Part of our Roman Trail! We offer you this tour of our Roman walls but please also see our Roman Colchester Trail here, which introduces you to many of our other Roman sites, including the Roman Circus.

So, this web page virtual tour is not as good as a real walk - but it will have to do! To give the pictures time to load, I shall tell you a bit about our wonderful walls. I will try to show and explain to you the principal points of interest as we move around the walls in a clockwise direction. I am going to talk about the reasons why, when and how our wall was built - and something of the history and events that the wall has seen.

It is important to remember that when the walls were built, Colchester town centre (i.e. all that area inside the town walls) was a colonia (the highest status of Roman settlement at that time) and had been known as the Colonia Victricensis (City of Victory), later to become, simply, Camulodunum. A section of it started off in the year 43 as a legionary fortress, soon to be de-fortified and used as a colonia. It was as an unfortified colonia that it was attacked in the year 60 or 61 and destroyed by Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni. I will be frequently referring to the 'colonia' for that reason.

The following map shows how the Romans laid out their colony, with the walls and gates (the gates that we know of, that is!) and the internal insulae areas of streets and important buildings. Please note the dotted outline of the AD43 fortress that was fairly soon after done away with and the colonia begun.

The surrounding area was already known as Camulodunom (understood to be the British spelling). After AD 43, the colonia and this land of the Trinovantes settled down to become known as a Romanised Camulodunum, which, of course, eventually became known as Colchester (colonia-ceaster meaning fortress colony. Lincoln was also a colonia, hence its name.)

The following map is by John Speed and dates to 1610. From this you can see how things had changed in Colchester over 1300 or so years. Nothing like the sprawling urban mass of today, it does clearly show the Roman wall, the still-standing gates and the eight 14th century bastions that were added at a later date. More of that later, during our tour!


So that you can see where we are and where we are going, please study the following map, which highlights the wall system and shows the principal points that we are going to make reference to during our virtual tour. Please also note the numbers 1 to 12 and the names of the various 'gates'.
So sit back. The weather is fine. The birds are singing. All is still. We now begin our tour.

To jump ahead to any point please click on the relevant number below.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

We start our tour at the oldest part of the wall, where it is believed once stood a triumphal arch, raised to the glory of the Roman Emperor Claudius who invaded Britain in AD 43 and who took the surrender of several British kings at the place then known as Camulodunum.

At first, the Roman invaders needed to secure their position. So they constructed a fortress in two locations, one near to modern day Gosbecks, the other, on the hill that overlooked modern day Sheepen and Gosbecks. Quite understandably they must have expected a backlash from the British. The layout of the fortress on the hill has been shown by archaeologists to have been of a very similar size and arrangement as that at Caerleon. In terms of size it would have stretched from modern day Balkerne Hill to Trinity Street. However, we must assume that the British were fairly passive and so the Romans decided on turning the place into a colonia, where they could retire their soldiers, thus guaranteeing a populace to Rome.

The site of the new colonia must surely have been chosen because it was a natural extension of the fortress and it had the strategic advantage of being on a hill - albeit undefended; commanding views of the conquered British settlement to the south west; and with a river and fresh running spring water nearby. It is believed that the colonia was expanded to the size that is surrounded by our magnificent Roman wall - but without the wall.




This is a picture of the outward facing Balkerne Gate as we see it today (I will talk about shields that you can see on the wall below when we return to this point at the end of our tour). As you can see there is only a fraction of the gate left, although it still remains the earliest and the most complete Roman gateway in Britain. Archaeologists have extensively explored the foundations and features and have found some very interesting drains in this area.

The following picture shows what this triumphal arch might once have looked like, after it had been added-to by the building of what we know as the Balkerne Gate.

The gate faced west . Why? For a start it would have looked towards the place we now know as Sheepen, an area of Camulodunom known to have been where the indigenous British people lived and worked. Much sign of industry has been found there and the siting of the arch would have been a powerful image for the conquered people. Another important part of the British settlement was based at modern day Gosbecks, two miles away. It is also believed that the arch position was here because this was the main entrance point to the colonia, facing in the general direction of London (Londinium) and St. Albans (Verulamium).

Some time after the destruction of the colonia by Queen Boadicea and her army in AD 60/61, the construction of the wall, that would encircle and protect the populace, was begun.

On the subject of the way the gate faced, it is interesting to note that the road layout of only two British Roman towns (that of Colchester and Silchester) are aligned on an exact true north/south alignment, our North Gate and Head Gate being within a half degree. This shows the precision of the first town planners, who would have used the sun's movement to plot a cast shadow arc and then bisect it for a true north position.

From ancient documents, we know that the Roman writer Tacitus chastised the Roman authorities for not providing the colonia with a wall. Whether or not a wall would have been sufficient defence against Boadicea, remains unknown, as the might of the Roman army in Britain was away in the west at the time, leaving the colonia lightly defended. Boadicea would have known this and would have made her plans accordingly.



We have now walked through the gate, into the colonia (as was), imagining the greeting that we might have had from sentries all those years ago, eyeing us suspiciously and enquiring as to the nature of our business. Turning back on ourselves with the Jumbo water tower behind us and looking west, we see the gate from the other side, the single footway arch alongside what is assumed to have been a guardroom. The Hole in the Wall pub is on the right, built directly onto the Balkerne Gate.



It was only around a hundred years ago that this structure was properly uncovered, which is probably how it managed to survive in the condition that it has. The flooring is modern but everything else that you see is pure Roman.



To the left also we can see the suggestion of the raised ground that was once the wall's ramparts. This gave the defenders (i.e. the Romans) a distinct height advantage over any attacker, especially when you remember that the entire town wall was at once surrounded by a defensive ditch to add to an attacker's difficulty. The present day road level of Balkerne Hill is much lower than the original Roman level, having been cut back in the 1960s, leaving the 'Hole in the Wall' standing out 'like a Tibetan Monastery'.

We now walk back through Balkerne Gate to outside the wall.



This is the opposite view to the one where we were looking into the guardroom. Again, the remains are well preserved, but with a little modern brick repair work in the top of the arch.



This display board is affixed to the gateway to explain the structure's history. On the right hand side of the board, the top view shows the triumphal arch, the next shows the added gateway, the third showing the gate sealed up. The final view is how we now see the remains of the gate, much of it destroyed and built onto by the building that is now known as the Hole in the Wall public house.

So where did the name Balkerne Gate come from? The original Roman name for the gate has been lost with time. It became known as the Balkerne Gate, a reference to it being baulked, stopped-up, bricked-up, sealed-up - in antiquity. It appears (from archaeological studies) that this gate fell into disuse at some point during the Roman period, perhaps because the Head Gate was a more convenient (and less of an incline) entrance point into the colonia. Indeed, it is because it was baulked that the gate has survived as much as it has and that Jumbo could be built on what would have originally been the High Street. All our other town gates have disappeared, allowing for greater traffic flow. Modern day vehicles are much larger than the horse and carts that people would have used two millennia ago.

At some time (experts cannot be sure about when it was blocked and when it was unblocked), the decision was taken to unblock the gate, which is why we are now able to walk through two of the four access ways; the other two being underneath and part of the foundations of the Hole in the Wall pub.



When Balkerne Lane was lowered in the 1960s, the general area was subject to an extensive archaeological survey, which revealed an amazing amount of information about how this area developed during the Roman period. I shall not go into that in much detail other than to say that this picture shows the evidence of the main carriageway and the triumphal arch.



Moving on towards point 2, we pass the left hand carriageway where we are able to get an impression of the huge size of the gate. We can see the soft tufa stone that the triumphal arch was constructed from, in contrast to the later wall materials.


A little further on we look back to see where the Hole in the Wall got its name from. The pub was once known as the Kings Head but, in 1843, the railway came to Colchester and the landlord of this ancient tavern saw an opportunity for increased business. In a single act of archaeological vandalism, he bashed a hole through the Roman gate's structure to open up a view of the railway to the north. Thereafter, the local people awarded it the nickname of 'The Hole in the Wall' a name that was officially adopted in the 1960s.

We started our tour at the most interesting and best preserved part of our famous walls. Regrettably it is mostly downhill from here - literally. We are going to trace the wall along its entire length, with many sections missing, some in poor repair, some completely hidden by buildings that have been built on top of them. We will have walked approximately 3000 metres by the time we get back here for a pint at the Hole in the Wall. I hope that you enjoy the rest of the tour.

We now move on down the steep Balkerne Hill in a northerly direction. Understandably perhaps, we cannot get clear access to both sides of the wall as private properties, particular inside the walls, back right up to the wall itself. Our walls are not only classed as a scheduled ancient monument (SAM) but are also Grade 1 listed, with all the protection that is afforded to this remarkable structure. In some areas, the walls are completely obscured by buildings - but more of that later!



 To the left we see a brick built building of the Victorian age. Built by Peter Shuyler-Bruff, it once housed a steam driven pump, to pump fresh water up the hill to the Jumbo water tower which was built in the 1880s. I mention this because, here we have an inkling into what the Romans must have been thinking when they chose their site for the colonia. This part of Colchester, at the foot of the hill, is renowned for its springs - fresh water - so essential for healthy living. We have never positively discovered any Roman baths in Colchester (some bath type structures are known from the work done at the Sixth Form College in the 2000s) but we would expect that this would have been where they were, for the simple reason that it was here that there was fresh, pure water; an easy supply that could be heated and used to wash the dirt and grime away after a hard day at the forum.



Half way down the hill quite a bit of the wall is missing (some of it perhaps due to cannon damage during the Civil War of 1648), although here on the right at the top of the wall section, can be seen evidence of one of the Roman period lookout towers that would have existed at various vantage points around the wall's perimeter. To the south, uphill, a complete section of the wall is missing. Philip Crummy believes that this is because the presence of a Roman drain (always close to a tower or gate) introduced a weakness which helped with a collapse of the wall from undermining, or subsidence of the outer earthworks.



The walls here have been heavily repaired and rebuilt over the centuries, although, in places, you can still see evidence of the Roman tile and septaria courses. We are reaching the foot of the hill and arrive at the next point of our tour, with sections of the wall, in varying states of repair on our right.




Archaeologists carried out an extensive dig in this area in the 1970's and discovered much evidence of Roman buildings dating from the 3rd and 4th century period - outside the Roman walled colonia! Indeed, Colchester was expanding and there was considerable overspill into surrounding areas, especially along the main routes into the colonia. In the background is the Octagon building, originally the Royal London Insurance building. This was built on the site of a high status Roman villa, where some magnificent floor mosaics were discovered. In the Victorian period and up until the 1980s this was where the livestock market was located.

Sheepen is an area associated with the ancient British; a place of industry; a place where King Cunobelin minted so many of his gold coins (archaeologists found many coin moulds here); a place that signified the great wealth of Britain - an obvious attraction to treasure and wealth seeking Roman invaders.

We round the north-east corner of the wall where probably once stood an observation tower. Evidence has been found of several towers around the wall's perimeter, where some protection from Britain's weather could be given to soldiers from those sunnier Italian climes or the auxillary soldiers from right across the Roman Empire that supported them. We are now walking east towards North Gate, with the wall seeing little sunlight. A horse trough filled with flowers gives a clue to an earlier use of this area.



Before we go any further I shall explain the meaning of the Latin word 'colonia'. A colonia was the highest status of Roman cities. Next came the municipia (Verulamium or modern day St. Albans), followed by civitates. They each enjoyed different privileges according to their status. Coloniae were inhabited by those persons who had Roman citizenship. This included retired legionary soldiers who had completed their term of service and thereby were entitled to citizenship and a grant of land from the territory allotted to the town from the surrounding territory. As former soldiers, they could be depended upon to defend Roman interests, and the coloniae helped to integrate them into civilian life. They also served to introduce Roman law and culture to the native population. Municipia were inferior to coloniae only in their prestige. Civitates resembled municipia but were the centre of the tribe (civitas). Even though civitates were Roman towns, their inhabitants remained citizens of their tribe, not the town itself.

The were were four coloniae in Britain,

  • Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex) in AD49 by Claudius. Full name is COLONIA CLAVDIA VICTRICENSIS CAMVLODVNENSIVM
  • Lindum (Lincoln, Lincolnshire) in AD95 By Domitian. Full name COLONIA DOMITIANA LINDENSIVM
  • Glevum (Gloucester, Gloucestershire) in AD97 by Nerva. Full name COLONIA NERVIA GLEVENSIVM
  • Eburacum (York, North Yorkshire) in AD200 by Caracall. Full name COLONIA EBORACENSIVM
So now you know!




As I mentioned earlier, all evidence of the Roman North Gate has disappeared as a road widening exercise. This, and the following picture, is all that is left of what once have been an impressive structure, perhaps equally as impressive as Balkerne Gate. One day maybe, an archaeological survey might tell us more about the size, layout and position. North Gate was removed in antiquity and no record has been kept of its appearance, although our archaeologists say that the east foundations are intact and recorded..



Just a small witness to the wall, squashed between two buildings, probably of medieval period. The Roman wall was originally approximately 2.4 metres thick, so a considerable amount of the wall is missing here. Behind this section, a short way along St Pter's Street, we find further evidence of what is left of the wall.


Very much in poor condition, with the weight of recent (cavity wall tells us this) buildings bearing down on it.

We now proceed along the route of the north section of the wall, along St Peter's Street, with a section of the wall on view on the right, before it disappears from view within the buildings that exist there. The wall has either been demolished or incorporated into the structures of the houses and other buildings along the route. The river Colne is within 100 metres to the North and runs east, through various mill and weir sites, towards the Hythe and out to sea.

After a distance of approx. 100 metres we turn right and up to Northgate Street. Notice how the gradient changes from what would have been outside the wall, to the height inside the wall. When the archaeologists delved in the area that is now grassed, they found evidence of a Roman wall observation tower.



As we walk along Northgate Street, we have many timber framed buildings of the Dutch Quarter on the right. The Victorian period houses on the left have been built directly onto the Roman wall and it would be nice to know whether their cellars show the wall in any way. After a short distance we are able to look over to the left to see a section of the wall exposed where car parking has been provided. This gives an idea of the height of the Roman wall as it would once have been.

At this point, I am going to show you a photograph that I took on Saturday 16th February 2008 whilst standing on the pavement in Northgate Street, close to the above picture. By the time you come here and see this picture, this exposed Roman drain (c50AD) has been completely built over. The importance of this picture (below) is that it changed the thinking of archaeologists. It was a complete surprise to them, especially as the approximately 350mm x 350mm wooden plank drain construction c AD 50 had been preserved due to its waterlogged state. Furthermore, our archaeologists believed that, where there is a drain, there is a tower or a gate in the wall. Indeed, their excavations revealed a metalled road surface, as shown on the second picture, meaning that this was a previously unknown gateway into the town. The jury is out as to how they should interprete this find, because it could mean that, if such a gate exists here, is there a corresponding gate on the south face of the town wall, and other similar gates at the positions of the medieval bastions that you will later come to during the course of your virtual walk around the wall?

Following on from this, the archaeologists were able to confirm the finding of three drains, that dendrochronology tests on the wood gave a date of AD62 (therefore predating the Town Wall itself), that the two other drains were of a similar construction and that a gravel 'road' surface was between them.


The wooden drain discovered in February 2008,

completely preserved by waterlogging,

viewed looking north from Northgate Street.


This view is looking to the right from the previous picture position

and shows the metalled road surface and beyond that, a later Roman drain

which would have discharged excess water into the town ditch and away to the nearby river .

Moving on, we will soon arrive at the area known as Rye Gate, believed to be a medieval gate cut into the wall to give access to a medieval mill known as Middle Mill, demolished almost 50 years ago. The area has been landscaped considerably over the years and made into one of the principal entrances into the lower castle park. 



If you take a short walk across the river here you will pass by the sluice gates, all that is left of Middle Mill, one of several water mills that date back to our medieval cloth industry period. This postcard view, sadly, is no more.




Not Roman at all, Rye Gate serves as an elegant entrance to the beautiful Castle Park. All evidence of the wall has disappeared in this area, it having been extensively modified in the Victorian era and in subsequent years.



Capt. Herbert Scarisbrick Naylor Leyland was MP for Colchester. Born 1864, he joined the Life Guards at 18. Went round the world. A very rich man. This caricature of him appeared in the Vanity Fair publication in 1894. (1894.08.09)

Why the name Rye Gate, you may ask? The 18th century historian, the Reverend Philip Morant, stated,

'Rye-gate, as it is vulgarly called; or rather Rhee or Rea-Gate, that is the River-Gate, as leading to the River. It was anciently named the North, or King's Scherde. 'Twas taken down in the year 1659.'

He referred to this gate as a 'postern', rather than a full 'gate', implying that it was a simple through way (see Speed's Map at the beginning of this page). Morant mentioned two other posterns as well, those at Sheregate and at St. Mary's. More of which later. Interestingly, he failed to make any mention of Balkerne Gate whatsoever, presumably because it was 'balked' and not known as a gateway. Please click here to read Morant's words on the subject of our walls.

Remember, we are still 'inside the walls' at this point.



As we walk along this section, the reconstructed section of the wall is on our left, just over the railings, although we are about to follow the path that crosses over and will take us once more to 'outside the walls'. The castle is on our right. This section of the wall passes through our beautiful Castle Park. The wall has been substantially reconstructed. During the Siege of Colchester in 1648, contemporary accounts tell us that this was an area where the wall was missing and had to be fortified with a makeshift barricade to keep the parliamentary forces at bay. This is backed up by Speed's map at the beginning of this page. We don't know who demolished the wall and when or why, although it is quite possible that, being on sloping ground that was liable to flooding, the wall may simply have fallen over and become irrepairable.




The River Colne is situated to our left, some 100 metres away. There was only one gate on this side of the wall, North Gate, which would require a bridge over the river to enable any useful road traffic from the north of the colonia. The river would have been an obstacle to any attacking forces so that might perhaps have represented the safest section of the wall.

We have to assume that the walls of the colonia were completed in full. Colchester was the premier settlement in Britain - Britain's first city! Our town walls are the first to have been built. Other walled towns such as Lincoln and Exeter appear to have followed suit much later, where they retained their military base with civilian development initially taking place within the confines of the wall and the protection that the walls provided to its citizens.

It is believed, from archaeological investigations, that our walls date from the period AD 65 to 80. This fits perfectly with the aftermath of the Boudican destruction. Pottery and coin finds, found in the spoil and infill of wall sections that have been excavated seem to confirm this date, with the ramparts being dated a little later to AD 150 to 200.


As we continue along the wall in an easterly direction, we come to what is known as a postern. This is a small gate through the wall (not a major thoroughfare), dating from the Roman period. It was re-discovered by a Victorian archaeologist by the name of Duncan and the gate took his name thereafter. Not as complete as the Balkerne Gate, Duncan's Gate is an excellent example of a postern. It is closed off to the public and we (the general public - or plebiae) can only see it now through metal railings.





What is particularly remarkable is that the complete archway of the gate has simply collapsed at some point in time and lays where it fell, as can be seen in the next picture (taken from inside the railings). Additionally, a grating in the ground level, put there after an archaeological survey, shows an amazing Roman drain or water feature which passes under the gate and away towards the river. Its beginning can be seen on Hollytree meadow in the Castle Park, where it has been associated with a Roman building that once stood near there.

This whole area of our wall is crying out for development as a highly interesting tourist feature, which could include an attempt at a reconstruction of the gateway.



Whilst the picture is not easy to interpret (not helped by the addition of archaeology destroying stone steps by some twit!), this is the fallen archway of Duncan's Gate, the Roman tiles that formed the arch clearly visible. Subsequent archaeological studies discovered that the gate had been set on fire at some point in history, presumably by an attacking force. We do know that the Danes attacked Colchester during the 10th century, with a record of Edward the Elder chasing them back 'over the walls'. We must assume that the walls were then in a fairly good state of repair as a walled town was a safe place to live. There are some who would argue (with good reason) that King Arthur himself made this his 'Camelot'.



This further view of the gate shows one of the supporting walls, of similar construction technique to that at Balkerne Gate, where we started our tour.

I should point out the obvious fact that the walls of the colonia were a major work of civil engineering and would have cost a great deal of money. They must have taken many years to complete. Due to a lack of natural building stone in the Colchester area, the walls had to be constructed from whatever was available. There must have been a considerable industry around the manufacture of the brick earth tiles and the collection of the septaria (fossilised clay) that was to be found in the Harwich area. There was a ready made work force, in the form of the army, who had plenty of time on their hands, whilst maintaining security in the colonia. The cost of their wages alone must have been phenomenal.

Before we move on from this place, I should point out that this postern gate seems to have given a means of access to a cemetery, just outside the walls. This cemetery is much smaller than the huge cemeteries to the south of the colonia and some interpretation of the types of burial, period, rites, would be of interest. Was it associated with a particular sect or class of people? I will try to find out more and let you know.



This section of the wall has been substantially rebuilt with nothing of the Roman construction visible. What we are seeing here is the rubble infill of the original Roman wall.



A fossil expert could no doubt tell us the age and Latin name of this Jurassic (142 to 205 million years old) ammonite; long extinct marine animals that were so named because their coiled and chambered shells resembled the horns of the Egyptian ram god Ammon. Is this some sort of record for Colchester, I wonder?

Sections of our Roman wall exhibit what appear to be Jurassic fossils in the septaria, from as far back as 205 million years. These creature were cephalopods that once swam in the warm Jurassic Sea, some 34 degrees north of the Equator. Movement of the Earth's land masses over millions of years led to the formation of the continents as we know them today, which included good old Britain, leading eventually to the formation of the septaria that was to go to be used by the Romans for our wall. However, septaria belongs to the Eocene period of only 50 million or so years ago. The experts (GeoEssex) tell us that:

'Septarian nodules from the Jurassic do occur in the boulder clay of Essex, having been brought south from the north of Cambridgeshire during the Ice Age. These can contain traces of ammonites, and one or two might be found in Colchester’s Roman wall. However, the vast majority of the septarian nodules, or ‘septaria’, in the wall were harvested from the local London Clay and this dates from the later Eocene period and so do not contain ammonites. But some may contain the odd piece of Nautilus which survived the extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period. '
So, are our fossil ammonites from the Jurassic - or are they the Nautilus from the Eocene? Only the experts can say, based on our fossil evidence. What do you think?

Whatever the case, our Roman wall's age pales into insignificance by comparison with that of the Jurassic era.


A modern-day ammonite Nautilus, distantly related to Jurassic ammonites.




There are several other fossil imprints in this section of the wall. None are in evidence at any other part for some unknown reason.



Cut through in the Victorian period, before the walls were scheduled and therefore protected against this sort or archaeological vandalism.



Allegedly, Colchester's north facing Roman wall has a unique type of lichen that is the subject of great interest to botanists. It has been suggested that it dates back to the Roman period, as it only thrives on our Roman walls. What we are seeing here is a moss covered wall, thriving in the ideal north facing and therefore moist conditions.



Behind the wall is a private burial ground dating from the early Victorian period. There are many defined building features and buttressing on this section of the wall, most of it probably from the medieval period. It is likely that there was a Roman look-out tower at this point.

 We have no way of knowing how long it took to built the entire wall as this would have depended on many factors. Did the Romans built it in complete sections, moving around as each section was completed? Or did they have building operations going on at every point of the perimeter at the same time, to maintain a security presence at all positions?

I will now quote directly from the words of Mr. Philip Crummy, Director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust and author of the best selling book, 'City of Victory'.

'The method of building the wall is well understood. During the excavations at Lion Walk and Culver Street, vivid evidence was found of the activities of its builders. At Lion Walk, the base of what had been a large stockpile of unused building stone lay a few metres from the inner face of the wall. And at Culver Street layers of small chips of septaria showed that the masons worked the septaria on the spot rather than at the quarry or in a yard, and patches of abandoned mortar laying on wooden boards indicated how this mortar was mixed on site.

To build the wall, the Romans first dug a trench about 10 feet wide and about 4 feet deep. This was filled with layers of mortar and septaria which were simply poured or thrown in alternately until the top of the trench was reached. By this means the foundation was formed which, considering the height and weight of the structure it was to support, is surprisingly slight.

The wall itself is of ashlar construction. In other words the inner and outer faces were constructed independently of the core. The faces were raised, presumably a few courses at a time, and then the space between the two faces was filled with layers of septaria and mortar laid alternately just as in the foundation. The faces were made of neatly coursed septaria and tile, usually four courses of tile being followed by four or five courses of septaria. A small offset was formed at the base of the wall by making the lowest one or two courses slightly wider that the rest.

The purpose of the tile courses is not clear. The courses on the inner and outer faces match each other in terms of height above ground but do not connect up across the thickness of the wall. They are therefore not bonding courses intended to strengthen the wall. They may have been intended as a decorative feature. They may also have had a practical value during the construction work by providing a means of keeping the coursing even and on the same plane.'

End of quote.

People aoften ask why the Roman wall builders failed to use flint for the wall. This is a readily available material in this area and can be seen in the walls of later Norman and medieval buildings, especially churches. In pre-historic times, flint was a valuable material, mined and traded (Grimes Graves is an excellent example of this) by people from the Stone Age period. It's main use was for making tools and weapons - and sparks for fire making. The Romans made the clear decision in Colchester, not to use flint and this is most probably due to the texture of the material, very hard and shiny, making it a poor material for their mortar to bond with. Or was it simply that the Romans didn't want any flint to spoil the look and fine lines of their incredible wall?

However, they did use flint for their wall in Verulamium (modern day St Albans), probably due to a lack of other building material and too far from the coast to make use of septaria. It may be noted that St Albans' wall did not survive very well!


Whilst the Castle Park is the jewel in our crown - our pride and joy - sadly, this section of our wall was a cause for great concern. It is still not very pretty, even after extensive restoration and stabilising work in the 2000s. It is out of sight and therefore out of mind and had been allowed to decay over a long period of time. Huge sections of this scheduled ancient monument (SAM) had been falling off, leaving the rubble infill to spill onto the ground. The owners of the Victorian-built houses along Roman Road, whose gardens abut the wall, seem to have made a valiant effort over the years to shore up and repair their section of wall, with a resultant mixed style being achieved. Many concerned townsfolk had highlighted this situation with our borough council and with English Heritage; official bodies who have responsibility for protecting our heritage. Thankfully, their concerns were rewarded with activity to make some sort of an attempt at repair and stabilisation. Please see the various pictures taken in July 2009, showing the work that has been done and was in the process of being done by specialist contractors, Bakers of Danbury, under the instruction of the borough. The outer wall has completely disappeared above ground level, with only stabilising work possible to the rubble core. Any Roman brick on show would be from the inner wall, showing just how thin the wall had been allowed to decay. However, archaeologists have delved below ground level and confirm that the wall in its original form still exists in good order. It is lovely to see that our walls are protected and conserved for future generations to enjoy, even if so much has already been lost forever.

Don't we have a duty to follow the Pirian declaration of the Walled Town Friendship Circle which says:

Walled Towns are unique inheritances from times long past and should be treasured, maintained and safeguarded from neglect, damage and destruction and passed on into perpetuity as irreplaceable 'Timestones of History'.





 In the foreground you can probably see the slope caused by the fallen Roman masonry.

Continuing our tour we walk for a time across a grassed area, and then on to Land Lane where we will soon arrive at East Hill and the site of the East Gate into the colonia.




In case you cannot read this, the plaque states that:





Across the road, there is no obvious evidence of the Roman wall, although its remains are there, the higher ground that is 'inside the wall' being occupied by the magnificent St. James the Great church. Indeed, the height of the church is a clue to how this section of the wall once was. East Hill has been cut away to make the gradient easier, where once would have been a much steeper section, around 3 metres higher, to suit the gate that once stood here. We can only assume that this lowering of the road occurred around 1675 when the Roman gateway was removed. The red brick courses that can be seen at low level is the 17th century underpinning on which the Roman wall foundations sit.


Whilst the brick wall shown above is below the level of the foundations of the original Roman wall, there is a Roman drain, just above what would have been the Roman ground level and, as usual, sited close to a Roman gate. A better view of the unkempt drain is shown below, some 3 metres above the current road level. It is not an obvious feature, due to the destructive encroachment of undergrowth. However, the barrel vaulting of the drain arch can be picked out close to the top of the wall, suggesting that the Roman wall was once some 4 metres higher than it now is. Come on Colchester. Let's tidy this up and make the drain a feature to be admired (joke!).

A similar drain in good maintained order can be seen further along our tour in Vineyard Street car park and to a lesser degree at the gap next to St Mary at the Walls church on Balkerne Lane.



 We will now walk along Priory Street for the next part of our tour.




(as shown on the previous picture)

This is the first of the eight known medieval bastions that we will be seeing on our tour, this one partially hidden under vegetation and seemingly neglected. I should point out at this stage that the Speed map of 1610 (a section of it below) shows the town as it was at that time. It appears to show the eight bastions on its southern and eastern sections of the town wall, each possibly sited at a point where there once stood a Roman period lookout tower. As so much of this section of the walls was badly damaged during the 1648 siege, we cannot now be sure of what existed.




Allowing vegetation to get a grip on the wall leads produces a devastating effect on the masonry, which is forced apart by root growth. These walls need work doing on them and plans were afoot for this in 2013.

Indeed, much of the needed repair work was started in January 2005. Pictures of the resulting work follows.





A considerable improvement in appearance but the bastion is still susceptible to vehicle damage, which is what brought about the repair work in the first place. Will we ever learn how to protect our ancient monuments?

These bastions were added to the Roman wall during the reign of King Richard II (1377-1399). He had become king at the age of only 10 years and was guided by John of Gaunt and his chancellor, so, at the time of the Peasant's Revolt in 1381, he was only 14 when he found himself having to deal with the likes of the revolt leaders Wat Tyler and John Ball. Both had links with Colchester but the latter was a Colchester preacher, a monk, later to die horribly as was the custom of the time through being hung, drawn and quartered, for his treason against the king. Perhaps this connection led to the building of the bastions as a visible warning to the people of Colchester of the might of the king.

Something that is not well known about Colchester is the effect of plague on our population. You can read about more of this here. The Black Death claimed the lives of over 1000 Colchester people in 1348 (out of a total population of 4000 to 5000 people) and had a similar effect right across England. So much so that the peasants were in short supply to carry out the necessary work in the fields for their masters. As a result they naturally demanded higher pay, failing which, they took their labour elsewhere. The culmination of all this was that the various kings of that period brought about measures to drive costs back down again to levels before the plague, resulting in the peasants revolting. The youthfull Richard II brought it to a bloody end.

Bastions served to give defenders a greater view of any attacker who might use the cover of the wall to remain hidden. Three of these remain in Priory Street alone, with another surviving on the south wall. A programme of repairs is planned for this section of the wall.



This map is amazingly detailed and meticulously shows the wall as it existed in 1876, when many of the buildings that are shown have since been demolished. The Bell Inn was closed in 1913 after it was found to be operating as a brothel. The wonky wall line is of the later brick repair which you will see in the next pictures. It does not follow the Roman wall line along this section, presumably to 'grab' land for gardens. Civil War and 'Progress' has seen much damage caused to the wall, some of which I shall be showing you as we move around the wall route.



Just beyond the second bastion there is a particularly ugly section of wall, the result of early 18th century repairs to replace a section of the Roman wall that was destroyed during the Siege of Colchester by parliamentarian forces in 1648. Whilst this probably classed as some of the earliest brickwork in Colchester, others might say it is grotesque. Why it fails to follow the line of the Roman wall that it replaces is unknown!



As you can see, the 300 year old brickwork is suffering from decay. This opening through the wall's perimeter is just one of many that have been added over the centuries, the threat of invasion and the usefulness of the wall as an effective means of defence, now a thing of the past.



Note the Roman tiled course at high level. This section of the wall has been heavily repaired over the years, hiding much of the original Roman work.



These tiles will soon fall away unless modern day repairs aren't carried out. Colchester Borough Council have a plan for repairs to be done in 2004 when, hopefully, all these problems will be addressed.



This would have provided vehicle access at some point in history, sealed up more recently. We know that a bastion was located here as its foundations were excavated in the 1980's whilst the car park was being created. This location directly lines-up with Duncan's Gate on the north wall, so is an indication that there may have been a postern gate at this position in Roman times. This area is now covered by a car park. In the 19th century, the road was lined with housing along both sides. More recently, the houses were demolished on this side to enable the car park to be provided. Now the plan is to remove the car park and turn the whole area into public gardens, where the Roman wall will be made into a tourist feature. Such is progress!



This is probably the best preserved of our medieval bastions. 



A delightful window feature in the top - but what defensive capabilities did it afford? Note the 'put' holes that give the clue to the medieval origin of the bastions. These holes were where logs were 'put' to support scaffolding for building and repairs - and for pigeons to nest in.



Surely the best preserved of all the medieval bastions and surely worthy of a better display. Note the 'put' holes for the medieval scaffolding.

Take a look at it as it was 100 years ago here (but don't forget to come back).

We have come to the end of the Priory Street car park and if we turn and look in a southerly direction we can see our 12th century St. Botolph's Priory, the first Augustinian priory built in Britain and well worth a detour from our town wall walk. It can be visited here.




If we look at this amazing building, extensively constructed from Roman materials from robbed out Roman buildings, we turn to the right and arrive in St. Botolph's Street, where once stood one of the main Roman gateways into the colonia. We will call it St. Botolph's Gate, although it may also be known as South Gate, for obvious reasons. There is now no evidence of any Roman wall or gate structure and so no picture is shown. All we do know is from the Reverend Philip Morant's commentary that I have previously referred-to and on old maps. Nothing is known of its size or shape - and there we must leave it.


This map shows the fifth bastion on the far right and the position of the Roman wall and gate. The two pubs shown and the theatre are now all gone, an indication of 'progress'. The church shown refers to the priory. Short Wyre Street would have followed the line of the ramparts of the wall, with a steep incline down to Vineyard Street, outside the wall.

10b But, before we move on, let us take a look at Markhams, the pawnbrokers.

They have been on this spot since 1840 and have rendered an invaluable service to their clients over these many years. The building is shown on the map above, directly to the east of the Marlborough Head public house. At a pawnbrokers, one can take an item of value (a pledge) to the pawnbroker and get a sum of money for it, on the understanding that, when you wanted the item back again, you gave the pawnbroker back his money, plus a fee for his services. It all sounds very straightforward, but using the services of 'uncle' became an essential part of life for the poorest classes.

An old gentleman told me of his time working for Mr Markham in the 1920's. It was his first job, at the age of 14, and a real 'eye-opener'. He clearly remembered two particular ladies who, every Monday morning, would arrive at the side door to pledge their husband's suits. They would get a pound for each suit. The suit would be wrapped up and put on a shelf upstairs with all the others. Sure enough, the next Friday, after their husbands had got their wages, they would be back again to redeem their pledges, so that the husbands could go out drinking in their best clothes - and then, at pub closing time, home to beat their wives. Of course these are extreme cases, but this is what went on here. Markhams are a thriving business to this day, so the services of the pawnbroker are still very much needed.

We now have a choice between walking across the site of the gate and 'inside the wall', along Short Wyre Street and Eld Lane until we reach Vineyard Steps or staying 'outside the walls' by crossing over St. Botolph's Street and proceeding along Vineyard Street. We will take the latter route along Vineyard Street where there is no visible sign of the wall, until we reach the Vineyard Street car park. The buildings that run along the left hand side of Short Wyre Street and Eld Lane, are all built atop the Roman wall. Those along the right of Vineyard Street are built at a lower level, against the Roman wall.

At a point directly opposite Long Wyre Street on the higher level at the junction of Short Wyre Street and Eld Lane is our final (the sixth) medieval bastion that can still be seen. The following map extract shows it and the photograph shows what it looks like today.




A short way along Vineyard Street, through a gap on the right, next to Robert's Bar, you will be able to see the sixth bastion hidden away, with a shop in Eld Lane perched on top of it. Another day, why not ask in the shop about how they use the bastion? It will be easy to locate as it faces directly onto Long Wyre Street.

We now continue along our route into the car park, a general area that was once renowned for its ladies of negotiable affections. A hundred or so years ago, this was Colchester's red light district, especially popular with the soldiers from the nearby barracks who, prevented from taking wives, sought female company in other ways. You can learn more of this here - but don't forget to come back again. Thirteen premises were closed down in one year (1869) for their nefarious practices!

(These map extracts highlight public houses because that is another of my favourite historical subjects. You can find out more about our pubs here, but please don't forget to come back again for the remainder of our tour.)



As you can see the wall blends in with a real hotch potch of materials and buildings whose frontages are in Eld Lane at the higher Roman rampart level. The wall has been considerably knocked about over the years.



A little further along there is a Roman drain feature which links up with the all important Roman period drain outlet within the colonia. The view below shows the drain and, to its right, evidence of a time when a house was built against the wall. At about a metre above the present day ground level is a wooden fire place mantle with the sooty brickwork of its chimney above. Note that the Roman drains were big enough for a person or child to crawl through for cleaning purposes yet not big enough to enable a big burly attacker with sword and shield to pose a threat to the colonia.


Even further to the right is shown below a modern day breach through the wall where, it is believed (from the evidence of John Speed's map of 1610) once stood another (the 7th) of the medieval period bastions.


To the left is the modern day Vineyard Steps.



A section of the Roman wall which has been used to provide a modern day high level entrance into the town centre, to provide car park access for shoppers.



A modern day breach in the wall provided to give vehicular goods access to the Lion Walk Shopping area. The final eighth bastion once stood here. This destruction of part of a scheduled ancient monument was very worrying to local people and archaeologists at the time. This town centre development was a rape of our town, unseen since the time of the attack by Boadicea. Pictures of the work being done at the time, with so many old buildings being destroyed in the name of progress, were a great shock to us at the time. Now, all we have is memories of how things once were.



A most unappealing piece of our historic Roman wall!



After this piece of our wall, it disappears into the mix of buildings along St. John's Street until we arrive at Scheregate Steps.




We are standing in St. John's Street looking north, with the line of the Roman wall in the background, below the overbuilt building that can be seen.

It is believed that Shere Gate was formed in the medieval period to provide an easy access route for people going to and from St. John's Abbey. It may be that an easy passageway was possible due to the location of a Roman drain, which could be simply opened-up to a people sized opening. The townsfolk were certainly not slow in siting a tavern at the corner of the street adjacent to the postern and which was named the Tailors Arms but was renamed in the Victorian period to the Clarence and more recently to its present name of the Purple Dog. The west postern at St. Mary's still shows evidence of the Roman drain archway which appears to have been opened-up in a similar way. More of that later!

There is no externally visible evidence of the Roman wall at Scheregate, apart from the inevitable height difference requiring steps up to Eld Lane. All the buildings in this area are built onto or against the town wall and many have cellars that have visible sections of the Roman wall.



Another 1970's breach through our town wall but this time with a sympathetic treatment of how it was finished. The following pictures shows how the building contractors left the evidence of the wall structure on view. If you have enough money, scheduling of an ancient monument like this is no problem!



Note in the picture above how the original size of the Roman wall has been picked out to show the base of the wall too. To build the service and parking area, the roadway had to be excavated well below the level of the wall foundations.



When the wall was breached in the 1970's to provide access to the underground Culver Street precinct area, it was decided to make a feature of this section of wall, using the recovered Roman wall materials. It is a very clean and tidy piece of work showing four courses of tile and four courses of septaria.



The difference is about 1800 years! As we have walked around the wall we have seen a fairly consistent method of construction used by the Roman builders. This picture shows four tile courses and five of septaria. In Priory Street there is a section which uses five tile courses.


As we approach the area of the town centre now known as Headgate, if you take a look in the building known as the Lemon Tree restaurant, you will see that part of the eating area is set into a breach in the wall, gaining an extra eight foot of space for the restaurateur. It is not known when this piece of archaeological vandalism was done but it certainly makes for an interesting setting for a dining experience.


We now walk on westwards until we arrive at a crossroads known as Headgate, with the ancient Fox and Fiddler (its fifth name - Ship, Elephant and Castle, Headgate, Boadicea, Fox and Fiddler) pub on the left and the even more ancient Bull pub (the oldest pub in the town), a little further on in Crouch Street (named after the Crouched Friars' friary that was once near by).



All trace of the Roman gate is now gone and all I can show you is the picture of the area above, looking east. Turning back on ourselves, we will now walk west along Crouch Street, with shops along each side, completely obscuring the wall which is to our right. We eventually arrive at Balkerne Lane, on the last part of our virtual tour.



This is the beginning of all that remains of the visible part of the wall in the south west corner on Balkerne Lane. St. Mary at the Walls church can be seen in the background. It is a particularly malformed section of the wall, looking a little as if it was produced from a lava flow and with various sections cut into it, presumably from a time when dwellings were built against it. What we are actually seeing here is a section of the wall that has fallen forwards and arrested. When this happened is not known but was probably connected with undermining works associated with adjacent buildings. Where you see the rear end of a car would once have been 5 metres or so of rampart earthwork from the Roman period. At this point, all the earth has been removed in recent times to create a car park and for the construction of the hideous 1960s building behind it. If we walk a little further you will get a better idea of what has happened here.


Here we look south and can clearly see how the wall has toppled. To the far end of the section you can see the original Roman foundations of the wall, now floating in mid air. Also how the wall has split in two due to this movement. Interestingly too, the excellent condition of the brick and sepataria courses suggest that this movement has only occurred in recent times, as weathering has not talken its toll. Of course, the Roman builders built their wall to look good from both sides. It was presumably at a later date that they decided to build up an earth infill rampart, inside the wall, thus preserving the inside face of the wall - until many centuries later when this sort of collapse happened.



Crossing over Balkerne Hill we look back in a north easterly direction to view St. Mary at the Walls church. The church has been deconsecrated and is now known as the Colchester Arts Centre - for a few years now the home of the Colchester Beer Festival. This is the church that is associated with the one eyed gunner Thompson who caused such irritation to the parliamentary forces during the Siege of Colchester in 1648 with his accurate cannon fire. The church tower bears witness to the damage caused by the return fire which brought 'Humpty Dumpty tumbling down'. The 15th century tower was repaired in brick, instead of the re-used Roman materials that the rest of the tower is constructed from. Indeed, the whole south west corner of the town wall was heavily damaged by cannon fire and much of it is missing. Next to the church can be seen Jumbo and next to that the Mercury Theatre.

(For a view of how it looked 50 years ago, please take a look here - but don't forget to come back!)

We will now cross back over the road and take a look at the West Postern.



This passageway was cut through the wall, presumably for ease of access to the medieval period church of St. Mary at the Walls. It is not a Roman gateway, although a Roman drain runs through this area. The evidence for this in the Roman tiling on the left which is part of the archway of the drain outlet and which was opened-up to form a postern at some point in history. The steps are from around the 18th century. Also on the left (at the rear or the wall) is further evidence of a Roman lookout tower which was one of many around the wall, which we mentioned earlier in our tour.



The yellow lines show how the drain was once constructed and which made it easier for a breach to be made for pedestrian access. Please take a look at picture 10c to give a better idea of how the drain outlet may once have looked.


My paternal grandparents, Walter and Emma Tuckwell outside their home at 24 Balkerne Lane. I remember it as a pink, pebbledashed little house, where I spent the first 5years of my life. A two up - two down place with a small kitchen, an outside lav and no bathroom. It backed right onto the Roman Wall where the tin bath was hung on a nail. It was cold and damp and was condemned by the council and demolished in 1968. My grandad was a chimney sweep and used to come home black as the ace of spades. They brought up 13 children there - No TV, fridge, microwave, washing machine, child benefit etc Just a copper, a gas cooker and a radio.

Joyce and her late husband Fred lived at 30 Balkerne Lane with their sons Michael and David. They moved to Greenstead when all the houses etc were demolished to make way for the dual carriageway. Most of my dads siblings never moved more than a few streets away and people were always in and out of each others houses. No knocking -Just open the door and walk in. We moved to Prettygate in 1959. My dad had never been that far out of town and he didn't know how to get to Layer Rd for the football - He used to cycle all the way back in to town and up Butt Rd. CUFC didn't have floodlights to look out for in those days.

Brian Tuckwell - May 2014






We are now nearing the end of our tour and will be moving north towards our starting point at Balkerne Gate. On the way we will pass the best preserved original Roman wall of which there is approximately 100 metres still standing at a height of around four metres. Why this section of the wall has survived so well is unknown.







The twenty or so shields that you see along the supporting wall of the Balkerne Gate are army regiment insignia, a tribute to our armed forces who have been based here in Colchester over the years. They were placed there in 2000. Colchester is proud to be home to the largest British army garrison in Britain.

I sponsored one of these!


In the Town Hall is a monument to the Colchester Martyrs; men and women who were put to death for their faith. Spare a thought for those poor people who were burned at the stake (many of them at Balkerne Gate) for the heresy that they were accused of committing. Man's cruelty to man in the name of religion is something to reflect upon!


In terms of size, Colchester's Roman Wall was 2,800 metres (3062 yards or approx. 1.75 miles) long and 2.4 metres (8 Roman feet) thick. Due to weathering damage and almost two thousand years of little boys climbing the walls, we cannot be sure of the original height. It is estimated that it must have been at least 6 metres (20 feet) high, including the battlements. The wall incorporated six Roman gates (Balkerne, North, Duncans, East, St. Botolph's, Head, East) and several other later incisions; which include Rye Gate, Castle Park (two), Castle Road, various un-named in Priory Street, Lion Walk Gap, Shere Gate, Culver Gap, West Postern and various other smaller access ways. There would have been between 12 and 24 Roman observation towers, the clearest one in evidence on Balkerne Hill.

It has been estimated that the walls must have required over 45,000 cubic metres of stone, tile, and mortar. That's something like 80,000 tonnes in weight, including perhaps 40,000 tonnes of septaria that had to be brought from several miles away.

Without a doubt, this was the biggest statement of power that our Roman conquerors ever produced in Colchester. They were here to stay - or so they must have thought!

How did they do it?

I am now off for a virtual pint at the Hole in the Wall.

How about you?



Every year, the Mayor of Colchester is invited to take a perambulation of the town walls, accompanied by the Town Watch, the mayor's civic bodyguard. This is done on the vigil of St. John the Baptist (23rd June or thereabouts). This is a custom from the time of King Henry III, who commanded that watches be kept in cities and towns to preserve the peace of the realm. The procession sets off from the castle, marching to the beat of the drum and the pipes of the Colchester Waits, following the perimeter of the Roman walls and including a short stop for 'cakes and ale' at the Hole in the Wall. If you would like to join them, please visit the Town Watch website here for up to date information. 

The Colchester Town Watch are associate members of the


If you have found this tour interesting, please tell your friends about it and ask them to send messages of support to help us or to lobby our borough councillors to pursuade them of the importance of care. That way, we can help ensure that the oldest town walls in Britain are maintained, conserved and presented to the maximum benefit of us all and for future generations to come.

Despite all the talk of 'What the Romans did for us', what the Romans didn't do for us was leave a long term maintenance contract for the maintenance of 'their' wall!

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Longinus Sdapeze



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