Colchester is a market town with a big history. As Camulodunum (translation - fortress of Camulos [a Celtic god of war]) it was once the capital of Britain. It was a vast Roman colony and even now the materials used in the Norman castle give you the impression you are mid Mediterranean, maybe Florence with the warm terracotta tiles on the castle's narrow bricked towers and the strange white elephant watertower, known locally as Jumbo. It's the history that is exciting though: it was viciously destroyed by Boudica and her Celtic allies (who also destroyed London and St Albans); fought over in the Civil War, and has more traditions about oysters than you can serve up with Lee and Perrins....
Despite all these stories it’s not a traditional place to head for a wedding anniversary weekend. Strange because it surely compares with Lille or Bath or Winchester. Indeed the staggered reaction from a friend who used to live there, and my aunt who is based in Essex - but does her best to avoid Colchester - suggested I might regret letting Pete pick the venue. But that's the point of Aroundbritainnoplane, getting to know the UK better.
Turns out that Colchester offers an astonishing history trail (and thanks to the choice of B&B and restaurant Pete and I had a lot of fun too). The Norman castle is the biggest in Britain - because it was built on foundations made by the Romans. The foundations are 3,000 years old, and when the Normans arrived these were already 1,000 years old. When I think about the subsidence in the two Victorian homes I’ve lived in this seems puzzlingly brilliant engineering.
We took a taxi from the station to Trinity Street where we were staying in a house once owned by John Wilbye, the man who invented madrigals in the late 16th century. I always ask taxi drivers the three best things about the place where they work, often with interesting results. The woman we’d picked was an utter down.”There’s nothing good here. It’s just cold. There’s shopping, but I don’t like that, except in Williams & Griffin (a department store run by Fenwick).” When pushed she admitted there were some pubs, but these were occupied by squaddies and students so we wouldn’t want to go there… Well we did, the Purple Dog was fine, and most pubs seem to offer real ale.
Within 100 metres of exiting the taxi – she couldn’t drive to the front door because of the excellent pedestrianised shopping lanes (sort of like Brighton) off the High Street a lady in Tudor garments had invited us to watch a Tudor dance being performed in the CO1 community centre run by a charity that finds things for teenagers to do. Irresistible, and though Tudor dances are reasonably staid, it was fun watching a performance of Ding Dong Merrily on High (originally a dance) and the anachronistic doubletake of spotting a Tudor dancer sit out with mobile and a mug of latte. Could spots like this have inspired Damon Albarn from Blur?
Top 5 highlights of Colchester (other than the zoo)
- Colchester Castle – stunning Roman collection which is labelled for maximum enjoyment for anyone who knows Essex or interested in Boudica. It costs £6 to enter but offers at least an hour of displays. You can also book a £2.50 tour of the Roman foundations of the Temple of Claudius which Boudica destroyed (along with 20,000 people) and go on to the castle ramparts for a 360 degree view across today's town.
- FREE A walk that takes in the old Roman wall by the Hole in the Wall pub and a vast red-brick retired Victorian water tower known as Jumbo. Then head the other way and find the Old Seige House which looks Tudor but has many red painted bullet marks on its inside and outside walls – marks from the conflict between Cromwell’s troops and the Royalists. Finish off with a patrol of the incredible new arts centre, Firstsite. In fact Firstsite might be a reason to go to Colchester - it's as good as The Baltic up in Newcastle upon Tyne.
- There are some nice parks, including the castle gardens which also has the FREE toy museum beside it, all a few strides from the shopping streets. Look carefully between and in stores and you’ll see Roman memories everywhere. We ate a good dinner (with frighteningly speedy service) at the Lemon Tree which boasts a massive Roman wall between the dining rooms.
- A place to get curious about: allegedly Humpty Dumpty was a canon parked at St Mary in the Wall during the Civil War conflict (find it near the Mercury theatre). And there's the Dutch Quarter where in 1806 Jane Taylor is claimed to have dreamt up Twinkle Twinkle Little Star... and it's old name, Camulodunum may have been the basis for the nursery rhyme Old King Cole. As for the TOWIE craze back in Brentwood (and the nation's sitting rooms), well I could see no evidence other than a canvas tote in a super tacky shop that boasted "I've been vajazzled".
- Pick the right Sunday in December (11 Dec 2011) and then you can enjoy the Christmas market which has the high street closed to traffic.