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COLCHESTER

 We start our virtual tour at the War Memorial, outside the Castle, of which more later.

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(taken September 2016)

Before we set off, perhaps I ought to say a little bit about our history, so that you can fit in the places and buildings that we'll see with the events that produced them.

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Colchester is Britain's oldest recorded town. 2000 years ago, the town's centre, where we are now, was probably an uninhabited area, in all directions overlooking what was known to the inigenous British people as Camulodunom - which translated to the modern day as 'fortress of the war god Camulos.'

In the century before Christ's birth it was the major settlement of those people of the ancient British tribe, the Trinovantes, who were then ruled by, or closely associated with, a neighbouring tribe known as the Cattuvellauni. (Historians now prefer to talk of the Late Iron Age and the Belgic belgae tribe - or perhaps, celtic people.) Here reigned Cunobelin, whom the Romans called the king of the Britons, and Shakespeare called Cymbeline, and who just may be the basis for Old King Coel, that jolly nursery rhyme monarch whose name has long been attached to Colchester.

Having subdued the British in AD 43, when the Emperor Claudius himself is said to have ridden in atop an elephant, they built here their first capital in Britain, a colonia, from where they could keep a watchful eye on the local people, and from where, they could launch their conquest of the rest of Britain.

A few years later, in AD 60 or 61, the colonia was virtually destroyed by an army commanded by Queen Boadicea (Boudicca) of the Iceni tribe, from the area around modern day Norfolk.

She and her family had been treated badly by the Romans, following the death of her husband Prasutagus, which so enraged her, that she gathered an army from several British tribes and went on to do untold damage to the Roman occupiers and their allies.

The Romans described the ancient British people as being in the fashion of training their hair into spike shapes and wearing a blue coloured face paint extracted from the plant called woad. Colchester likes to think that the attack on it by enraged Boadicea was therefore the first recorded instance of 'Woad Rage'.
 

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Destruction of the Temple of Claudius from a painting by Pete Froste

 Following this, the Romans commenced the building of a defensive wall and ditch around the town, so much of which still stands today. So, moving on: -

THE WAR MEMORIAL

The War Memorial was part of Colchester's tribute to those 1248 brave Colchester men who gave their lives during the First World War. It is a truly magnificent and fine piece of work by sculptor Henry C Fehr, depicting Victory at the top and flanked on the one side by St George and the Dragon (symbolic of triumph over evil - for the men of the town) and on the other, Peace (for the women of the town). The names of those who gave their lives, including the 239 men and women from the 1939 - 1945 war, are inscribed on the memorial located within the Town Hall. (For a closer look and more information please go here.)

(taken September 2016)

We now move north through the splendid gates provided by the late Viscount Cowdray, whose family owned the castle that you see ahead of you and who lost two sons in that terrible war. Viscount Cowdray's gift of the castle to the borough was part of his memorial to the two sons that he lost and those men of Colchester who died in the First World War.

 HOLLYTREES

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(taken September 2016)

Before we start talking about the castle, we look to the right at Hollytrees, where Charles Gray once lived. He had been left the castle as part of a wedding gift and he set about making it, and the grounds, a place of beauty and use. It is now part of Colchester's Museum.

 

THE CASTLE

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(taken September 2016)

Turning to the left, the castle was built by the Normans around 1070, as part of their defence system, following their invasion of England in 1066. It is an impressive structure - indeed the largest Norman keep ever built. Its size is due to the fact that it was built around the podium of the Temple of Claudius, destroyed by the Iceni Queen Boadicea in AD 60 or 61.

If you look up at its walls, there are several points worthy of mention. Firstly, the Normans soon discovered that Essex is devoid of any natural building stone. The Romans had found the same thing some 1000 years earlier and had used a material called septaria which had to be brought from the coast, and the natural red earth from which they made their tiles. The lime for the mortar would have come from and stone that the Romans would have left and perhaps brought up from Kent. It could be concluded that the Normans very efficiently destroyed any carved or engraved stonework that the Romans had created, as so very little has been discovered in recent times.

The castle is built almost entirely from reclaimed Roman materials; Roman roof tiles being in abundance and heavily used in the walls. The large windows on the south wall are not original. They were put in by Charles Gray in the 18th century, to give more light, replacing the smaller Norman slit windows that would have been there and which can be seen elsewhere on the building.

The previous owner of the castle was a man named Wheely who had bought the building in 1683, for the sole purpose of demolishing it and selling off the materials for building works. Thankfully, the task defeated him and he went bankrupt as a result. Perhaps the only good thing that came out of Wheely's destructive activities was the discovery of the castle's biggest secret. Underneath its walls, was found what has subsequently been identified as the plinth on which the Temple of Claudius was built in the 1st century AD - but I will leave that bit of our story to another part of our tour when you can go inside the castle.

It is believed, the height of the castle as you see it today is about what it was when it was first built, although the corner battlements have mostly disappeared. Incidentally, our castle predates and is built double scale to the famous Tower of London. That building has fared better with the passing of time and is a good indicator of how our castle must once have looked.

Again, lingering at the walls, it is quite clear that the castle was built in more than one stage. An extra storey was added at some point, evidenced by filled in battlements in various places and different style of corner stone work (quoins). The roof gives an impression of an Italian style and is not original. Charles Gray had believed his castle to be Roman and saw fit to put a Roman style roof on it. 

Following on around the west side of the castle and looking up again to the walls, there can be seen a sycamore tree growing on the ramparts, said to have been planted by the gaoler's daughter, some 200 hundred years ago. The castle served as the town's gaol for many years. Also, the west wall is basically as it was when the castle was first built, with its tiny slit windows which gave light internally and kept the worst draughts away. Also in this wall are various outfalls from the garderobes, the toilets! The round cupola on the top was built by Charles Gray and is in the position where one of the castle towers would have stood. It is likely that Mr Wheely demolished these towers prior to Charles Gray's rescue. 

Colchester High Street still stands where the Romans put it, and a good deal of the 2800 metre long Roman wall (the only one around a town that still survives) can be seen today. Since Roman times, most events in Britain's long history have left their mark on the town.

For a better view of the castle, please go here.

THE CASTLE PARK

So, let's take a walk around our award winning Castle Park, starting at the water garden.

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(taken September 2016)

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A FOLLY - NOT ROMAN OR NORMAN (taken September 2016)

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One of our flower beds, this one commemorating 100 years of the Cubs. (taken September 2016)

 THE OBELISK

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Walking round to the rear of the castle, we find an obelisk dedicated to the two soldiers martyred by the Civil War, when Colchester was under siege by Lord Fairfax, one of Oliver Cromwell's generals, in 1648.

The town underwent much hardship during the siege which lasted all through the hot summer and, upon surrender by the Royalist army, Lords Lucas and Lisle were executed by firing squad on or near this spot. It is said that grass has never grown there since, although the tarmacadam surface may have had something to do with that.

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Colchester recovered, the King was restored to the throne, the monarchy has been jealously protected ever since.

God Save the Queen!

 AVIGNON GARDENS and RAMPARTS

Climbing up the hill, which were once part of the Norman outer defences to the castle, we have a magnificent view to the north and down into what we call the Lower Castle Park. The gardens directly below are the Avignon gardens, in recognition of the French town by that name, with which Colchester is twinned. We are also twinned with Wetzlar in Germany, with the associated gardens close to Hollytrees, where we have just been.

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A view from the Castle Bailey looking west.. (taken September 2016)

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Several views from the Castle Bailey wall, of our Avignon Gardens, named after one of our twin towns. (taken September 2016)

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(taken September 2016)

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(taken September 2016)

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(taken September 2016)  

OUR REMEMBRANCE GARDENS

TO REMEMBER THOSE WHO SERVED IN VARIOUS CONFLICTS

PLACED BY OUR VARIOUS ASSOCIATIONS 

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KOREA 1950 - 1953

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ROYAL BRITISH LEGION

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MALAYA BORNEO 1948 - 1966

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 BURMA STAR ASSOCIATION 

 (taken September 2016)  

Before we leave the Castle Park, you may wish to take a look inside the castle here.

However, there are links to this tour at the end of our main tour so please don't leave us just yet.

 ST HELENA'S CHAPEL

We now pass through a small gate to the west of the castle and through into Maidenburgh Street. Once through the alley way, to the left, is St Helena's Chapel. Note how the Roman building method from the town wall has been mimicked by the Normans in the chapel's walls, with regular courses of Roman tile and septaria courses being used for the walls - some 800 years later.

Records mention the chapel's repair in 1097, but we are unsure exactly how old it is. It has recently become used once again as a place of worship, the building having lain empty for many years. It is now the home of the Orthodox Parish of St Helen. It became a chantry chapel in medieval times - King Henry VIII's reformation closing it in the 16th century. A chantry chapel, where priests were paid a sum after a person's death, to say prayers for that person, to help him on his way to heaven. It lt was later taken over by the Quakers. Note the traffic bollards close by with the town's crest on them.

St Helena is Colchester's patron saint, said to have been the daughter of King Coel, married to the Roman Emperor Constantius and mother of the Emperor Constantine who, in 333AD declared that Britain would be a Christian country. She was further said to have travelled to the Holy Land, to have discovered a fragment of the cross of Jesus and to have discovered the burial places of the three wise men. Apparently, when she returned to Britain with the relics, the cross fragment started to sprout into life. This is why our crest shows a sprouting cross and three crowns. (Incidentally, we have the same crest as Nottingham.)

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THE ROMAN THEATRE

Archaeological excavations discovered that St Helena's Chapel is built on the Roman foundations of the colonia's theatre (no good Roman colonia or town would be without one), the outline of which is now picked out in darker bricks along the roadway (not that is very well done).

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The pictures shows the information board outside the building where part of the foundations are displayed and inside, where the picture describes how the 3000 person capacity theatre would once have been. The amazing fact is that there are only five known Roman period theatres in Britain - and Colchester has two of them.

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I should point out that Colchester was a place where great entertainments were held. London may well have taken over as the Roman capital at a later date but Colchester was undoubtedly the most magnificent of all Roman settlements in Britain. Only recently (December 2005) archaeologists discovered the only Roman circus to be found in Britain, the largest outside Italy (more of this here). OK, we still have not found the baths that must have been here, nor an amphitheatre where gladiatorial combats would have been held, but this is only a matter of time, surely? This theatre would have been used for entertainment of various sorts, plays, poetry, reading, debates, socialising, etc. This was a town where the Romans and their friends could relax and enjoy themselves.

Indeed, Roman Camulodunum must have been a place of leisure and entertainment to its inhabitants.

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QUAKER BURIAL GROUND

Walking back to the chapel and turning left along William's Walk, we pass what once was the town's Quaker burial ground, now given over to grass, but with some gravestones set against the perimeter walls.

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Colchester, like so many other towns, had (and still has) a strong non-conformist following (ie non Church of England protestantism).

 

THE DUTCH QUARTER

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At the end of the street, we find ourselves in an area of 16th and 17th century timber framed buildings, an area known today as the Dutch Quarter. This is slightly misleading as it was in this area that the Flemish settlers lived, evading religious persecution in their own country. They were heavily involved in the wool trade and weaving industry, something that was very important in Colchester for several centuries, before the industrial revolution of the 18th century reduced it to a trickle. Note how several of the houses have large ground level windows, designed so that the weaver could get maximum light whilst working at his loom.

 

JOHN BALL and WAT TYLER

It was in this general area that John Ball, the famous anarchist who lead the 14th century Peasant's Revolt lived, and his compatriot Wat Tyler. The revolt was against the rich who controlled the wages paid to the peasants, the latter believing themselves to be worth much more. So what has changed?

...or was it the Pedant's Revolt?

 

STOCKWELL CHAPEL

Here is Stockwell Chapel where Isaac Taylor once preached before fleeing with his family to escape the expected invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century. More about the Taylor family later.

This is further evidence of the non-conformists in the area, where philanthropic activity also created schools for the children of the area.

Across the road from the chapel is a building that was once our Bluecoat School. A Bluecoat school is a type of charity school, the first of which was founded in the 16th century, named as such because of the distinctive blue uniform originally worn by the pupils. The colour blue was traditionally the colour of charity, and was a common colour for clothing at the time. The uniform included a blue frock coat, and yellow stockings with white bands.

 

These two statues now reside in the Town Hall and are understood to have come from the Bluecoat school in Colchester.

The name Stockwell is a reference to the place where people on this side of the town came for water, as Colchester is built on a free draining hill, with impervious clays at its foot. This was where the water settled and the level to which wells had to reach, including the deepest of them all - inside the castle. This is further evidenced by the fact that Colchester's several (now sadly all gone) breweries were all located in diverse directions at the foot of the hill.

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