A Day out with Elspeth in Colchester

In 2008 I began a series of British towns – not guides, but personalised tours and reflections, eschewing the usual information and observation. This is another on my native East Anglia.

I wrote more on Colchester here:

This one’s more of a tour.

The mainline North Station isn’t a great overture but you will have had sight of the town’s skyline – and how far it is. There’s little attraction around the station, though the retail park (especially the supermarket) may be useful if you are stranded or waiting for someone who’s delayed. To reach ASDA, stay on the side with the railway line and cross when you are opposite it. Otherwise, it’s a convoluted set of crossings that could miss you your train. Note Boudicca’s statue in the roundabout.

Perhaps Colchester’s is not the easiest station-town route; it is basically go straight (south) for about 20 minutes, but some of the 3 roundabouts’ turnings are a little skewed. Keep sight of the tall Edwardian town hall and the Watertower to guide you.

You can catch a bus or catch a train to the Town Station.

There are a few pubs along the route and some convenience stores (including an ethnic one) and takeaways. Note the river crossing with pretty cottages and a footpath. A little further, at the foot of North Hill, you’ll see the Roman walls and this is your sign that central Colchester is beginning. And so are the nice bits.

Colchester 1

Hills in Colchester are not called so for nothing but with your steep ascent, attractive buildings with chain restaurants and a vinyl bar await you. At the top is a rare classical church with gothic additions, St Peter’s, which is often open. Turn left into the High Street where there are some grander buildings, perhaps a little raggle taggle and bedraggled: the shirehall/fire office, some banks past and present, the red glory of the Town Hall. There is no central square in Colchester (strange for a region whose outdoor market places are a feature) – this is as near as it does. (The medieval market was in the broad high street in which you are standing). If you continue left/east you are heading for the tourist information centre and museums. A pretty, colourful cut through (Museum St) shows a glimpse of the castle – there’s also a couple of cafes. there Around the TIC itself are some food options – Italian chain Prezzo, the Minories gallery has a cafe with a garden, or the cooler and more professional new Firstsite where you can enjoy views of the temporary bus station from it vast glass and gold walls.

Firstsite is interesting as a building, even if the modern art within is not to your taste. Leaving by Lewis Gardens and walking down East Hill away from the high street takes you beyond the walls past some of Colchester’s best Georgian houses to a long suburb of timbered houses, though there’s no facilities. It’s worth getting as far as the Rose and Crown Hotel, but there is nothing beyond it or that level crossing (there is a station near it called Hythe). The hotel is open for lunch and dinner, as is another medieval building you will have just passed – the Siege House named because of the bullets it took during the Civil War. There is also a vast former mill beside it.

A pleasant river walk is from opposite the large former mill (the mill side is private road, as you will often be reminded) that leads back to the castle park, and ultimately to the pretty cottages on North Street. There does not seem to be a river path going in the opposite direction. I followed the national cycle route a short way by stinging nettles and derelict houses, and decided this was not my idea of aesthetic or safe meandering.

Bear in mind if you retrace you steps that East Hill is very steep! And that if you choose the river option it is quite a long way round and may not be lit (or accessible) after dark.

In some ways, you have seen much of Colchester’s best parts already. Halfway up East Hill is a left turning into Priory Street where much of the town walls are exposed.

Colchester 4

The end of the lane feels quite leafy and there are ruins of a substantial priory next to an ugly Victorian attempt at Romanesque (gentler on the inside). It is not far to the other abbey, but there’s only a gatehouse to see – hardly worth the effort of crossing the ring road via subways (the big one is better as it’s open to the sky in the middle).

Colchester 6

I would suggest cutting across St Botolph’s ruins toward the Town station, walking up St Botolph’s Street and then turning left into Short Wyre St/Eld Lane to enjoy the smaller scale buildings and independent shops. Pause to note Trinity Lane, with the Saxon church tower. There’s a couple of cafes, one in former clock museum, up this street; otherwise it leads into bland modern shopping and back towards the High Street. I’d recommend keeping on Eld Lane as it becomes Sir Isaac’s Walk (note the Scheregate Steps passage) and emerge on to Headgate. If you want more indie shops, go over the road and slightly to the left to Crouch Street. As you cross, note a couple of pub/eating options, close to the tucked away Headgate Theatre (actually off St John’s St) and the Odeon in a post office. Go up the hill past the Odeon and turn left down a small cobbled street, Church Lane. You’ll soon be in the presence of the mighty Jumbo Water Tower. In its shadow is a Quaker Meeting house, a 1970s producing theatre, and an arts centre in a church. There’s also a handful of pubs and places to eat (eg the Courthouse). Go past the theatre towards the brick arches which once were part of a large Roman gate, the Balkerne. Turn right, and walk beside the walls, pretty in spring, and follow them round till you recognise the North Gate area.

Colchester 2

Start up North Hill but dive left under an arch into Nun Street. Zigzag around these pretty streets of Dutch weaver’s cottages, where there are also 2 churches and the site of the amphitheatre. If you haven’t been in the Castle or mooched in the grounds, this is a good time to do so.

Colchester 5

Come back down via the little warren of streets to the North Hill junction area where you can make your way back to the station.