Colchester, England Points of Interest
When your cruise departs from the port of Harwich, England, opt for a pre-cruise stay in Colchester as an alternative to London. If you are a repeat traveler to London and have seen the sights, or have not bought tickets to something special in the West End theater district, Colchester offers a low-key cruise prelude in which to decompress. It is a compact, walkable town, with all the big city amenities of fine restaurants, theater, and historic sites. In Colchester, England the points of interest are really old, even by English standards. Colchester was an established town when the Romans arrived. It has had a place at the center of English history ever since.
Julius Caesar came across the English Channel to Colchester, then known as Camulodunum, in 55 BCE, in support of the prince of a local tribe. The Romans so enjoyed the possibilities of the area that they soon came back to settle a large town. It became the base of Roman operations for the conquest of England. In 54 CE, upon the death of Emperor Claudius, a classic columned temple was built in his honor, with a vaulted base. As the temple fell into ruin, the vaulted base became the foundation of a Norman castle in 1075. The Roman foundations, Roman walls, and Norman castle stand today as the oldest Roman remains and largest Norman castle keep in England. Today the castle sits in Castle Park, the centerpiece of Colchester.
Prior to arrival of the Normans in Colchester, the Saxons held the belief that Helen, mother of Constantine, was the daughter of King Coel of Colchester. The chapel dedicated to St. Helena is small, but still can be visited on Maidenburgh Street. It is older than Colchester Castle. One wall of the chapel is a repurposed wall of the Roman theatre. Also of Saxon origin is the St. Botolph Priory, which grew to its heights in 1106. The remains of the priory anchor a lush garden that can be reached from Queen Street next to the Natural History Museum.
Medieval England is present in the 1380s town walls seen on Priory Street and the half-timbered houses preserved on West Stockwell Street. The best representative building of the era is the Red Lion Inn on High Street. Colchester was a prosperous town, which held market days three times a week and had three annual fairs. When Dutch settlers arrived in 1570, to escape religious persecution in Catholic Spain, they brought with them cloth-weaving technology that added to the wealth of Colchester for almost two centuries. The industrial revolution in London began the demise of Dutch cloth manufacture and with it the Colchester economy. A large section of town remains the Dutch quarter.
In the great English Civil War of 1642-8, the Royalists sought to place King Charles I back on the throne and have him released from imprisonment by the Parliamentarians. Colchester gave shelter to Royalists and was the victim of a siege for 78 days. Upon surrender of the starving town, Colchester native and Royalist leader Sir Charles Lucas was shot with co-leader Sir George Lisle. A monument to the men sits just outside the castle walls. In the course of shelling from Parliamentary troops many of the churches sustained damage, preserved today in ruin as part of Colchester’s heritage.
Colchester evolved from a cloth mill economy to a market center, which it remains today, during the Victorian era. Railroad construction in the mid 1800s enabled Colchester to become a center for manufacture of ready-to-wear clothes and boots. During this time the new town hall on High Street was built. The water tower enabled a supply of fresh water as part of an expanding public works. The tower is named Jumbo after the favorite elephant of the London Zoo was sold to an American circus company. Residents whose homes were in the shadow of the tower dubbed it the new Jumbo. The Colchester Castle benefited from town prosperity when it was restored and opened as a museum. The crypt was opened to tourists in 1860, and gradually the castle keep was restored.
Colchester maintains a light-hearted view of its past. Among the castle storytellers and tours of haunted places, are references to the origin of nursery rhymes in the town. Humpty Dumpty was a cannon that fell from the roof of St. Mary’s church during the siege of 1648. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was written by a Colchester resident in 1796. Old King Cole was inspired by King Coel of Roman times.
To reach Colchester from the London airports, take the Underground to Liverpool Street Station. From there take the national rail line to Colchester. It is about forty-five minutes from London to Colchester by rail. On the morning of your cruise the port of Harwich is just thirty minutes away by rail, a bit longer by bus, and a little less by taxi. At Harwich the rail station and port are adjacent buildings.
To fully appreciate the charm and historic depth of Colchester book a pre-cruise stay in one of its tiny hotels. The Red Lion Hotel began as an inn in the early 1400s. It survived the Siege of Colchester in 1648, and an earthquake in 1884. Climb back in time through the half-timbered walls of the entry stairs to enjoy one of thirty guest rooms, or have tea in the heavily timbered bar. Rooms are approximately £75-85; with breakfast add £7.50.
Across High Street from the Red Lion is the George. The George boasts that Christopher Columbus accumulated a room tab there between his first and third voyage to the Americas. Parts of the 1494 structure are still visible. In the cellar there are remnants of earlier structures, part of a Roman road, and a layer of ashes attributed to the burning of the town in AD60, when Queen Boadecia/Boudicca gave the Romans the sack. Local students study Queen Boadecia as a local heroin.
If larger and newer rooms are your cup of tea, enjoy a stay at The North Hill Hotel, on North Hill Street. Rooms are about £99, including a full English breakfast in the Green Room, which also serves a traditional English roast dinner on Sunday for £10. The hotel has a coffee bar and invites non-guests to enjoy light-bites and dinner. Although fresh and new looking, the hotel structure dates from the eighteenth century, with fifteenth century adjoining function rooms and patio.
All around Colchester new shops, eateries, and hotels are opening, a tribute to the eternal life of the town. Fine food and great service can be found at the French restaurant Memoirs, near the castle, and the Italian restaurant Favoloso, near the Jumbo Water Tower and Roman gate. Puglian seafood dishes are the centerpiece of Carlo Murgia’s menu at Favoloso. Reservations are recommended for both. carlomurgia at btinternet.com. Wonderful pubs, coffee houses, and chips take-away can be found on High Street and North Hill Street. A favorite is Café Rouge, on High Street, which offers a coffee Americana and pastry for £4.25.
If a trip to England is synonymous with good live theater, Colchester can satisfy with seats at the Mercury Theater. Built over a church, whose deacon opposed the Jumbo Water Tower in his backyard, the Mercury offers Shakespeare to compete with London stages. The Shakespeare connection to Colchester is seen in his play Cymbeline, in which the model for the fateful king was King Cunobelin, whose Iron Age capital was Colchester. For after-theater libations, fall into the Hole in the Wall Pub, built into the Roman gate to the city.
Even with so much to offer, Colchester falls to much competition as a primary destination in the bounty of sites for visitors to England. However, as the cruise port of Harwich offers ever more dock space to cruise ships, as an alternative to Southampton or Dover, a pre-cruise stay in Colchester will appear with growing frequency as an option. The cruise traveler should happily look forward to spending a few nights in Colchester, the oldest town in England.