Saturday, August 30th 2014
Today we return to a town we have visited before. It is said by some to be the oldest town in Britain and whether that is true or not, it was in pre-Roman times the oppidum or main town of the Celtic Iceni tribe who called it Camulodunon (“stronghold of Camulos”), later Latinized to Camulodunum.
We arrived at the town’s railway station. Though the station itself is of a respectable size, as befits a large town, the station building is quite small. The town in question, as you can see from the photo, is today known as Colchester.
Railway Mission Hall, 1896
We set out on foot for the town along North Station Road where we found this icon of Victorian religiosity, the Railway Mission Hall,, dating from 1896. I don’t known what it is used for now but the large blue refuse bin outside the main door suggests a business or industrial usage.
The River Colne
Seen from the North Bridge
North Station Road crosses the River Colne by a Victorian bridge (built in 1843 and widened in 1903) known as the North Bridge, from where I took the above photo. Rivers that pass through towns have a somewhat schizophrenic character because they represent an irruption of wild nature into the built-up environment but this often confines them between walls when it does not turn them into sewers. I angled the shot to make the prettiest picture possible in the circumstances.
The name Colne is of course cognate with that of Colchester and both derive from the Latin word colonia. By a mixture of negotiation and coercion, the Romans established a Roman town here which they named in honour of the Emperor Claudius, calling it Colonia Claudia Victricensis, though it was usually known more simply as Colonia Victricensis. A colonia was a town in which life was led according to the Roman pattern. Many of the inhabitants would have been Roman officials and military personnel with their families, and veterans who had served their time with the army and were now settled with a parcel of land for their sustenance. The “chester” part of the name comes, not, as is often asserted, from the Latin word castrum, meaning a fortified settlement, but from the Anglo-Saxon ceaster, a designation given to towns that had once been occupied and defended by the Romans. Under these Germanic invaders, the town became known as Colneceaster and the river, Colne.
17th century, timber framed
Beside the bridge, on the river bank is a stand of cottages, their picturesque beauty enhanced by the setting. They are timber framed houses dating from the 17th century, though, inevitably, with varying degrees of restoration.
Taverner John Miller Fountain
MP for Colchester 1857-67
We found this rather unusual drinking fountain beside a section of city wall, though whether the wall is Roman or Medieval (or a mixture of both) I do not know. A large inscription across the top of the fountain tells us that it was “opened” in 1864 and that it was given to the town by Taverner John Miller, who was the town’s Conservative MP for the decade 1857-67. Interestingly, the National Portrait Gallery possesses a portrait photograph of Miller, done in 1862.
The Marquis of Granby
16th century inn
On North Hill is a handsome inn. Though somewhat restored, it dates from the early 16th century (English Heritage gives it a tentative date of 1520) and has secured a Grade II* listing. I do not know what its original name was though it is today known as the Marquis of Granby. The eponymous Marquis did not appear on the scene until the 18th century and so his name could not have been used originally. There is no connection between the Marquis and Colchester, as far as I know, and his name has often been borrowed for pubs. The reason is probably that John Manners, Marquis of Granby (1721-70), was a very popular figure, especially with the troops whom he commanded in battle, and his death was mourned on a national level.
One of Colchester’s most famous landmarks is a tall building whose popular name was first intended to deprecate it but instead remained attached to it as a sign of affection on the part of the citizens of the Town. I refer, of course, to the Victorian water tower. At 116 feet (35.4 metres) tall, it is visible from many parts of the town and the surrounding countryside.
Jumbo Water Tower
Bringing clean water to Colchester’s households
Providing a reliable, safe supply of water to households was a problem not solved until the later Victorian period. When Colchester took over the waterworks in 1880, a plan was mooted to built a water tower that would finally provide clean water to households 24 hours a day. The plan was objected to by the Rev John Irvine, rector of St Mary’s, on the grounds that it would overshadow his rectory. He referred to it as a ‘Jumbo’, after the famous elephant of London Zoo, lately sold to P.T. Barnum, thus precipitating a public outcry. Nevertheless, the plan was implemented and the tower was built in 1882. The rector’s epithet was meant to disparage the tower but was in fact taken up by the town’s citizens and survives to this day as the affectionate name for this elephantine structure. Modern water supply methods have rendered Jumbo superfluous but proposals to demolish it have met with vociferous opposition and, for the time being at least, it remains in place.
The Mercury Theatre
Named after a Roman artefact
John Irvine’s rectory is no longer extant and in its place stands a theatre. Opened in 1972, it is called the Mercury Theatre and bears on its roof a representation of that Roman god who, armed with his trademark caduceus, seems about to take flight. Inspiration for the name came from a Roman artefact that was turned up in 1948 by a plough on Gosbecks Farm. The bronze object, sadly missing its arms, was found to be a statue of the god Mercury and one of the most important ancient art works in Britain. The statue, now in Colchester Castle Museum, was associated with a Gallo Roman temple whose remains have been found nearby.
The Balkerne Gate
Part of Colchester’s Roman defences
Not far from the theatre we find one of the most impressive of Colchester’s Roman remains, the west gate into the city. It is known as the Balkerne Gate, though the origin of that name is unknown. One of the bloodier episodes in Colchester’s history occurred when Boudicca and the Iceni rose against the Romans in AD 60 and did immense damage, not only locally but as far as London. There was no sizable Roman garrison in the Colonia Victricensis and Boudicca burnt it to the ground, slaughtering the inhabitants.
The Balkerne Gate
One of the two access arches
Following this traumatic event, and although Boudicca was killed and her army destroyed, the Romans enclosed the Colonia with a stout protective wall and the Balkerne Gate formed part of this. Only part of it now remains though we can still walk through one of the arches, following the footsteps of people in Roman and medieval times.
Visible too is part of the guardhouse where soldiers on guard duty would have spent their time when not actually controlling access to the gate. They may well have prepared meals and played games to while away the time. The typical pattern of Roman wall building – sections of cemented stonework intercalated with courses of red tiles – is visible here.
The Roman town wall
To the south side of the gate, a section of the Roman town wall is still present. A couple of centuries after Boudicca’s rampage, Anglo-Saxon incursions began to pose a threat and the Colonia’s defences were strengthened. In 1648, during the English Civil War, a Royalist army took refuge within the walls when attacked by a superior Parliamentary force and an 11-week siege ensued. After this, the walls came to be of little importance and gradually decayed until a later age began to consider them of historical importance and worthy to be preserved and studied.
John “Jumbo” Irvine’s church
I mentioned that the protestor against the Water Tower, John Irvine, was rector of St Mary’s Church. We went to take a look at it. Built in the medieval period, St Mary’s was badly damaged in the 1648 siege and rebuilt in 1713-4. Part of the medieval tower remains, however, though a new top was added to this in 1729.
St Mary’s tower
Medieval with 18th century additions
As the above photo shows, a substantial amount of the original medieval fabric remains and stands as firmly as when the original builders completed it, contributing to its Grade II listing.
A squirrel among the tombs
John Irvine might have been dismayed to learn that his church has, in modern times, become surplus to requirements. It is now an Arts Centre, quite a dignified alternative use, I think, and a more useful one. Whereas the graveyards of many decommissioned churches have been cleared and turned into gardens, this one seems to have remained intact, though the gravestones and tombs show the inevitable erosion of time and weather. It also provides a sanctuary for wildlife, as witness this squirrel, perfectly at home in what he no doubt considers his domain.
Possibly the oldest pub in Colchester
A commercial building of any age is bound to suffer alteration as fashions and owners’ ambitions change. Of this handsome inn, English Heritage guardedly says that behind the 18th and 19th century exterior lies “an older core”. Others, less guardedly, suggest that it goes back as far as the early 15th century which would make it the oldest hostelry in Colchester.
For my part, I admired this fine bull who stands upon a bay window and represents the pub’s name.
Artist at work
We stopped for lunch in a restaurant and during the meal I watched an artist at work on the other side of the road. A number of people stopped and talked to him and he responded politely enough but he was completely absorbed in his task. He also looks the part, don’t you think?
16th century houses
Remodelled in the 1930s
An enduring style of building is that known variously as “Tudorbethan”, “Jacobethan” or “neo-Tudor”. Sometimes such buildings are genuinely old, sometimes they are purely modern and at still other times they are genuinely old structures renovated or rebuilt at some stage. The above double frontage in Crouch Street, now with shops on the ground floor, consists of an original 16th century timber framed house that was remodelled in the 1930s. It has suffered but still has a pleasant “olde” look about it.
Colchester Post Office
In contrast, Colchester Post Office on North Hill resides in a building that is purely neo-Tudor, having been designed and built in the 1930s. It is quite a pleasant building, I suppose, if one can avoid a feeling of cliché that such imitation naturally evokes.
Tudor merchant’s house, now a tea room
Finding ourselves in Trinity Street, we went into the grounds of Tymperleys, once a Tudor merchant’s house and now a rather pleasant tea room. Although the house has been altered and restored a number of times, enough remains of the original structure for English Heritage to accord it a Grade II* listing. A plaque informs us that this was once the home of William Gilbert or Gilberd (1544-1603), a physician, physicist and natural philosopher, known particularly for his 1600 book, De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on the Great Magnet the Earth). In the 1950s, the house was occupied by Bernard Mason whose collection of clocks and watches, which he gave to the town, formed the Colchester Clock Museum (now closed). The house is set in a walled garden and access to the property is through a gateway, which results in a pleasant feeling of peaceful seclusion.
Colchester Town Hall and Holy Trinity Church
This view along Trinity Street shows two towers, in the background, that of Colchester Town Hall and, in the foreground, that of Holy Trinity Church. Though the church building was largely restored in the 1880s, much of the original 14th and 15th century fabric remains. The tower is even older, predating the Norman Conquest and composed mainly of Roman bricks.
Now a market and cafe
Worshippers from times past might be surprised or even outraged to see the interior today. The church was declared redundant in 1956 and passed into the ownership of the Borough Council.
Today it accommodates a market and a cafe. Though they were closing when we arrived, they invited us in to have a look and to take photos. Nothing much of the original furniture remains except the font, standing in lonely dignity among the goods on sale.
Colchester Town Hall
High Victorian design
We returned to the High Street to catch a bus to the station and there photographed the Town Hall. Because of its height, it is difficult to photograph in its entirety despite the generous width of the High Street (Did trams once run along it?). It was built in 1898, designed by John Belcher, and, in the words of the English Heritage Grade I listing, is of “Exceptionally rich design in free classical style; red brick and Portland stone”.
The Old Library
Now a restaurant
Adjacent to the Town Hall in West Stockwell Street is the old Court House, which is no longer used as such. My attention, however, was caught by this charming building next to it, in a style quite different from either the Town Hall or the Court. Today it is a restaurant but it once served a nobler purpose. In the almost blank rectangular space above the door, you can still just make out the words “PUBLIC LIBRARY”.
Beautiful glass and mouldings
I believe the library was built in 1851 by Brightwen Binyon but beyond that known nothing about it. The beautiful window in the photo includes a semi-circular section that is a stained glass representation of the Colchester Coat of Arms.
Colchester Coat of Arms
Above the Old Library door
The Coat of Arms appears over the door of the Old Library, supported by two reclining female figures and two putti. The shield bears a white cross and three crowns. In some representations there are also three nails, one at either end of the horizontal bar of the cross and a third it the foot of the cross, presumably representing the nails used in the crucifixion. The symbolism refers to Saint Helena, the patron saint of Colchester. Helena was the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine and is believed to have been born in Colchester (or, rather, Colonia Victrincensis). Helena undertook a journey to the Holy Land where, according to tradition, she discovered pieces of the True Cross which she triumphantly carried back to Constantinople. In this, she was clearly a naive victim of deception by souvenir vendors but the story has been believed by similarly naive people down to the present day.
It may be a pity that such a handsome library no longer serves the purpose for which it was made but our regret may be somewhat mitigated by the fact that Colchester has a splendid modern library and that the old library does at least still exist though serving a different use.
This is not our first visit to Colchester (see, for example, A damp day in Camulodunum) but the trip was worthwhile because we discovered things, such as the Balkerne Gate, that we had not seen before and had a close up view of Jumbo, previously only seen from a distance. We will no doubt return on another day. What will we discover then?
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