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Colchester's historical canvas

In an ancient land, Colchester enjoys the high distinction of being Britain's oldest recorded town. This community of 150,000 is easily reached by road or rail from London, located about 60 miles to the southwest.

For the American who comes for tradition, Colchester is the rare place that provides a palpable sense of antiquity. Just by crossing a street or turning a corner, history is mirrored from successive ages dating back more than 2,000 years.

Yet in addition to Roman remnants, a Norman castle, the skeleton of a monastery destroyed by King Henry VIII and medieval churches, Colchester has a cattle market and a Saturday market, six museums and a university. The townspeople seem to accommodate today's glossy and traffic-jammed life while preserving a rich heritage.

Visitors with limited time should head first to the Tourist Information Office _ fittingly, near the castle. An inexpensive booklet lists the highlights and, armed with a street map, the visitor can make knowledgeable sightseeing choices. Alternatively, guided walking tours are offered daily during the summer season.

After several earlier forays, the Romans under Emperor Claudius I invaded Britain in 43 A.D. to make it the northernmost province of their empire, which circled most of what they knew of the world. They first colonized the area of today's Colchester because it was already a centuries-old, Iron Age settlement, known as Camulodunum. At the time, London consisted of a few mud huts.

The invaders were soon extending their grip. One area they transgressed was controlled by the wild Celtic Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boadicea. She had her warriors sack Camulodunum in revenge, massacring the residents. The other islanders and their occupiers had a terrible marriage from then on, but 350 years passed before the outsiders withdrew.

At the west end of Colchester is the Balkerne Gate, the largest surviving Roman gateway in Britain. It is humbling to stand before these brick portals, modest in dimension, and contemplate that they've witnessed 20 centuries and mighty Claudius himself.

Yet almost another thousand years passed until the town's next major event:

Toward the end of the 11th century, William the Conqueror built a castle on the foundations of a Roman temple to the deified Claudius. Today, only the keep remains of what was once a huge fortress _ erected with forced labor by the local people under the whip of their foreign masters.

However, Colchester had, by William's time, earned a place among England's many market towns. Helped by its location on the River Colne, only eight miles from the North Sea, the town's trade developed, especially in wool and cloth.

Now, quintessential market-town England is to be found along narrow alleys and non-linear lanes. Some of the most popular have been zoned pedestrian, adding to the pleasure of relaxed strolling. Antique warrens, bookmarts, boutiques, silversmiths and specialty shops abound.

Family bakeries entice passersby with an array of crusty breads and rolls. Neat, colorful rows of tempting fruit and jelly pastries, made with artistic flair, line the shop window like soldiers on parade. Two-story teashops offer oven-hot scones with jam and Devon cream.

When Napoleon was stomping his continental neighbors, Colchester was heavily fortified, anticipating a French invasion. The attack never came, but a garrison has stayed ever since. Nowadays, crack Army regiments with 3,500 members assigned to NATO are stationed here.

With the decline of Britain's overseas empire and entry into the European Common Market, Colchester's trading pattern has tilted eastward dramatically. Currently, 50 percent of the nation's commerce is with the European continent, and it is growing. Colchester, strategically placed on the road and rail corridor to the major east coast ports, will undergo inevitable ripple-effect growth.

Free-lance writer Ivor Dalan, a native of Great Britain, now lives outside Dallas.

IF YOU GO

Getting there. By road from Central London: Consult maps to pass north through Golder's Green and head for the London Inner Ring Road (A406). Head east on the A406 until it intersects at Redbridge with the A12. Head east on the A12, which runs to the East Anglia coast, passing Colchester. Driving time will depend on traffic density, but allow at least two hours.

From Stansted Airport: Take B183 south to A120. Turn east on A120 and follow to Colchester. Driving time, about half an hour.

By rail: Take a Central Line Underground (subway) to the refurbished Liverpool Street Station, at the eastern edge of London's financial district. Change to a surface electrified express train; travel time from there is approximately one hour.

Accommodations: Colchester offers a wide range of hotels, guest houses, and bed-and-breakfast establishments. Write to the Tourist Information Office, 1 Queen St., Colchester, Essex, C012PJ, England, for a free copy of the accommodations brochure, which quotes current prices. The TIO will make a reservation on your behalf.

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