I have lived in every county of East Anglia, bar one. I have never had enthusiasm to live in Essex – but not because there’s nothing appealing about it. I enjoy it for a day visit and would be happy to take a holiday there. But as a home…
I have criteria for my ideal city. Although the actual status of some urban places may have changed recently, Essex has no real cities. Colchester, not Chelmsford ought to be the county town, and is closer to being a city in my definition.
Essex has many large towns, many of whom are London overspill and commuter towns, often having grown rapidly since the wars from little market towns or less. Colchester is further up the county away from London and has retained an air of independence and own county rather than home county. It feels like Suffolk in places, to whose borders it is close; the 16th C belt of Wool Towns extends into Essex. And so unsurprisedly, Colchester has quite a Suffolk feel. I once commented that I thought it felt more like the county town of Suffolk, or at least South Suffolk, than Ipswich, the actual capital. For me, the Wool Towns are Suffolk.
The buildings that make South Suffolk’s wool towns beautiful and distinct – the timbered, coloured houses of the 1500-1600s – are abundant in Colchester too. There are a couple of areas – the Dutch Quarter, North and East Hills – where the town feels akin to Lavenham and Sudbury. The Dutch Quarter, away from traffic and almost purely residential, evokes a village. East Hill and Street tumble away from the Walls into one of the longest extra mural suburbs I have seen. It really is remarkable to have unbroken chunks of timbered buildings, more so that they are found in a town of 170,000+ rather than the villages which ceased their industrial importance and thus were able to retain so much of their earlier buildings. It is also special that so many of these buildings are in the heart of Colchester; all three clusters I mentioned run directly from the High Street.
The middle of the town is a mishmash, and looked heavily bombed or re-planned. A recent book helped me note the buildings more: that there are banks of imported stone and several former cinema and theatres. But there’s a slightly jaded feel to many of the buildings. Some of the shopping areas are quite thoughtful: Scandinavian cheap clothes chain H & M is currently in a nice Georgian house, and the centre piece of Culver Square is a giant Venetian type window, housing Debenhams’s department store. A large multistorey carpark built at a similar time – the early 1990s – makes what could be a mass of eyesore into a kind of feature. Sir Isaac’s Walk continues the olde lane so well I didn’t even notice it is modern.
Yet other parts are less successful. As is the current whim, the 1960s-80s mistakes are being tarted up in what will surely be looked on as 2010s errors. Culver Street got cut in the middle and is now oddly handlebar shaped. Central library and much of the high street shopping date from this era, though thankfully Colchester has resisted the indoor mall (having possibly done away with the first Lion Centre) except for a huddle of cheaper shops off St John’s.
The ringroad here feels particularly divisive, mostly as I went trailing along its length to find an alternative to a subway to be able to cross it. Noting old streets that had been riven in two, I felt the chasm that ringroads bring to those on the wrong side of them, worse than the stone of town walls ever did.
Colchester’s walls are its special point. No other British or Irish town has near complete Roman walls. They are not often original height or condition, and much of the time they are hiding behind backs of shops. Other cities may have Roman patches or a Roman base, but with the addition of a couple of medieval towers, these walls are all Roman and don’t seem to be messed with by subsequent centuries (such as York’s and Chester’s, Britain’s most celebrated longest sets of walls).
The walls remind that this was the capital of the country in the era they were built and this is Britain’s oldest recorded town. Thus the Romans rightly feature specially in the town’s consciousness and marketing. However, it does not retain a Roman street pattern and perhaps this is partly why much of the Roman buildings are hard to excavate and not available to see – the best of these are outside the centre.
Colchester has another distinctive link with the Romans – that their bricks were recycled in medieval buildings. This led an 18th C owner of the Castle to believe it was Roman and restored it accordingly with red Italianate tiles. The building is actually Europe’s largest 11th C Keep, similar in plan to London’s White Tower. But Colchester has lost the top – it is not known how many storeys more there would have been. My guess is that early stone keeps were low cuboids (cf London, Norwich and Castle Rising, also in Norfolk). Therefore, Colchester’s would not have been much taller – it was not like later Rochester and nearby Hedingham in being considerably higher than the base is square. It’s an interesting museum with much about the Romans and the town, but there is not much in the way of unaltered Norman fortress inside. The best place for that is Castle Hedingham, in West Essex, where each floor is still a recognisable room and the principal chamber has a huge arch running across the whole width.
The park around the castle is one of the town’s best features. As gardens, it runs for some acres, then becomes riverside walks, meadows and cricket grounds. I discovered that it is possible to walk from the much pictured cottages at the foot of North Hill right round to the mill on East Hill. There is also a country park in the rough vicinity of the station (which I have not tried to find yet). For river and greenness, Colchester does well, as well as being quickly accessible to lovely coast and countryside.
Prettiness, antiquity and greenery are all features of my ideal city and which Colchester supplies, but there is a kind of building central to my and the traditional definition of a city which Colchester (and all of Essex) lacks.
St Botolph’s Priory would not be on par with the great cathedrals. St John’s abbey was perhaps twice its length at 295ft, but that’s small compared with its East of England cousins, and only a gate remains. So the ecclesiastical offerings left today are Colchester’s low point. I barely register the cluster of parish churches, though author of several local books says Colcestrians are proud of that central collection of 8 (plus St Leonard at Hythe in the outkirts). Having lived in Norwich with its superlative portfolio (31) and being acquainted with Cambridge (13), Ipswich (12), York (19), London (39) and Bristol (15 including ruins), Colchester’s churches seem diminutive in number and size. Coventry and Hull have few but what they do have are impressive in both senses – large, and they enter your mind as an emblem of the city. I didn’t always notice I’d passed a church in Colchester, and none really come to mind as an iconic image.
Trinity is the one on most people’s radar, because of its rare Saxon tower, and because it is prominently located, and used to be a museum. Now it houses vintage fairs, a lively Charismatic congregation and a not so lively (in terms of service) cafe, with music matching what I assume one would hear in the church worship. When I visited, staff were foreign with poor grasp of English. One didn’t know how to use the word ‘please’ and the other gave me the wrong order then brought the right one with such poor pronunciation that I thought a further mistake had been made. They asked for money then walked out of the room and asked for it again. For the churchy charity cafe this surely was, the prices were not as low as the food quality or ambience, and I wondered why I’d chosen this for lunch over the more professional looking cafe down the road. I also encountered poor service at the Minories cafe (it’s the Low Bistro in more ways than one). Ignoring me for several minutes in an empty room, I asked staff if I ordered at the counter or if they came to me. The woman looked up from her conversation, said to order here, and then turned and carried on cleaning. I left.
This is one of those moments where my spider diagram mind does not know whether to carry on with churches, or start on food offerings of Colchester, or Georgian heritage. I could conclude the paucity of churches by mentioning 18th C St Peter’s, and All Saints, an Ipswich style flint and flushwork church which is a Natural History Museum, but which I was unable to go in. Monday is a bad day to visit; the castle and new art gallery firstsite are open, but nowhere else. Other places were between exhibitions and plays. Nearby pretty wool town Coggleshall’s National Trust properties and Arboretum are also closed.
Georgian heritage was what most struck me on this visit; there is far more of it than had stayed in my imagination. I was aware of the Hollytrees museum, but there are finer houses of the period; the said Minories, the Greyfriars opposite; and a pair on Culver Street East, another gallery and restaurant. I also learned of a former octagonal Independent chapel, known as the Round Church, which is echoed in the modern URC above shops on Lion Walk.
Colchester’s little streets and alternative shops are better than I thought. I’ve not tried to actually shop for anything (that is always telling of the real facilities) but I did find some interesting places. Red Lion isn’t quite what I had hoped for in an independent bookshop, and the Waterstone’s is quite a small one. The media offerings are a big part of my warming to a place, and it is here that Colchester again seems to lack; I saw no independent little record shops, only the usual paltry HMV, and nowhere else for DVDs.
Film is no better to watch in public. Like Chelmsford, this consists only of an old style, central Odeon, curiously in a former post office with an abandoned purpose built cinema of the same chain round the corner. It has only 8 screens to solely serve the whole town. Is that why it charges London prices? There’s not even the Director’s Chair strand of supposedly artier programmers. In 2016, futuristic banana Firstsite (now with a capital letter, hurrah) has a regular film programme – but why doesn’t it haven any pictures in the brochure?
There is an Arts centre, in St Mary’s At The Walls. I have not gained access to the little church with its red tower. Its programme seems not dissimilar to the unrelated Norwich Arts Centre – an alternative mix of music, comedy and fairs. It does not appear to have a daytime café or access.
Also between the water tower and the walls, the Mercury is a well thought of touring, producing and new writing dramatic theatre, but again appears its facilities are not open to non patrons. I as disappointed to see its website’s directions tell Londoners how easy it is to get there, but no encouragement or comment for rural visitors of the region – it’s equally only an hour from Norwich or Bury St Edmunds.
A third, less known venue is the ten year old amateur Headgate Theatre, who is not on Headgate Street at all, but hiding behind a former playhouse (now pub) in a nonconformist chapel on Chapel St North.
The University, a good 3 miles east out of town, has the Lakeside Arts centre; and there is an exhibition centre for sport, exhibitions and concerts called the Charter Hall on Cowdray avenue, the northern ring road. This isn’t easy to learn about.
It’s hard to get a real feel for Colchester as the Tourist Information Centre is full of tacky Jubilee gifts rather than much on the town and surrounds, and the local booklets were all behind the counter like age related and illicit goods. Most leaflets I found anywhere were the standard ones around the region, and featured little on Essex.
Often I make discoveries via finding quirky cafes or arts venues whose posters and flyers suggest other avenues to explore. I could find nor get in none of these. I did note two possible music places, one on Queen St facing Culver St East; and on North Hill, a record club, which is hot on Vinyl, and Creative Arts Live, which is still mysterious to me.
Food is dominated by chain restaurants and most of the pubs I passed did not entice me in. On a previous visit, I left early, having not found anywhere appealing and electing to eat at home. I note that I commented on lack of eateries on all my visits, over 17 years.
The only demographic I noticed was the amount of people in military uniform, but glancing at a map shows a large area of barracks. The other aspect suggested by a map would be lots of late teens due to the vocational Institute and Sixth form college. I did see many people enjoying the sun, some of those would have been students though many were young families. Enjoying the sun was one thing I was not really doing. I concurred with the woman on her phone in her Cockney/Essex tones: “Tell her it’s 30 degrees and your mother’s not happy!”
Colchester’s charm is beginning to seep through. I noticed lots of thoughtful new old style buildings around the town, alongside the challenging architecture of Firstsite, and that there are plans for further improvements. I feel quite an affection and an appetite to explore Essex’s other small towns. My rue is that there are not publications to explain and celebrate what is here.
There’s a day out with Elspeth guide on my other blog at