Saturday, January 5th 2013
The weather forecast for today was sunny but, as usual, they lied. The sky was grey and there was a mist trying hard to turn into rain – the above picture gives you some idea of the conditions. The question was whether we should we persevere with our plan to go out of town or put it off until tomorrow? But would the weather be any better then?
We decided to risk it and took a bus to Liverpool Street Station. Tigger went for train tickets while I bought a take-away breakfast at the Camden Food Co.
We boarded the 9:30 Norwich train though we would not be going all the way to Norwich. The train was somewhat old-fashioned with fixed arm rests and and little room for long legs. Fortunately, we did not have to suffer for too long as we left the train at the third stop, Colchester.
Colchester is reputed to be Britain’s oldest city (a claim disputed by, inter alia, Thatcham, Abingdon, Ipswich and Marazion) and, as a settlement certainly dates at least from Celtic times when it was the centre of the kingdom of the Trinovantes. These people named their town Camulodunon, which means “Fortress of Camulos”, in honour of the Celtic god of war.
In the mid-1st century BC, a neighbouring tribe, the Catuvellauni, occupied and took over the lands of the Trinovantes, and the latter petitioned Julius Caesar for help. This provided that ambitious general with an excuse to invade Britain, as he had long desired to do. Thus was founded one of the earliest Roman settlements in this country. The name Camulodunon was Romanized to Camulodunum and the Roman settlement was called Colonia Claudia Victricensis, generally known simply as Colonia (the Colony). It was not a military fortress but a town inhabited by army veterans and other civilian personnel. Its lack of proper defences would be regretted during the rampages of the Icenian queen, Boudicca.
The modern name, Colchester, derives from that of the Anglo-Saxon town. These invaders tended to add the word “ceaster” (from Latin castrum, meaning a military fortification) to the name of a town on or near the site of a Roman settlement, whether or not this had been fortified. It is thought that the rest of the name was given by that of the nearby River Colne.
The weather was no better here than in London and the station yard, which also serves as a small bus station, presented a bleak prospect. Undaunted, however, we took a 61 bus to the town centre.
The bus dropped us off at the end of the High Street. From here we could see a famous structure standing high above the surrounding buildings. Its official name is the Municipal Water Tower but it is generally known as ‘Jumbo’. Completed in 1883, the water tower was in its day said to be the second largest water tower in England. Its nickname was first applied by the Reverend John Irvine as a term of contempt but is today used with affection. Its use as a water tower was discontinued and it was sold to private owners in 1987. Since then, several owners have taken it in charge and several projects to reuse it have been put forward but all have either been refused by the Council or have failed to materialize. The building is Grade I listed, which provides a certain amount of protection to it, but in the absence of firm plans to reuse or maintain it, its fans fear that it will continue to deteriorate.
Another notable edifice, in the High Street itself, is the Town Hall. Whether you like it will depend on whether you like your public buildings highly decorated or plain. I think it is a fine piece of architecture and a worthy symbol of the town’s pride and confidence in itself. It was built in 1898 and, needless to say, is listed Grade I. Though the High Street is quite wide and spacious, so tall is the Town Hall and especially its Victoria Tower, that the photographer cannot gain enough distance to get a decent shot of the whole. I can only give you an impression of it.
As the Town Hall is closed on Saturday, the front porch was closed off with a handsome pair of wrought iron gates. On the left, the red shield displays the Colchester coat of arms and, on the right, the raven is Colchester’s badge or symbolic bird. Each plaque also features an anchor but I have so far not managed to find its significance. A clue may lie in the Christian iconography of the arms and the motto “No Cross No Crown”: the anchor is frequently a Christian symbol. (See Heraldry of the World.) It may also be am illusion to Colchester’s port.
The gates bear two panels showing that they were donated by Mr & Mrs G. Pearson.
We took a few photos and stopped off at Costa because I needed the toilet. I wish I could say that I could notice improvement since my operation but I cannot. I was lucky to reach the toilet just in time and find it unoccupied. My condition is making it difficult to travel and it takes determination for me to leave the house.
Lion Walk is a pedestrian street redeveloped as a shopping centre. It is an ancient thoroughfare and in 1974, archaeological excavations revealed a 4th-century Roman house with fine mosaic floors. The original lion mosaic is in the Castle Museum and this panel on a wall in Lion Walk records the find. (Unfortunately, I missed the mosaic while in the museum and therefore do not have a photo of it. Next time!)
From the High Street, you reach Lion Walk through what was once the carriage entrance of the Red Lion Hotel. This leads to the inn yard and thence to Lion Walk, which in Medieval times was a street known as Cat Lane. This Grade I listed building became an inn around 1500 and though it has inevitably suffered alterations in its long history, much of the original fabric, both inside and outside, remains. Before becoming an inn, the building was a dwelling house and this dates from around 1470.
What English Heritage called the “carriage entrance” is quite narrow. Only horses and small carriages could have come through here. On the left is a drainpipe hopper bearing a crowned red lion, the initials T G and the date 1716, no doubt reflecting an episode of rebuilding or refurbishment.
We walked down hilly Maidenburgh Street and passed St Helen’s Chapel, an Orthodox Church. The chapel was rebuilt by the Normans in 1290 but was founded a century or even longer long before that. It stands on the ruins of what was once a Roman theatre.
We passed on into Ryegate Road and entered Castle Park. This is a beautifully laid out a well maintained park with different areas providing different environments. It is a peaceful setting in which to stroll or sit (in better weather conditions!) and observe the birds and squirrels. In the above photo you can perhaps see a flock of birds: someone is feeding the squirrels and the birds want their share!
Castle Park opened in 1892 and when you walk here, you are (possibly unknowingly) walking on a lot of history. The park stands on the site of the Roman settlement, the Colonia Claudia Victricensis, and many traces of this remain, some above ground and much beneath the surface. Just inside the gate by which we entered is a mound. This was made by the Normans when they built the castle that still stands adjacent to the park. The castle was built on the ruins of the temple erected by the Romans in honour of Emperor Claudius who had visited Britain riding on an elephant to impress the natives. From a royal demesne, the castle became a prison for those accused of heresy and witchcraft. Today it serves a more edifying purpose as a museum.
The flagstones mark the positions of walls in Roman town houses discovered in 1920 by Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Altogether, three houses were found, two of which were substantial structures built around courtyards in Roman villa style. What remains of the floors is made of red terracotta cubes but very little survives because the Normans used the building materials in the construction of their castle.
Nearer our own time, but still of historical interest, is the band stand. This was commissioned for the park as one of its original features and was complete in 1894. The intention was to use it for concerts given by military bands from Colchester Garrison. The balustrade was removed and taken for scrap during the Second World War but a modern replacement was made in 2003-4, following the original design. The band stand has been given a Grade II listing for its architectural and historical interest.
As you would expect in a Castle Park, the structure from which it derives its name dominates the views. This robust building is larger and more massive than any other known Norman castle, perhaps because it enclosed the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius, remains of which still exist beneath it.
We now paid a visit to the Colchester Castle Museum. The modern entrance is reached by a bridge that crosses the old moat. There is an admission fee but we were admitted free on our National Art Pass cards. Imposing as the castle still is, it would have been even more impressive in its day. A process of demolition was begun in 1693, though happily not completed, and this has resulted in the current structure being less than half the height of the original. The dome is a mid-18th-century addition.
I am glad to report that photography is permitted without any restriction on use of flash (though I dislike using flash and prefer to use ambient light where possible).
Many of the museum’s exhibits are concerned with the Roman period and rightly so, because Colchester is pre-eminently a Roman town. There is so much material that it is not possible to give a full account of it and I will have to limit myself to a few samples. For example, consider the Colchester Sphinx, pictured above, which dates from an early period, perhaps 43-55 AD, and was fashioned as a marker for a Roman grave. The Sphinx is shown clutching the head of the deceased, a reminder of the inescapable power of death.
The Romans are famous for their mosaics. These appeared in many contexts but predominantly on the floors of rich houses. Intricate patterns abound and we can only wonder at the skill and hours of labour involved in making them. Cool in summer, such floors would efficiently transmit warmth from the Roman under-floor heating system. This one dates from the 2nd century and shows that the Roman lifestyle was well established in Colchester.
Inevitably, many of the larger and least damaged items are associated with death because, whereas later generations pillaged buildings for building materials, graves attracted less attention either because of superstitious fear or because, with the passage of time, they had become less visible. Pictured above is a tombstone from the grave of a Roman cavalry officer. It was commissioned by his heirs and they did him proud. The figure is beautifully detailed and once held a spear but this is now missing. The man’s name is given as Longinus Sdapeze. “Roman” soldiers were often foreigners and this man was a Thracian. His first name has been Romanized but his surname still declares his ethnic origins.
Colchester’s port, in the Colne estuary, was a busy place in Roman times, with ships coming in to bring goods and people from everywhere in the known world. There was also an active fishing fleet. The model shows an Egyptian ship of the type used to transport corn. Buildings on the quayside would include warehouses, offices and a customs house.
Unfortunately, the peace was sometimes shattered and force was needed to restore it. A film in the museum tells the story of the revolt of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, and its dire consequences.
When the Romans first established themselves in Britain, they allowed the Iceni, a kingdom in East Anglia, to continue to govern themselves under their king Prasutagus. The Romans gave the Iceni money and other gifts. When Prasutagus died, however, the Roman administration of the day sought to take over control. The Iceni refused in no uncertain terms, asserting that the Romans were breaking agreements made between them and the Iceni. Boudicca, the widow of Prasutagus, defied the Romans and, according to Icenian claims, the Romans had her flogged and raped her daughters. The inevitable upshot was that the Iceni rose against the Romans.
In around 60 AD, while the Roman governor of Colchester was away on a military campaign, the Iceni rose and began attacking Roman settlements. The Colonia at Colchester was not fortified because no one had ever imagined a revolt of this magnitude. Boudicca’s forces stormed in, slaughtered the inhabitants, and burned the place down. The Iceni went on to destroy St Albans and London, having met and defeated the Roman Ninth Legion along the way. The Roman army finally had its revenge, defeating and slaughtering the Iceni at a place whose location is still unknown. Boudicca is said to have poisoned herself to avoid capture and the inevitable humiliation and execution.
Another section of exhibits was Treasures from China. This resulted from the Cultural Olympiad project and a visit to Nanjing Museum by a party from Colchester’s Gilbert School. Something that fascinated me was the portrayal of animals as I had always thought that Chinese artists produced stylized images of animals rather than naturalistic ones. This exhibition told me a different story. My favourite exhibit was the above buffalo, made between 1821 and 1850 in the Qing Dynasty. If there had been one thing I could have taken home with me, this would have been it!
The Chinese are known for their reverence of dragons and for the beautiful porcelain ware that they have sent all over the world. Here we have a combination of both – a dragon dish! Made sometime between 1662 and 1722, its colours are still as lustrous as when it was first made. If I can’t have the buffalo, may I have this instead, please?
And what about this curious item? It is a suit for a corpse, made of 2,600 small plaques of jade, sewn together with 8oo grams of silver thread, and it was made in the period 100-200 AD for the King of the Pencheng Kingdom. It was believed in those times that jade could protect the body of the dead, allowing the soul of the deceased to proceed to the afterlife. It is one of only 12 such complete suits to be excavated so far in China.
I must admit that I am not very keen on the Normans. William, it seems to me, made no attempt the be a good King of England but simply sacked the land to enrich himself and his cronies. As the castle is Norman and Colchester was an important Norman base, numerous exhibits refer to these Nordic pseudo-French interlopers and so I suppose I must at least acknowledge their presence. I thus include a photo of the above tableau, though I have no idea what it represents.
It was time for lunch and we looked around for a handy cafe or restaurant. We spied Café Rouge and went there. They are not very strong on vegetarian dishes (well, they wouldn’t be, as they are imitating French cuisine) but with a bit of care we can usually find something.
After lunch we went for a little ramble and took some photos. Among other things we saw the War Memorial, originally set up in memory of the dead in the First World War. It was sculpted by Henry Charles Fehr (1867-1940) and was unveiled in 1923. It is thought by many to be Britain’s finest war memorial, though some might find it a tad overblown.
In particular, the allegorical figures tend towards the Romantic. As well as a sword-waving Victory on top of the memorial, we have, at the sides, Peace, launching a dove, and St George in full armour, said to be trampling a dragon. English Heritage likes it enough to give it a Grade II listing.
On East Hill, we looked at the Church of St James the Great (optimistically dated from the 12th or 13th century but restored in the 19th century), but more interesting, to me at least, than another great lump of a church, was something a few yards along the road.
I refer to this little drinking fountain with a step, presumably for children, and an offset dog bowl. The donor has chosen to remain anonymous but for his or her initials. The dedication reads “Erected by M.R. 1864”. Underneath is the phrase “In Memoriam” but the name of the remembered person is missing (or has become obscured by alterations). The motto over the arch is “With joy shall ye draw water” but these days there is no joy to be had from the fountain in that respect. (Grade II listed.)
As a finale to our day in Colchester, we paid a visit to Colchester’s premium art gallery. It’s called firstsite (yes, in lower case) and I can only characterize it as an ugly building with a silly name. I suppose there is nothing unusual in an art gallery having a stupid name as a lot of people these days cannot distinguish art from silliness. The fact that the name appears everywhere all in lower case fits in with this. I have come across art galleries with ugly exteriors that were surprisingly well planned inside. Unfortunately this is not the case here and the galleries seem to be scattered about randomly. We were told we could take photos anywhere except in Gallery 4. We never saw anything labelled Gallery 4 but were told not to take photos in one room, so that must have been it.
The exhibition was Nigel Henderson & Eduardo Paolozzi: Hammer Prints Ltd, and showed designs of wallpapers, textiles and other materials produced by the two named artists collaborating under the business name of Hammer Prints Ltd. You will find more information here.
By the time we emerged from the gallery, the daylight was fading. We walked towards the town centre, hoping top catch a bus and I took a photo as the lights were coming on in Sir Isaac’s Walk.
We eventually caught a bus to the station and soon had a train to London, arriving back at Liverpool Street Station. Here we soon caught a bus to the Angel but while waiting I took one final night-time photo.
Colchester always provides a good day out and we always discover something new when we visit. It is a famous Roman town with many remains and reminders of our Roman past but, as an old city, it bears the marks of all our other periods of history as well. Quite apart from history, Colchester is a pleasant town and there is plenty to attract and entertain the visitor.