10 things to love about… Colchester
Colchester was the first Roman capital of Britain and is packed with history. Take the train to Colchester North station and explore this pretty Essex town. To get closer to the town centre you can transfer on to Colchester Town station.
1. Colchester Castle
The castle was built in Norman times, on the foundations of the Temple of Claudius from Colchester’s Roman past. You can tour the Roman vaults and the castle roof, and enjoy hands-on activities for kids, including steering a Roman chariot and dressing up in period clothing in the castle museum. It’s less than 10 minutes’ walk from Colchester Town station.
2. Hollytrees Museum
Hollytrees is a free museum to visit, housed in a Georgian building dating from 1718. Inside you can explore the past 300 years' history of families and children living in Colchester – see the difference between rich and poor in Georgian and Victorian times, try doing laundry before washing machines, and admire clocks and watches that are up to 200 years old. It’s open every day except Monday, and is a little over five minutes’ walk from Colchester Town station.
Colchester’s main exhibition and arts space, Firstsite hosts a range of films and live opera and ballet screenings, as well as workshops and activity sessions. Even the exterior of the building is worth a visit – it was designed by architect Rafael Viñoly from Uruguay, who won a worldwide competition with his curved concept. Located in Lewis Gardens, it’s under 10 minutes’ walk from Colchester Town station.
4. Balkerne Gate and St John's Abbey Gate
St John’s gatehouse is the only remaining part of Colchester’s Benedictine abbey, decorated in East Anglian flushwork and with pinnacles on top of the parapets. The rest of the abbey was damaged during the siege of Colchester in 1648. Once a year, on Heritage Open Days in September, you can also explore the inside of the gatehouse. Roughly half-a-mile away there’s the Balkerne Gate, the ruins of the largest surviving gateway from Roman Britain, which was built around the first century AD where the Roman road from Londinium met the town wall.
5. Castle Park
Colchester’s main park is within the town centre's conservation area and is listed in the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Importance. There are a number of events throughout the year, including park runs and festivals, and live music on the park bandstand. You can while away your free time walking around the award-winning gardens over 11 hectares, paddle on the boating lake and enjoy snacks from the cafe. There's a play area for children too. It’s around 20 minutes’ walk from Colchester North station.
6. Lexden Earthworks and Bluebottle Grove
Managed by English Heritage, Lexden Earthworks and Bluebottle Grove is a fort dating from the Iron Age, now with walking paths around the scenic forest. You can also explore burial sites from pre-Roman times, too. There’s no charge to enter the area, and it’s under 10 minutes in a taxi from Colchester’s main train station, or around 30 minutes by bus.
7. Colchester Arts Centre
Colchester Arts Centre hosts a wide range of events, from farmers’ markets to comedy shows, live music, film screenings and workshops. It’s also the meeting point for Colchester walking tours. You can view the diary of upcoming events on the centre’s website. The building is a former church and is around 20 minutes’ walk from Colchester North station.
8. Colchester Zoo
Explore 60 acres of Colchester Zoo, home to lions, rhinos, sea lions, zebras, bears, orangutans and more. There are opportunities to find out more about the animals at talks and feeding times, including elephants, giraffes, lorikeets and otters, and you can also book Keeper for the Day and Wild Encounter experiences. On a rainy day you can stay dry with the undercover 'bad weather' sections, and it’s open all year long except Christmas Day. The journey by taxi from Colchester North should take under 15 minutes, or you can find bus travel information on the zoo’s website.
9. Natural History Museum
Discover the history of Colchester’s wildlife through hands-on exhibits for the whole family at the local National History Museum. You can see a woolly mammoth, find out more about stag beetles and explore what life was like for the ancient Egyptians. The museum is around 25 minutes’ walk from Colchester North station, or only five minutes from Colchester Town station. It's open every day except Mondays and admission is free.
10. Roman Theatre
In Maidenburgh Street in the Dutch Quarter, around 20 minutes’ walk from Colchester North station, you’ll find the remains of Colchester’s Roman theatre, which dates back to the times of Boudica. Darker paving in the street shows you the outline of the walls, which were excavated in 1981. The theatre’s curved walls were originally discovered back in 1891 when a new sewer was being laid.