Colchester - a very brief guide

Colchester armsInformation for Visitors

Colchester's Visitor Information Centre is at 1 Queen Street - Telephone (01206) 282920.

Colchester Borough Council's website is at The visitors' section of the site can be found at

Location and Transport Links

Colchester is about 50 miles north east of London, lying between picturesque 'Constable Country' to the north and the Colne estuary to the south.

Rail Links :   Regular train services run between London Liverpool Street and Colchester North stations with a scheduled journey time of 50 to 60 minutes.

Roads :   The main road link is the A12 running between London and Ipswich.
To the west the A120 links the town with Stansted and the M11. Traffic is heavy and frequently slow moving with few opportunities to overtake slower vehicles. Approaching from the west an alternative is the A14 to Ipswich and then the A12 down to Colchester. The A14 is a better road but has become very much busier in the last two or three years making it subject to delays.
The A1124 (previously A604) from Cambridge to Colchester is not a good or fast road.

Air :   The nearest main airport is London Stansted which is generally considered more comfortable and user friendly than Heathrow or Gatwick. There are regular flights to most mainland European destinations and the rest of the UK but there is room for improvement in availability of flights to non-European centres.


To be honest we do have a problem with the volume of traffic in Colchester. However, once you find somewhere to park your car, perhaps St Mary's Car Park on Balkerne Hill or the NCP Car Park off the North side of Southway, it is a good shopping centre which seems to be popular with foreign visitors as well as the natives. There are also ample places to eat at reasonable prices.

Good department stores are Fenwicks (formerly Williams & Griffin) at the Head Street end of the High Street, and Debenhams in the Culver Precinct. The centre of the town is relatively compact and there you will find all the usual big names such as Marks & Spencer, W H Smith, Boots, etc.

Culture and Leisure Facilities

Cultural interests are well catered for with the Mercury Theatre, Colchester Arts Centre, and the Charter Hall as well as a good variety of musical events.

For those with more physically demanding interests there are good sports facilities including the Leisure Centre with its large swimming pool and other facilities.

Colchester is famous for oysters, with oyster beds in the lower reaches of the River Colne. Each year there is the famous Oyster Feast held in the Town Hall.

Colchester is a university town, the University of Essex having been founded here in 1961 at Wivenhoe Park. The tall accommodation towers stand out on the horizon to the right as you drive east out of the town towards Elmstead Market.

Rich in History

Colchester has the distinction of being Britain's oldest recorded town, and there was a settlement here as early as the 7th century BC.

In the 1st century AD Cunobelin (Shakespeare's Cymbeline) was king at Camulodunum, as the town was called at that time.

The Romans

The Romans invaded and occupied Colchester in 43 AD and five years later established a major colony here. Around 50 AD they built a temple in honour of the Emperor Claudius where Colchester Castle now stands.

The locals, the Iceni tribe, didn't think much of being ruled by foreigners so decided to do something about it. In 60 AD under the leadership of Queen Boudicca (Boadicea of chariot fame) they staged a revolt, massacring the Roman's first colony and destroying their temple.

Perhaps it was this unhappy experience which encouraged the Romans to decide on more substantial defences for the town. The Roman wall round the town is the oldest town wall in Britain, and is thought to have been constructed in the early 2nd century AD. It stretches for about a mile and a half. Much of it is in an excellent state of preservation and is easily visible on the east side of Balkerne Hill, in Castle Park, and along the back of the car park in Priory Street. Balkerne Gate, by the Hole in the Wall pub on Balkerne Hill, is the largest surviving Roman gateway in Britain. The Roman walls were repaired in late Saxon times and they also defended the medieval town.

Colchester was the capital of Roman Britain when London was just a trading post. In recent times a number of local Roman sites have been excavated and a variety of interesting Roman artifacts are on display in the Castle Museum.

The Saxons

The Saxons raided and settled southern England from about the middle of the 5th century. There is evidence of an early Saxon settlement within the walls of the town but little else to tell about life in Colchester during the Saxon period.

In the Dark Ages the Danes frequently raided the town. At one stage a Danish garrison occupied it before being expelled in 917. These days the Scandinavians come in November and December to do their Christmas shopping - or did until the exchange rate became less favourable for them!

The Normans

The late 11th century must have been a good time to be in the building trade in Colchester -

By about 1085 the Normans had built a castle on and around the site of the former Roman temple. The only bit of the castle still standing is the Keep, but it is the largest surviving keep in Europe and now houses an excellent museum. You can find it in Castle Park at the East end of the High Street.

In 1096 St John's Abbey, dedicated to St John the Baptist, was founded by Eudo Dapifer. Steward of the Royal household of William II, Eudo was a powerful figure in Colchester having been entrusted by the king with the castle and town. The Abbey was dissolved in 1539 at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The then Abbot, Robert Beche, was hanged because of his unwillingness to co-operate and give in. All that is now left of the Abbey is the 15th century gatehouse, complete with pinnacled towers, bordering St John's Green, not many minutes walk south from the town centre.

Not long after the founding of St John's Abbey, St Botolph's Priory was built. In about 1100 AD it became the first English house of the Canons Regular of St Augustine. It was destroyed during the siege of Colchester in 1648 and the ruins can be seen at the Queen Street end of Priory Street on the south side.

In 1189 the town was granted its first Charter by Richard I. In 1218 King John employed French mercenaries under Prince Louis to capture the town.

The Cloth Trade

In the 13th century Colchester emerged as a cloth making town, a trade which grew in importance. The town and its trade continued to prosper until hit by a recession in the cloth trade in the 1550s. Fortunes were restored with the coming of Flemish weavers, skilled makers of bays and says (fine woollen cloths), in the late 16th century. Protestant refugees fleeing from Spanish rule in the Netherlands, these immigrants transformed the town's economy and Colchester became a centre of the cloth trade with its products being internationally recognised. Many of these setters lived in what is now called the 'Dutch Quarter' of the town. The Dutch Quarter is a comparatively modern name for an area which lies between the castle grounds and Stockwell Street to the West and many of its houses were standing long before the Flemish arrived.

The English Civil War and Its Aftermath

For most of the Civil War (1642-51) Colchester was on the side of the Parliamentarians. However, at one stage it fell into the hands of the Royalists and was under siege by General Fairfax's Parliamentarian troops for 11 weeks in 1648. When resistance was finally quashed two of the Royalist leaders were hanged and other nasty things happened 'pour encourager les autres'. Parts of the Roman wall were demolished at this time. Beyond the bridge at the bottom of East Hill is The Siege House. The timbers of this 15th century building are pockmarked by bullets thought to have been fired by the Royalists during the siege.

Many building suffered great damage in the siege which also played havoc with the local economy. From then on the bay and say trade gradually dwindled until it disappeared in the early 19th century. The last bay-mill in Colchester closed in the 1840s.

A Garrison Town

An army garrison was established in the town during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). The need for a garrison disappeared with the ending of the Wars and the original barracks were demolished in 1817. A new and permanent military camp opened in 1856 since when Colchester has remained an important garrison town.

For many who did National Service after the Second World War Colchester is always associated with 'the glasshouse' - the Military Corrective Training Centre. The MCTC is still based here, employing its own distinctive methods of modifying the behavioural patterns of errant soldiers.

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Page updated: 10 Dec 2017 at 14:32