Wanderer at Large: Essex & Suffolk – Colchester

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area north-east of London that includes the counties of Essex and Suffolk.

Colchester Castle (CC Fenners1984)


History runs through Colchester like the Nile through Egypt, so it is worth taking this into account when undertaking a visit. And while Cleopatra was seducing Caesar, Colchester was already trading as a town. Indeed, it is the oldest recorded town in Britain. Named Camulodunum (the fortress of the god of war Camulos), it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder before the Roman conquest of Britain. Before Christ was born, it was known that the Celtic Catuvellauni tribe under king Cunobelin (Cymbeline), was minting coins here.

When the Romans invaded in 43AD, a legionary fortress was established and called Colonia Victricensis. Colchester became the Roman capital of Britannia. The town was attacked and destroyed during Boudicca’s rebellion in 61AD. However, in the following decades it was rebuilt and surrounded by a wall, the remains of which still run along Northgate Street. Other Roman remains include the ruins of the elaborate Temple of Claudius, the Balkerne Gate in the Dutch Quarter, and a Circus (chariot race track) which was discovered underneath the army garrison in 2004. Some have suggested Camulodunum was Arthur’s Camelot in the period after the Romans left Britain.

The ninth century Historia Brittonum, attributed to Nennius, mentions the town as Cair Colun, in a list of the 30 most important cities in Britain. It was assigned to the Danelaw, and remained in Danish hands until 917, when it was recaptured by Edward the Elder and renamed Colneceastre. The tenth century tower of Holy Trinity Church is late Anglo-Saxon work.

Medieval Colchester is represented by the 11th century Norman Castle (built over the vaults of the Temple of Claudius) which featured the largest Norman keep in the country and a medieval prison. From the 12th century there is a surviving gateway to St John the Baptist’s Benedictine abbey, and the remains of St Botolph’s Augustinian priory. Indeed, many of Colchester’s parish churches date from this period. In 1189, Colchester was granted its first royal charter by Richard I.

The 14th century town developed rapidly as centre of the wool industry, and became famous in Europe for its russets (grey-brown fabrics). However, Colchester fared worse than most from the effects of plague, losing more people in proportion than any town in the rest of the country. Immigration allowed the population to recover exceptionally, particularly after the Black Death. There was another immigrant wave between 1550-1600, when large number of weavers and clothmakers from Flanders emigrated to Colchester. They were famed for the production of Bays and Says cloth. The town centre area noted for its steep streets and narrow houses is still known as the Dutch Quarter. The wealth they created in Tudor times meant that Colchester was ranked 12th in a list of the most important cities in Britain.

Colchester also has its place during the 17th century Civil War, with battles and sieges taking place. Famously, a cannon was placed on top of the church tower at St Mary at Walls. It was called Humpty Dumpty.

Just for its history alone, Colchester is a town definitely worth a visit.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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