Long live our very own great wall
It could just be the most defining piece of architecture in Colchester’s history.
Covering 11/2 miles, the town’s Roman wall was probably 30ft high, built in 85AD (although the jury is still out on that date) and attracted the Danes, the West Saxons and the Normans.
It kept out marauding peasants during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, turned the town into a Royalist garrison during the Civil War, and then the rot set in.
In 1648, the town lost the Siege of Colchester. Parts of the wall, which had been so effective during the siege, were knocked down or blown up by the Roundheads. No more Royalist stronghold for Colchester.
In fact, for the next 300 years the story is one of neglect as one of the greatest prizes in the town’s heritage was left to decay.
“Then in 1941 the borough decided it had to carry out work on part of the wall on Balkerne Hill,” said Philip Wise. “As this was during the Second World War, the work must have been essential.
“But this was how we began looking after the Roman wall again. Since the 1940s, regular vegetation clearance and maintenance work has been carried out, and, from 1987, we have been undertaking quite major repairs.”
Mr Wise is heritage manager for Colchester and Ipswich Museums. Before the two towns merged their museums 18 months ago, he had been curator of archaeology at Colchester Museums.
“Some people do take historic buildings for granted and do not realise how fortunate we are to have such buildings,” said Mr Wise.
“But many more do understand their importance, and the importance of keeping them in good repair.”
That costs. Between 1987 and 1996 about £300,000 was spent on the wall, and, in the three years since 2005, repairs have cost Colchester Council and other bodies £100,000. But there are grants. English Heritage has just given Colchester and Ipswich Museums a £46,000 grant to repair part of the wall at the bottom of Roman Road.
“But I believe there is definitely a need for improvements in our forward planning,” said Mr Wise. “We should be thinking five or ten years ahead and getting a clear idea of what we want to do – not just about the Roman Wall, but on all our historic buildings and heritage.
“When we know what is coming up, which relics need priority work, then we can target resources better.”
For him, the Roman wall is one of the two most important relics in Colchester. The other is the castle. But where the castle is simply magnificent, the Roman wall defines who we are.
“The past is so very important to us even though we don’t always realise its significance,” said Mr Wise. “History determines us. It tells us why we are here, doing what we are doing. Heritage gives people a sense of place – and, in Colchester, there is so much depth to our heritage.”
Which is where the Roman wall comes in. About 60 per cent of the original wall is still visible, but do we see it? How often do we walk across the Balkerne Hill footbridge from St Mary’s car park and head towards the town centre via the wall’s Balkerne Gate without realising this is the largest surviving gateway from Roman Britain?
The wall turned Colchester into one of the most important towns in Roman Britain. The town became a magnet, because the wall made it so much easier to defend.
But the wall did much more, and the echo is still with us.
The key defining element in Colchester’s Roman street layout was the wall. The wall made it impossible for the Romans to build those streets any other way. But not just the Romans.
Today’s town centre road layout is more or less the original Roman grid. And we are stuck with it.
Defining? If only the Romans had known.
Built circa 85AD. Boadicea had sacked the town in 61AD. The wall was the main defence for the new town the Romans were building
1.5 miles long and 30ft (more than nine metres) high, the wall circled what is now the town centre. It ran along today’s Balkerne Hill, the bottom of North Hill, across Castle Park, East Hill, Priory Street, Vineyard Street, the Headgate – at the junction of Butt Road and Head Street – and back to Balkerne Hill via St Mary’s-in-the-Wall, now Colchester Arts Centre.