Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Colchester

Colchester Castle

About the walk

En route for another meeting in Harwich. Last time I had an excellent walk around Harwich itself, today I am breaking my journey to walk around Colchester, self-styled as the oldest recorded town in the country.

I hop off the mainline train at Colchester and get a shuttle train round to Colchester Town where the walk, which I scanned from Walk magazine in Autumn 2008 (you never know when these things will come in handy), commences. You turn right and right again, skirt the early Victorian St Botolph's (in a presumably sympathetic romanesque style) church and find the ruins of St Botolph's Abbey.


This was an early Norman church of considerable size. Above is the view from the east end back along the nave. And this is the west front.


It was built with a mixture of flint and Roman bricks. Usually one would look to the Dissolution of the Monasteries to explain the ruinous state of an Priory, but this was badly damaged by cannon fire during the Civil War siege of 1648.

I followed Priory St, with sections of Roman wall on the left, to reach East Hill. here I took the optional detour to the right to cross the river Colne and see the Siege House, now a restaurant. the corner has civil war bullet holes helpfully marked in red. Although much restored, Pevsner dates the house to about 1500.


I retraced my steps and walked up East Hill to see on the right, opposite the Minories - an art gallery in a red brick late 18th century house, a nice pair of old houses. The Gate House on the left is described by Pevsner as as "excellent house of c1600". I confess to a childish delight when I spot something not mentioned in a walk description, but praised by Pevo.


Behind the Minories is firstsite:newsite (ouch!) the town's new arts centre, designed by the New York- based architecture practice, Rafael Vinoly. Its website seems to limit the name to firstsite. Locals apparently call it the Banana, no doubt on account of the curve, which is not apparent in the photo.


I retraced my steps and cross East Hill to pass Hollytrees, Colchester's "best C18 house" (Pevsner again) and enter the Castle Park. The Norman keep is immediately ahead, looking at first more like some vast church. And in fact the projection on the right is the apse of a chapel.


It is late 11th century and is the largest Norman keep in existence, measuring 152 by 100 ft, bigger than the White Tower of the Tower of London. It would originally have been faced with stone, what you see now is the rubble and brick core. The castle was used a gaol in the 17th century  and in the  1740s it was owned by Charles Gray, the local MP, who restored parts of the building and added the cupola, also creating the park around it.

I left the park and found my way into Maidenburgh St in the so-called Dutch Quarter: Protestant weavers from Flanders settled her in the 16th century in attractive timber framed houses. The first memorable sight however was the Greek Orthodox chapel of St Helen (or Helena). 


I was warmly invited in by the priest (the not very Greek-sounding Father Haig). He explained that the structure is one of the oldest buildings in Colchester and was built as a chapel in Saxon times. Suppressed during the Reformation, it had a variety of secular uses before being restored by the great Victorian architect William Butterfield in the 1880s, to become a meeting hall for the C of E, and later a store room. In 2000 it was leased to become the church of the Orthodox parish. (All this, and more, from the parish website.) Colchester it turns out has one of the  largest Greek communities in Britain.

The timber-framed houses of the Dutch weavers have almost all been re-fronted, but these two made a picturesque pair.


Now round to West Stockwell St, which Pevsner thought was "perhaps the most attractive street in Colchester". This handsome late 15th century wool merchant's house, now a solicitors, is the highlight.

You emerge into the High St pretty much underneath the massive 162 ft high tower of the Town Hall, a landmark for miles around. It sated from 1898-1902 and was designed by Sir John Belcher. The bronze figure at the very top of the tower is that of St Helena, the patron saint of the town.


At the top of the High St I noted another interesting structure, the colonnaded Essex and Suffolk Fire Office, built as the Corn Exchange in 1802, according to Pevsner. Here you turn right, and the left opposite the 18th century St Peter's church, with its imposing tower.


A short passage brings you to an even more imposing red brick structure: "Jumbo", the 105 ft high water tower built in 1882 - the other great feature of Colchester's skyline. Pevsner describes it as "painfully assertive, but age had brought it a certain grandeur.


Just behind Jumbo, you go right back in time to the original Roman gate, the Balkerne Gate, which once had four openings.


Turning left you follow a quite well preserved section of the Roman walls.


Then you turn left and go through a church yard to reach Sir Isaac's Walk and pedestrianised Eld Lane with its specialist shops to reach Vineyard Steps. The walk instructions say you should "look ahead" to see the gatehouse of St John's Abbey. In fact it is invisible from here and stands a few hundred yards away across a duel carriageway. However it is worth the struggle to get there to see the 15th gatehouse, all that remains of a Benedictine Abbey, dating from the late 11th century. The photo unfortunately could only be taken into the sun.


From here it is short walk back to Colchester Town station, from where I continued my journey to Harwich.

Conditions: mild and mostly bright.

Distance: perhaps 3 miles, about an hour and half.

Rating: four stars. Very interesting. Some lovely buildings from a wide range of historical periods.

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