Saturday, May 26th 2018
Colchester is one of the towns that we visit from time to time. When we go there, we usually discover something new that makes the trip worthwhile. Colchester is in the county of Essex and it you want to locate it on the map, you can click on this OpenStreetMap link.
The modern town is built around a Roman settlement whose outline can still be seen in the substantial remains of its town walls. The Romans called the town Camulodunum, a Romanization of the Celtic name, Camulodunon, which probably meant ‘fortress of Camulos’, the latter personage being the Celtic god of war. Under the Romans, the town was a colonia, a term that was originally applied to military posts in conquered territory but eventually came to designate a city of high status.
Camulodunum stood beside the River Colne which runs through the modern Colchester. The name Colne is Celtic but its meaning remains uncertain. At least half a dozen rivers in Britain bear the same name and share it with at least two towns.
So where does the modern name, Colchester, come from? The particle chester of course derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ceaster which designated towns inherited from the Romans. In Domesday Book (1086), the name appears as Colneceaster, which strongly suggests that the name is derived from that of the river. It could be, though, that the scribes made this assumption and spelled the name accordingly. (They often garbled the, to them foreign, Old English names.) On the other hand, the Romano-British called the town Colonia Camulodunum and it is possible that the Anglo-Saxons took the first word and added ceaster. (They might have found Camulodunum something of a tongue-twister!) It is now impossible to be certain which is the correct derivation.
Below, just for fun, is a plot of our stroll through Colchester today. The ‘pins’ indicate where the photos were taken. Unfortunately, they are not clickable.
As usual, we travelled to our destination by train and alighted at Colchester Station, also informally called Colchester North to distinguish it from Colchester Town Station.
The station was opened in 1843 but increasing numbers of trains and passengers required it to be extended and modernized. The original and modern parts both co-exist. We left by the station’s south entrance which is the original Victorian building.
Colchester (North) Station is a mile from the centre of town and nearby is a signpost indicating the way to the centre for people wishing to go on foot. (Buses stop nearby.) The metal sign is in the shape of an elephant and a plaque beside it explains that this is a reference to the arrival of the Roman invading force in AD 43 when the emperor Claudius was present in person and, in order to impress the locals, came mounted upon an elephant. To me, though, it recalled Colchester’s famous landmark water tower that is known popularly as Jumbo (see Water tower and Roman gate). There are other elephant signposts in town as well.
As mentioned above, the River Colne runs through the modern town of Colchester though it ran past the Roman Camulodunum just to the north of the walls (see the map on this page). On our way to town we crossed the river by the bridge in North Station Road. Here, the river is very calm and picturesque with its decor of greenery.
A little further south, North Station Road becomes North Hill and on your right (looking south) is a road called Middleborough. At this junction we find part of the town walls. As you can see from the photo, they have been patched and repaired several times during their history. The town walls have collectively received a Grade I listing and the Historic England listing entry carefully catalogues all of its various parts. For other views of the wall see Water tower and Roman gate.)
The drinking fountain is known as the Taverner John Miller Fountain, having been presented to the town by the man whose name it bears. He was Colchester’s MP in 1857-67 and the fountain was inaugurated in 1864. It no longer provides water but remains as a dumb memorial to its donor.
We continued towards the town’s centre via North Hill, which seems quite a climb on a warm day!
At the end of North Hill, just before it becomes Head Street and meets the High Street, we find this large Tudoresque building that is the home of the Post Office. A glance is sufficient to see that it is not a genuine Tudor structure but is a work of ‘Tudorbethan’ or Tudor Revival architecture built in the 1930s.
We walked along the High Street until with reached the castle. Close by is Colchester War Memorial. It was originally erected in 1923 to commemorate the fallen in the Great War but had to be modified later to include the names of those who gave their lives in the Second World War. It is topped with a bronze figure representing winged Victory that was sculpted by Henry Charles Fehr (1867-1940).
The mass of Colchester’s Norman castle loomed nearby but we were not visiting it today. We did so on a previous occasion (see A damp day in Camulodunum). Colchester Castle is a museum and well worth a visit. There is a moderate admission charge but photography is allowed (or it was when we went there). Our destination today, however, was another museum close by.
Hollytrees Museum resides in a handsome house. Admission is free (our favourite price!) and photography is allowed.
The house was built in 1718 as a family home. The house acquired its name towards the end of the 18th century when the then owner restored the castle and landscaped the grounds, whose planting included hollytrees. More details of the house’s history will be found on this page of the museum Website. The theme of the museum is domestic and social life over the last 300 years.
I, of course, was attracted by the clocks, of which there was a good collection.
Some of the clocks were signed by Nathaniel Hedge, a local clockmaker working in the 18th century whose clocks are still bought and sold in today’s antiques markets.
Not merely a toy, this dolls house presented a view of life in times past with figures in the various rooms engaging in day-to-day activities such as the lady’s maid brushing her mistress’s hair (second room from the top on the right). Dolls houses have always been popular as toys but also attract adult collectors, to judge from the number of shops selling them together with miniature furniture and other items.
In an age when washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, floor polishers, etc. are considered essentials, it is as well to be reminded of times not so long ago when such labour-saving devices did not exist. Of course, if you were wealthy, you did not care whether they existed or not because it was the servants who did the hard work.
The rear of the house looks out onto the Castle grounds which are today arranged as a graceful park for the public to enjoy.
Before leaving Colchester we visited this rather unprepossessing building with a silly name to match its unappealing appearance. Called Firstsite, it is an art gallery and centre for exhibitions and events. We have visited it before and did so again today, hoping to see something of interest. In that I was disappointed though I suppose that might say more about my own artistic preferences than about the works on display. Maybe one day there will be an exhibition that I actually like.