Exploring England – The Alternate Way in Essex:
Do travel writers lose sight of what is on their doorsteps? I hope not, but the temptation can be great. Trying my best to ensure I explored a little of what is under my nose, I made my way to Essex, catching the train to Chelmsford in just under 40 minutes before travelling across to Colchester. And, I’m starting this mini series there, in the University town that lays claim to being the oldest town in Britain. It’s full of timbered buildings, including the Red Lion Hotel which comes complete with ghost and stunning dining hall.
Staying at the George Hotel meant that I was right in the historic centre, it’s worth noting that rooms at the front of the building face onto the high street and can be a little noisy. But, that for me, was amply compensated by the period features and quirky charm of the place.
The George Inn is 500 years old and comes complete with creaking floorboards and beamed ceilings. You’ll find a bit of the wall stripped back to show the original wattle and daub construction, an ancient wall painting and, if you ask nicely you can go down into the cellars and see the excavated remains of the original Roman road.
Colchester was mentioned by Pliny the elder, who died in AD79 and was already celtic settlement before the Roman invasion. It was at one time the provincial capital of Britain, but much of the infrastructure was destroyed during Boudica’s rebellion. The Roman walls, part of the reconstruction of the town are still largely intact and there’s even the remains of a triumphal arch, now known as the Balkerne Gate.
Next door is the Hole in the Wall pub, of a somewhat later vintage, build on top of the remains of the wall. When the railway reached Colchester in 1843, the landlord knocked a hole through the Roman gate’s structure so that visitors could see when their train was arriving!
Everywhere you go through the town there are remnants of the Roman city. Look closely at the walls of the Castle (closed at the moment but re-opening in May 2014) and you’ll see that the walls have been built from Roman brick and clay bricks and terracotta tiles. Wander through medieval streets and peer into windows to see the remains of the Roman Circus. Or just take a promenade around the walls.
Of course the history of Colchester doesn’t stop with the Romans. The Castle was built in the 11th Century on top of the Roman Temple of Claudius. Development of the town during the fourteenth century was propelled by the town’s role as a centre for the woollen cloth industry. The ‘Dutch Quarter’ became home to weavers and cloth-makers from Flanders and the town grew in wealth and importance.
The Castle at the time was a Gaol, in 1645 the centre of Matthew Hopkin’s witchhunt – in Essex from 1640 onward some two hundred ‘suspects’ were tried and hung for witchcraft.
You’ll get a taste of Victorian Colchester at the Town Hall, a magnificent Grade I Listed building complete with statue of Victoria presiding over the sweeping staircase.
And, there’s a pretty octagonal Victorian folly just opposite the town’s contemporary arts centre. This place is full of drama and Rafael Viñoly’s unique architecture somehow manages to blend into the environment perfectly.
There’s a lot to see. A brief walk on a dark winter’s evening merely touched the surface of Colchester’s treasures. But then, it is a town that has been over 2,000 years in the making.