Travel Report: Colchester Castle Museum, England.
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May 2019. I had just arrived in the city of Colchester for a long overdue reunion with my Nan, who’d relocated here during my years out in the wilderness of South East China. We’d arranged for me to come to her place for dinner, so while she was busying away creating one of her magical roast chicken dinners, I had a solid three hours to tick off one of Colchester’s key sights. Handy then that Colchester Castle and its excellent museum is just an eight-minute walk from Colchester Town Railway Station. On arrival I was encouraged to see what a pretty and compact old structure it is and, according to the entrance sign, the largest Norman keep in Europe.
May 2019. Colchester Castle’s long history begins nearly 2000 years ago when it was the site of The Temple of Claudius, the most famous building in Roman Britain. The temple was eventually destroyed by the red-haired warrior Queen Boudica in AD 60. Check her out online, she sounds like a real beeatch. The temple was in ruins when William the Conqueror decided to build the castle that we see here today. In 1726 it came into the ownership of Charles Gray, a local businessman and historian who spent a chunk of his time restoring the old joint. Gray, who is a hugely influential figure in Colchester history, added the dramatic windows, tiled roof and domed tower.
May 2019. The first thing you’ll see inside Colchester Castle is the old well. It’s a 50 foot drop apparently, which means a 10p coin will take about two seconds to hit the water. The accompanying information board suggests you might want to see if a one pound coin falls any faster? Ha, nice try Colchester Castle! Seriously though, all donations are gratefully received by the museum and, so they say, are used to deal with maintenance and restoration projects. The underwater collecting tray was provided by the Colchester Morris Men in memory of Ewart “Rusty” Russell, a local historian who passed away in 1989.
May 2019. The Colchester Castle well is free, but if you want to go any further it’s time to cough up some cash baby, castles don’t pay for themselves. It’s £10 for an adult ticket, so I paid my dues and in I went to find a wonderfully modern space comprised of glass exhibits, interactive fun stations and a handful of costumed volunteers who bring the castle’s history to life through acting and humorous roleplay. The ancient artefact in the foreground of the above photo is the famous Middleborough Mosaic, a tiled flooring found in an ancient house just outside Colchester’s town walls.
The Middleborough Mosaic was created by master craftsmen sometime in the middle of the second century AD. It might look like a dusty old faded thing, but back in the day this was an example of exceptional workmanship, with the use of shading on the figures in the central panel to create a 3D effect. The mosaic was badly damaged when the house it stood in was demolished in about AD 300.
Something I immediately liked about Colchester Castle Museum is that there are please touch signs everywhere, which is the total opposite of the kind of signs I remember seeing as a kid. You can feel brick samples, play around with traditional costumes, have a go on a chariot simulator and try your hand at building a Norman archway from a pile of soft foam slabs!
Colchester Castle Museum’s volunteers really add a lot to the experience, which seems particularly aimed at kids. This guy was talking his little group through the million and one uses of a Roman-era knife.
Colchester Castle Museum houses some of England’s coolest ancient sculptures. One of these is The Tombstone of Marcus Favonius Facilis, a Roman centurion who served in the Twentieth Legion, a regiment based at Colchester Fortress. Facilis died a few years after the AD 43 invasion of Britain and was buried in a cemetery alongside the main road to Roman London. The style of sculpture represented by the tombstone was developed in what is now the Rhineland area of Germany where the Twentieth Legion had been based.
Another notable piece on display here is The Colchester Mercury, one of the finest statues from Roman Britain. Made in the 2nd century, Mercury was the messenger of the gods and can be recognised by the wings on his head. He was also the god of movement, which made him popular with travellers, traders and even thieves who hoped his charms would help them skedaddle that little bit faster with the swag they’d nicked!
How about The Colchester Sphinx? It was discovered in an old Roman tomb on the site of what is now Essex Hospital. She has the body of a winged lion and the face, arms and breasts of a woman. The Colchester Sphinx is believed to be from about AD 43-75 and represents the triumph of death over life. Look closely and you’ll see her crouched over a pile of bones, clutching the head of the deceased in its claws.
This was Colchester Castle’s chapel, originally used by the king, queen and the castle constable. The room was restored by castle owner Charles Gray in 1749, while from 1797 to 1850 it was used as an armoury by the local militia. In 1860 it formed the main room of the newly opened Castle Museum.
The final stop on my tour of Colchester Castle Museum was The Lucas Vault. In the early 1600s it was used as part of the castle prison. Later on, during Victorian times, it became a soup kitchen for the poor and then a workshop for the newly opened museum. But its most famous (and not to mention gruesome) event came on the 28th of August 1648 at the end of the Siege of Colchester. Two Royalists, Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Isle, were briefly held in the vault before being taken outside and executed by firing squad. Today you can sit in this dingy space and watch a creepy video about the room’s history.
Colchester Castle Museum is located at the entrance to Colchester Castle Park. It’s open from 10:00-17:00 Monday to Saturday, 11:00-17:00 on Sundays. You can check their website here.
For more on my adventure in this pretty English town, check out my other travel reports from Colchester.
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