next to ‘The hole in the Wall’ Pub, which sells traditional mead (by the wine glass rather than the tankard), a secret indulgence of mine.

 As the day wears on, the morning shoppers thin out, and the centre of town is once again free to be wandered through. I stop for a coffee at the newly opened CO1 café, based in Holy Trinity Church whose tower dates back to Saxon times; it’s a great opportunity to see inside a 1,000 year old building which has been closed to the public for years.

My last stop of the day, St Botolph’s priory, is slightly off the beaten track; down a back alley, where there is the opportunity to see more of the Roman wall, this time with the added fortifications from the medieval period. Opposite the Roman wall, lies a graveyard, within which is the ruin of the first Augustinian house in England, dating back to 1100. It is an impressive example of early Norman architecture, including archways and massive circular pillars. The grounds are a perfect spot to rest, have a nap or a picnic, and while away the rest of the afternoon.

The day is wearing on, I haven’t had a chance to visit St Johns Abbey Gate, the ruins of the 15th century Benedictine Abbey, or The Old Siege House, which sits on the River Colne at the bottom of east hill; it still has bullet holes from the 11 week parliamentary siege in 1648, when hundreds of people died as a result of the civil war, and they do a great goats cheese and pistachio cheesecake.

I’m sad to leave, and it is quite tempting to extend my stay long into the summer evening, but I intend to return, perhaps when then new visitor centre for the Roman Circus is open. My train arrives, and takes me back into the big smoke, after what has been a breathtaking reminder of some of the archaeology and history our own country has to offer.