London: Pt 22 – Colchester, Essex

Moving on from England’s newest City, Chelmsford, we arrived in Colchester, the oldest recorded town in Britain…

Colchester:

Status: Colchester District, Essex, Town, England

Date: 31/03/2015

Travel: Greater Anglia (London Liverpool Street – Chelmsford), Greater Anglia (Chelmsford – Colchester)

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Colchester Town Hall, Colchester Castle,  Jumbo Water Tower, Colchester Post Office, Roman Wall Remains, Essex & Suffolk Fire Office, St Peters Church, River Colne, Natural History Museum, War Memorial, Castle Park, Albert Hall, Red Lion Hotel etc

Colchester is 1 of England’s great historic towns, and as we left the train station to head towards the town centre, we pretty quickly came across some beautiful old buildings, which are recognised as such by being on the British Listed Buildings register.

The 1st set are located on North Station Road, and formed of a number of 2 storey, 18th Century brick buildings, officially known as Numbers 30 & 32. They are currently inhabited by a number of shops, helping to preserve these quaint little buildings.

Moving on, to the junction between Victoria Chase and North Station Road, we came across the “Victoria Inn”, even older than Numbers 30 & 32, dating back to the 17th Century. Originally built as a private house, it would later be converted into an Inn/Public House during the 19th Century, which it remains today, having been revitalised in 2010 by a friendly couple from Yorkshire.

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We kept following North Station Road to the road crossing over the River Colne, which begins North West of Colchester, before flowing through the town, around the Northern edge of Castle Park, and out into the English Channel between the town of Brightlingsea, and Mersea Island. To cross the river, the road used “North Bridge”, originally built in 1863 by the then Mayor R R Dunn. 1 of his successors, Henry H Elves, would later oversee the widening of the bridge in 1903, to allow it to carry 2 lanes of traffic.

Lining the edge of the river on the North bank, (pictured from the South) are the stunning “Riverside Cottages”, a series of incredible 17th Century tudoresque cottages, and just another part of a series of incredible buildings we would see throughout the town.

The town centre itself is actually atop a reasonably steep hill, which you can access by using the main road called, unsurprisingly, “North Hill”. As we headed South up the hill, on our left we came across the “Marquis of Granby Inn”, another historic inn, although it’s at least 100 years older than the Victoria Inn, dated to around 1520. The name of the Inn may refer to the title “Marquess of Granby” which, along with the title “Duke of Rutland” was granted to the Earl of Rutland by Queen Anne (1665 – 1714) in the early 18th century.

On the other side of the road, slightly further up the hill, we were treated to even more historic buildings, although 1 in particular stood out, thanks to its distinctive colour. This brightly coloured abode is made up of Numbers 45 & 46 North Hill, and is also a 16th Century building like the Marquis of Granby. The whole row, which goes as far as Number 49 fall into a similar category, and as we approached the very centre of the town, the number of these fine buildings would only increase.

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Close to the summit, with a commanding view back down towards the river, is the Church of St Peter, which has existed on this site for almost 1000 years, as it is 1 of the few Churches to be mentioned in the Domesday Book.

The book was created in 1086 under the orders of William the Conqueror (1028 – 1087), who had invaded in 1066, defeating Harold Godwinson (1022 – 1066) at the Battle of Hastings that same year. It was basically an inventory of his new kingdom, covering the whole of England, as well as parts of neighbouring Wales, and was primarily used as a tax record, by finding out who owned what across the country. Settlements like towns and cities were referred to, as well as places like Churches, giving a minimum date for the existence of various places and structures.

So the Church, or 1 of its older incarnations at least, was in existence by at least 1086,  however the existing building has been primarily dated back to the 15th Century, however due to an earthquake in 1692, parts of it had to be rebuilt. The iconic tower, which has 1 of the more unusual Church clocks that we have seen, was a later addition, in 1758.

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Just across the road lies another Inn, which originally opened as the “Waggon & Horses” in the 19th century, mimicking the other Tudor/Elizabethan buildings we had already seen in the town. It’s appearance today is far from that of 200 years ago, as the exterior was originally flat aside from 1 protruding room above the main entrance. The extruded front windows on the ground floor were also in line with the entrance, rather than as they appear now.

Whilst aesthetic changes on buildings occur quite frequently, the structural changes are thought to have occurred during World War II, as Colchester was bombed during the 1940’s. It was in the years following this date that the present configuration of the building occurred, and it has now been converted into a mock Irish Pub, called “Pat Molloy’s”. Thanks to the “pubshistory.com” website for the information about the pub, and if you look at their page on the building here you can see some of the historic photos which show such a great difference in styles across the centuries.

To the left of Pat Molloy’s is the charming town Post Office, housed in a Mock Tudor building constructed in 1936 to designs by the Prudential Assurance Co. Ltd. It is in a prominent position in the centre of town, and it lies directly opposite “High Street” which leaves North Hill here, and runs past important buildings such as the Victorian Town Hall, on it’s way towards the Castle.

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Entering “High Street”, we got a great view up Colchester’s main thoroughfare, with the Clock Tower of the Town Hall visible in the distance, but more on that in a moment. Many of the town’s main shops are located here, along with 2 local shopping centres.

On the left however is another important part of the town’s heritage, in the form of the long cream building with columns lining the external facade. It is identified by large white letters below the Clock at the top of the building, which read “Essex & Suffolk Fire Office”. Whilst it would be the eventual home of the Fire Service for Essex and the neighbouring county of Suffolk located directly to the North, it was originally built in 1820 as the town’s Corn Exchange, where local goods could be bought and sold. The actual Fire Office itself had been formed 20 years earlier, in 1802. It would be superseded in 1948 by the Essex County Fire & Rescue Service, along with its separate counterpart in Suffolk.

Designed by David Laing (1774 – 1856, Architect from London), it was built with only 2 storeys, meaning that the 3rd storey, along with the Clock, were later additions. At either end of the building on the top floor are 2 shields, the 1 on the left (out of shot) features the Coat of Arms of Essex, made up of a red backround with 3 Saxon Knives, whilst the 1 on the right features the Coat of Arms of Colchester. The Arms feature 3 crowns spaced out around crossed pieces of wood.

The building now houses a variety of shops, and backs onto St Peter’s Church located directly behind it.

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Directly to the right is a smaller building called the “Albert Hall”. It was built in 1845 by John Raphael Rodrigues Brandon (1817 – 1877, London Architect) as a new Corn Exchange, replacing what would become the Fire Office, which presumably indicates it may well have been around this time that the Fire Office itself moved in.

The new Exchange would remain in use until 1925, as after that it was used for a variety of functions, from Art Gallery to Theatre. In 1972 a brand new theatre, called the “Mercury Theatre” opened in Colchester, not far behind the Post Office Building, freeing up Albert Hall for commercial use.

At 1st glance, had I not found out it replaced the original Corn Exchange, I would have assumed it was an old bank building, so it’s fitting that the Co-Operative Bank currently inhabit it. You can still see the name “Albert Hall Building” painted above the main entrance, with Colchester’s coat of arms right at the top above the business’s name.

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Dominating both the High Street and the town’s skyline, is the majestic Victorian Town Hall, shown above. The Victorians brought with them a revolution in architecture in the UK, with stunning municipal buildings popping up everywhere from Manchester to Sheffield etc.

Designed by John Belcher (1841 – 1913, London Architect), the building was completed in 1898, just 3 years before Queen Victoria’s death heralded the end of the celebrated Victorian Era in 1901. The building is jointly constructed out of red brick and Portland Stone, quarried on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, complete with the 162 ft Victoria Tower at the East End, a statue of St Helena (250 – 330, Wife of Emperor Constantius Chlorus) atop its dome.

The Town Hall is 1 of 2 fantastic towers that mark the skyline of Colchester, and you can see the other in the background, however I shall explain all later on, as there are certain places in Colchester that offer a truly incredible view of the 2 competing against each other!

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Between the Town Hall and Colchester Castle there are a number of other interesting buildings you can feast your eyes on, including the “Red Lion Hotel”, originally a large house built around 1465. The hall from the house still exists, having been incorporated as the Dining Room when the house was expanded and revamped at the start of the 16th century into an Inn.

It is another fine example of Elizabethan architecture in the town, and had we been intending to stay overnight then this would have been the ideal place (architecturally and geographically) to get a good nights kip!

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From a historical point of view, Colchester Castle is the most significant building in the town. Built by William the Conqueror just 10 years after his invasion of England in 1066, this fantastic Castle is larger than the White Tower of the Tower of London (it’s original Norman Keep) and is the largest Norman Keep surviving in Europe today.

It’s remarkable condition can be attributed to the comparative lack of conflicts that it saw action in (compared to other regions of Britain such as North Wales, the English/Scottish Borderlands and the English South Coast) as well as the fine designs employed by the Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf (relative of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings???) after William ordered its construction.

The few major battles the Castle was involved in include its capture by King John (1166 – 1216) in 1215, during a war that resulted from the Kings refusal to follow the Magna Carta, signed in June of that year to limit the power of the King over his subjects. The war was known as the “1st Barons War”, as it was the Barons of England who had originally agreed Magna Carta with John, and were being supported in the war effort by the French King Louis VIII (1187 – 1226), however peace was eventually declared and Louis was kicked out of England, back to France.

It would eventually pass into the hands of Sarah Gray, the wife of Charles Gray (1696 – 1782, MP for Colchester) in the 18th century. Under Grays ownership the Castle was greatly restored (after an attempt to destroy it for profit in the mid 17th century) and the grand park which now accompanies it was 1st created as part of his private estate. It is now held by the town itself, with both the Castle (as a Museum) and the Park open to the public. The Park stretches all the way back to the River Colne which we traversed earlier, and includes various items of interest from an Old Roman Wall, to the Boating Lake.

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Opposite the main gates which lead into the park, sits the towns War Memorial, designed/built by Henry Charles Fehr (1867 – 1940, Architect of Swiss Ancestry) and completed in 1923, a few years after the end of World War I which spurred its creation. A bronze statue of Victory (Roman Goddess of Victory) stands atop the structure, gazing towards the Former Church of All Saints on the other side of the road.

I say Former, as the Church became the “National History Museum” in 1958, after it was converted following a significant fall in the Church going population of the Town Centre. The Church itself complements the Castle well, with the oldest sections of the building also being Norman. Later additions include the Chancel/Tower, added by the mid 16th century.

Castle Park offers numerous opportunities to get some pleasant views of the town, particularly as you reach the bottom of the hill towards the river, but also from outside the Castle itself, as you can see in the 2 pictures above. I took them looking across a small pond with the Clock Tower of the Town Hall in the distance, with the various flora and fauna of the park visible in the foreground.

The Union Jack flies proudly from the top of Colchester Castle, and its times like these that the true plethora and glory of British history is exemplified. So much has happened over just the last 2000 years, with 1st the Romans, then the Normans arriving in Britain. English/Scottish/Welsh Kings & Queens have come and gone, great battles have been fought, yet we are still here, with more history than most other nations on Earth!

The Park is classified in 2 sections, the Upper Park, and the Lower Park. I am unsure exactly where the boundary between the 2 lies, but it is either at the bottom of the hill, or the other side of the River Colne.

Turning to look back as we took a pleasant wander through the park in the general direction of the train station, we could see the Castle rising high above us, a sight that must have sparked fear in the hearts of those sent to capture it. As noted earlier, the park was once the private estate of local MP Charles Gray after the Castle was purchased for his wife. I imagine the park has since been enlarged, but it covers a staggering amount of land.

To the North West of the Castle is a small boating lake, a common feature in large parks in England, and almost certainly a Victorian addition.

We soon came across a part of, as the sign says “Ancient Roman Wall”. This is part of the original Roman Town of Camulodunum, in the Britannia Region of Roman Britain. It was later destroyed by Boudica in AD 61, although the town, along with its walls was later rebuilt by AD 80, which is presumably when these walls date to.

Other Roman finds have been located beneath Colchester, with a Roman Temple underneath the Castle, and a Chariot Race Track (known as a Circus in Roman Times) beneath the Garrison.

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Our last major stop in the park was the River, which we had crossed earlier on the way into the town centre via the North Bridge. Even though it is only a few yards further downstream at this point, the view along the river is markedly different, with the historic Tudor/Elizabethan buildings nowhere in sight, and grand trees giving a peaceful environment for a stroll.

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Our last view of the town of Colchester came as we walked up a road called “Sportsway”, which borders the “Colchester & East Essex Cricket Club”, with their ground shown above.

Behind the pitch, dominating the sky, is the Clock Tower of the Town Hall on the left, and it’s imposing rival, the “Jumbo Water Tower”. Like the Town Hall, it is also a Victorian creation, completed in 1883. With over 1 Million bricks and 800 tons of Cement, the structure was a mammoth project, and dwarfed any other buildings in its vicinity, which led to it’s nickname. John Irvine would see that even the Church Tower of St Mary-at-the-Walls Church where he was Reverend wasn’t a match for this new giant, and coined the name Jumbo in reference to it. It remains a popular local landmark, with a viewing gallery at the top offering some fine views over the town and local countryside.

Colchester is a beautiful town, and 1 of those places that we fully intend to return to 1 day. It has centuries of history, visible around every corner, and whilst the Victorian aspects of the town are the most notable as you enter, there is so much more to explore, from Norman Castles/Churches, to Tudor/Elizabethan Houses, Cottages, Inns and Hotels.

Colchester is located 70 miles out of Central London, and is accessible via a number of routes, which include the A12 from the M25 (Orbital Motorway around London) through Essex via Chelmsford, or local rail links from London to Norfolk/Norwich via Essex. Nearby airports include London Stansted (31 Miles) and London Southend (40 Miles) which offer a variety of International/Internal flights. Also of note is the port of Harwich 20 Miles East of Colchester, which has ferry connections to the Netherlands and mainland Europe.

So that was our last excursion as part of our London adventure, which covered 20 Cities/Towns/Districts across 5 Historic Counties, and numerous more by train. But that’s not quite it, as we take a look at the London Underground in my next post…

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