Travel Report: Colchester Castle Museum, England.
Colchester Castle Museum.
May 2019. I had just arrived in the town of Colchester for a long overdue reunion with my grandma. I was back in England after two years exploring various countries in Asia. In the meantime, my nan had relocated to this little English town I knew nothing about. While nan was busy at home creating one of her magical roast chicken dinners, I found myself with a solid three hours to tick off Colchester’s main sight.
Handy then that Colchester Castle and its excellent museum are just an eight minute walk from the railway station. On arrival, I was encouraged to discover what a pretty and sizeable old structure it is. In fact, the castle boasts the largest Norman keep in Europe!
Colchester Castle’s long history begins nearly 2000 years ago, when The Temple of Claudius stood here. Pretty much the most famous building of Roman Britain. The fearsome, red-haired warrior Queen Boudica, ruler of a satellite kingdom, destroyed the place in AD 60 during a bloody rebellion against The Romans.
As a result, the temple was in complete ruin by the time William the Conqueror decided to build the castle we see today in 1076.
In 1726 it fell into the hands of Charles Gray, a local businessman and historian who spent a chunk of his time restoring the old joint. Gray, a hugely influential figure in Colchester history, added the dramatic windows, tiled roof and domed tower.
Colchester Castle Museum.
The first thing you see as you enter 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, the castle welcomes all donations, which are used for maintenance and restoration projects. The Colchester Morris Men (a local traditional music group) donated the well’s coin collection tray. They dedicated it to Ewart “Rusty” Russell, a local historian who passed away in 1989.
If you want to go beyond the well, you’ll have to cough up the entrance fee. It’s £10 for an adult ticket, thus I paid my dues and made my way into the surprisingly modern ground floor exhibition hall. It’s a beautifully curated space, featuring ancient sculptures, glass exhibits, interactive play pens and touch screen story boards.
Hanging dramatically over a first floor balcony is the famous Middleborough Mosaic, a giant section of tiled flooring found in an ancient house just outside Colchester’s town walls.
Historians say an unknown master craftsmen created the mosaic sometime in the middle of the second century. The artwork includes images of wriggling sea beasts, perching birds, wrestling cupids and floral scrolls.
The Middleborough Mosaic.
The mosaic is one of Britain’s finest examples of Roman workmanship. Note the use of shading on the central panel to create a 3D effect. They say it likely suffered heavy damage after the house it stood in got demolished around 300AD.
I love how Colchester Castle has lots of Please touch! signs, the total opposite of how museums rolled when I was a kid. You can play around with traditional costumes and have a go on a chariot simulator. Or even try your hand at building a Norman archway from a pile of soft foam slabs!
Moreover, a handful of costumed volunteers bring the castle’s history to life through storytelling and role play. This guy was talking his huddled group of children through the million and one uses of a Roman era knife. Furthermore, he seemed genuinely delighted at their answers after he asked them what they thought such knives were used for.
“Well done! You didn’t fall into the trap of saying they’re for stabbing people!”
Colchester Castle Museum houses some of England’s most impressive 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.
He died shorty after The Roman Conquest of Britain and was buried in a cemetery alongside the main road to 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 once served.
Another striking piece is The Colchester Mercury, one of the finest statues from Roman Britain. Made in the 2nd century, Mercury was the messenger of the gods, recognisable for the wings on his head.
He was also the god of movement, which made him popular with travellers, traders and even thieves. Indeed petty criminals and robbers believed his charms would help them quickly escape from their victims and continue to evade the law.
I also came upon The Colchester Sphinx, discovered in an old Roman tomb on the site of what is now Essex Hospital. It has the body of a winged lion and the face, arms and breasts of a woman.
Experts say it dates back to around AD 43-75 and represents the triumph of death over life. She crouches over a pile of bones, clutching the head of the deceased in her claws.
Colchester Castle Museum.
This was Colchester Castle’s chapel, originally used by the king, queen and constable. Charles Gray restored the room in 1749, after which it served as a military armoury. In 1860 it formed the main room of the newly opened Castle Museum, but today sits largely empty, with just an info board detailing its potted history.
The final stop on my tour of Colchester Castle Museum was The Lucas Vault. In the early 1600s this was 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.
Its most famous (and 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 soldiers led them outside for execution by firing squad. Today you can sit in the dimly lit space and watch a creepy video about the vault’s history.
You can find Colchester Castle Museum at the entrance to Castle Park. It’s open from 10:00-17:00 Monday to Saturday, 11:00-17:00 on Sundays. Check out their website here.
For more on my adventure in this pretty English town, check out my other travel reports from Colchester.
Or maybe search further afield with my articles from all around England.
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This looks like such a neat museum with a rich history. I also love the tree at the top of the castle!
Thanks for reading guys! This is the first report from a series on Colchester coming out over the next five days.
Looks like a pretty cool place to visit, Colchester isn’t too far from me so maybe I’ll have to add it to my list. Looking forward to the rest of your Colchester posts 🙂
Cheers Jason, appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Almost certainly wouldn’t have gone to Colchester if my nan didn’t live there. So glad I took the time to explore. Hope the following articles whet your appetite further!
I think this may be my favorite castle. Love the idea of an interactive museum with displays for children (and me). Your photos do an excellent job of showing how spacious and bright it is. Must see a lot of visitors as it obviously would not be cheap to maintain.
I was also thinking that it must be costly to maintain. And then wondering just how hard they’ve been hit by COVID.
Stately and rustic, Colchester Castle looks like the epitome of the Middle Ages in England! I haven’t gotten to see many castles in the country, but Colchester’s has inspired me to return to see more of them. I appreciate you recounting the castle’s fascinating (often quirky) history, and I hope to learn more from your posts of your home country. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks, this was my first spell of independent travel across England, believe it or not. Really eye opening. Hope you enjoy the Colchester journey.
Hey Leighton, I always enjoy your reads and like that you take on opportunities to explore intriguing places of interest.
The Colchester Castle is grand and I like that it’s very accommodating to children. I’m usually impressed when i see that about such spaces.
The please touch sign? Sign me up! It’s the first time I’m hearing about such.
Finally, which do you prefer, museums or castles? Because they pretty much share the same vibe.
Hey Emmanuel, great to hear from you again. I’m glad you liked the piece on Colchester Castle. I definitely prefer castles to museums in general, especially rural ruins that require an element of rugged exploration. Museums I enjoy too, but I sometimes have to push myself to include them in my travel itineraries. A castle museum though? I haven’t seen anything quite like Colchester Castle, where such an extensive and modern museum exhibit has been built within the structure itself. Thanks for reading!
You’re welcome. I’ve never been to a castle and if I have to visit, these are really great thoughts to consider.