PETER AND ANN FROST explore a much under-rated county.
Colchester is the oldest recorded town in Britain. When Roman Emperor Claudius received the surrender of the British kings here in 43AD the town was already a thousand years old
The Roman city built here was the first in Britain. Boudica (Boadicea) and her Iceni army sacked the town and took it from the Romans but not for long
This long, long history of the town is told well in the museum in the Norman Castle built in 1085 on the foundations of Claudius’s original Roman Temple.
As well as the Museum there is a well marked Town Trail. It will help you find some of the historic sites which today are sometimes hard to find among all the modern redevelopments of the town.
St Boltophs Priory was built 900 years ago from recycled Roman bricks. Later the East Anglian wool industry brought Flemish weavers to the town and their homes and workshops still stand in the pretty Dutch Quarter.
All this makes Colchester worth a weekend away but just as worthwhile are the small Essex towns, villages, and ports that are easily reached from the town.
Colchester has always been famous for its Oysters but today they are easier to find just up the road across the causeway on Mersea Island. This wet and watery island is a delight. Sails, some of them the tan sails of traditional sailing barges are always part of the scene.
The Island has its own vineyard and it makes wonderful Champagne. OK, so the Brussels bureaucrats say they can’t call it Champagne but it’s as good as anything that comes out of France.
So what do you eat with local bubbly? What else but Mersea Island oysters? There are several great places to find them and lots of other locally landed fish on the front at East Mersea.
Brightlingsea and Wivenhoe are small river ports that also mix traditional barges and fishing smacks mix with modern racing yachts and dinghies
As well as coast there is countryside. The painter Constable loved the Dedham Vale on the Essex Suffolk border. There are still walks in the Vale that Constable would have recognised. Just as he would still feel at home at Flatford Mill, Willy Lott’s cottage and the locks on the River Stour.
The countryside around Colchester is renowned for growing soft fruit. Did you know that at Tiptree the famous jam and marmalade makers Wilkins and Son still offer free camping and pay holidaymakers to pick the fruit?
Essex is a misunderstood county, use Colchester as the centre for an exploration and you’ll discover some of its little known delights.
The keep might be Norman but the foundations date back to a Roman Temple. Today the Castle houses the Town Museum and it’s a great place to find out about the town before you set out on the well marked town trail.
Castle Park, Colchester, CO1 1TJ,
Tel; 01206 282 939,
Beth Chatto’s Gardens
Wonderful landscaped gardens full of unusual plants suited to the very dry climate of this part of Essex. The garden has a real Mediterranean feel. Beth’s many books and a good selection of plants can be bought at the garden (Closed Sundays.)
Elmstead Market, Essex Co7 7DB,
Tel; 01206 822 007
Drive across the causeway to the island and head for a walk along the front among the yachts, past the oyster sheds, or take a boat trip around the moorings. It’s just a short drive to the Vineyard for a tour or just a tasting.
Flatford Mill, Willy Lott’s Cottage and the locks of the river Stour are all well known from the painting of Constable. He is still one of Britain’s favourite landscape painters. The Dedham Vale is little changed since he painted it all those years ago.
Flatford Bridge Cottage, Flatford, East Bergholt, Suffolk, CO7 6UL, Tel; 01206 298 260.
East Anglian Railway Museum
Ride a steam train through the Essex countryside, There are all sorts of old rolling stock and local station and line side buildings moved to the site. Real train spotters will enjoy counting the rivets or you can just enjoy the noises and smells, and of course the sooty smuts of a real steam train.
Chappel and Wakes Colne Station, Wakes Colne, Essex, CO6 2DS,
Tel; 01206 242 524.
Watch out for Dragons at this award winning zoo, you’ll find Kimodo dragons among the collection here. Children can help the keepers feed the elephants and giraffe. There was a tiny tottering baby giraffe when we visited. Watch the sea lions feeding and swimming underwater.
Maldon Road, Stanway, Colchester, CO3 0SL.
Tel; 01206 331 292
Where to Shop<
The Company Shed
Is this a wonderful fishmonger or a great place to eat? It is both. Pop in to buy the best and freshest oysters and other fish and shellfish, or stay to eat, don’t expect a posh restaurant but it’s always packed and when you try the fish you’ll know why. Bring your own wine.
129 Coast Road, West Mersea, Essex, CO5 8PA
Tel; 01206 38 27 00
Williams and Griffin
Remember those old department stores, every large town used to have one and they could sell you anything. Well Colchester still has one. It’s called Williams and Griffin or more usually williegees and it’s great. Don’t take my word for it last year it was voted best British Department Store by Drapers World the trade paper for the industry.
152 High Street, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1PN,
Tel; 01206 571212
What is James Bond’s favourite jam? It’s Little Scarlet and it’s my favourite too. Wilkins and Sons make 17 different kinds of marmalade as well as dozens of jams and jellies and you can buy them all here. As well as a great shop there is an interesting museum and tea shop.
Tiptree, Essex, CO5 ORF,
Tel; 01621 814 524,
Where to eat
North Hill Noodle Bar
Lunch for a fiver. A great lunch time choice of stir-frys and noodle dishes are served in this popular city centre restaurant and you’ll get change from £5. There is a bigger and slightly more expensive menu choice in the evening.
2 North Hill, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1DZ,
Tel; 01206 36 88 89
Eels, pie and Mash
Real enthusiasts for traditional English food will take the short drive to Maldon to try this great East London and Essex speciality for themselves. Stewed eels, small beef mince pie and creamy mashed potatoes are smothered in a parsley sauce always known as liquor. As a meal it’s delicious, cheap and nourishing.
Maldon Pie ‘n Eel House, 136 High Street, Maldon, Essex, CM9 5BX Tel; 01621 84 28 59
The Art Café
The wonderful Essex light and huge skies have always inspired artists. At West Mersea there is a welcoming café lined with the work of local artists. The café also sells art materials so if you are inspired by the local scenes you can try you hand at your own painting. The food’s pretty good too.
The Art Café, High Street, West Mersea,
Tel; 01206 38 26 82
Where to wander
By boat; Explore the beautiful River Stour that is the border between Essex and Suffolk in Constable Country. Row boats are available for hire at East Bergholt and you can imagine yourself in a Constable painting.
Flatford Boat Hire, The Granary, Flatford, East Bergholt, CO11 1SE
Tel; 01206 298111 or 0777 649 2911,
By bike; The flat landscape of Mersea Island makes it idea country for a bike ride. The small lanes are not busy and some really small lanes run down to the pretty creeks and beaches. There is a large traffic free Country Park at the East end of the Island.
On foot; Follow the well marked Town Trail around the town centre of Colchester. It is well marked with plenty of useful interpretive panels. You can get a leaflet of the trail from the Colchester Visitor Information Centre, 1 Queen Street, Colchester, CO1 2PG
Tel; 01206 282 920
Jack the Ripper
The most likely suspect as Jack the Ripper is William Withey Gull, Surgeon to the Royal family. He is buried at the small country churchyard at Thorpe Le Soken near Colchester
Boadicea or Boudica as she is known nowadays, Queen of the Iceni thrashed the Roman invaders in Colchester in her fight to liberate Britain.
Colchester Visitor Information Centre
1 Queen Street,
Tel; 01206 282 920
This feature was syndicated in various Times Warner Magazines in 2011.