The Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote about the town of Colchester in the 1st Century AD. Camulodunum, as it was then known, was once the capital of Roman Britain and is the UK’s oldest town.
The place to dip into Camulodunum’s history is an extraordinary monument in its own right: Colchester Castle is a rare surviving keep started during the Norman Conquest in the 1160s.
There are invaluable Roman artefacts inside, and you can head down into the vaults of a Roman temple.
Around the castle is a Victorian town park, split by Camulodunum’s north wall, still standing 2,000 years later.
For younger members of the family Colchester Zoo is one of the best around, while you can take trips into the countryside to visit show gardens, tearooms and try fresh oysters at Mersea Island close by.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Colchester:
1. Colchester Castle Museum
Begun during the Norman Conquest, Colchester Castle has the largest Norman castle keep in Europe, roughly 1.5 times the size of the Tower of London’s White Tower.
It was built over the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius, and the sizeable vaults from this building can be explored on a guided tour.
The first-class Castle Museum combines stunning exhibits from excavations like mosaics, the Roman Colchester Vase and the Colchester Mercury statuette, with experiences that will keep children fascinated, like excavating a Roman grave building a Norman arch and steering a chariot at Colchester’s newly discovered circus.
Don’t leave without seeing the Fewnwick Treasure, a hoard of Roman jewellery found under a department store on Colchester High Street, or the panoramic view from the roof of the keep.
2. Castle Park
A million people come to the surrounding Castle Park every year.
This is divided by the northern chunk of the Roman Wall, between the Upper and Lower Park, and took on its current design in Victorian times.
In these 27 acres there’s a play park, cafe, boating lake, crazy golf course and a bandstand wrapped in formal terraces and flowerbeds.
In the summertime there’s an even going on at Castle Park every weekend, and this might be concerts by major touring artists and tribute acts, the food and drink festival at the end of June, a Medieval festival and oyster fayre and a programme of outdoor movie screenings.
3. Roman Wall
In the second half of the 1st century Camulodunum was refortified with towering walls on a rough rectangular plan.
These were composed of septaria mudstone boulders, coated with alternating layers of tiles and yet more septaria.
Such was their permanence that today two long sections remain, up to a height of six metres along the north side through Castle Park and down the west side.
You can trace the entire wall, even the missing stretches, on a two mile path, but maybe the best part is along the Balkerne Hill to the west.
There you’ll pass the Balkerne Gate, which is Britain’s oldest and most intact Roman gate.
This once majestic entrance to the city on the road from London (Londinium) had four portals, with unusually broad carriageways.
4. Colchester Zoo
In a world of smartly designed themed habitats, Colchester Zoo has more than 260 species from all corners of the globe.
These might be crowd pleasers like African elephants, giraffes, African lions and Humboldt penguins, or species not often seen on these shores, like fennec foxes, sun bears and Colombian black spider monkeys.
Just to give you hint of the diversity, the themed zones include the Orangutan forest, the massive Kingdom of the Wild (rhinos and giraffes) Edge of Africa (mandrills and cheetahs), Chimpanzee Lookout, Aardvark Burrows, Wallaby Walkabaout and many more.
There’s a daily “Encounter Timetable”, for presentations and feeding sessions with anything from orangutans to sealions, red pandas, komodo dragons, meerkats and vultures.
At the “Sensation Station” children can handle rabbits and lizards, while the zoo’s farm has sheep, llamas and goats.
5. Hollytrees Museum
This free local history museum is in a handsome early-Georgian townhouse in Castle Park.
The museum shares the building with Colchester’s visitor information centre, and has collections of decorative arts, costume and toys spanning three centuries.
Most intriguing of all is the array of Colchester-made clocks, many in working condition, in an exhibition named after its collector, Bernard Mason.
Produced by local clockmakers like Nathaniel Hedge, John Smorthwait and William Bacon, the earliest lantern clocks date from the middle of the 17th century, and there’s also a fine assortment of long case clocks from the 1700s and 1800s.
Many of these still click, and you’ll get to hear them chime when you visit.
Surrounding the museum is a sensory garden and children’s play area.
6. Beth Chatto Gardens
The acclaimed gardener Beth Chatto created this informal garden next to her home in 1960. These five acres had been left empty for decades because of the poor gravelly soil and boggy hollows.
The gardens are a textbook example of how to choose the right plant for the right conditions, making the best of both the soil and the low annual rainfall with a wide variety of drought-resistant plants.
There’s a gravel garden, scree garden, long shady walk, woodland garden and a water garden with clay-rich soils and is like stepping into another world.
You can also visit the nursery, which has plants propagated in the gardens, and the tearooms are a great way to cap a relaxing afternoon.
7. Mercury Theatre
Colchester’s well-respected performing arts venue is noted for its series of original home-grown productions each season, going by the title “Made in Colchester”. These can be plays from new scripts or family-friendly adaptations of fairytales like Peter Pan and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The high quality of these shows have earned the Mercury Theatre recognition as one of the UK’s top producing theatre’s.
Aside from this programme, there’s always something happening at the theatre’s two auditoriums, be it talks with famous people, stand-up comedy, musicals, dance, variety shows or live music.
The Digby Gallery meanwhile has short-term exhibitions of local art.
8. Roman Circus Centre
Britain’s only known Roman circus was discovered in 2005 and dates from around the start of the 2nd century AD. During the spring, summer and autumn the centre on the site is open Tuesday to Saturday and invites people to learn more about this once enormous landmark.
Some 8,000 spectators would come to watch chariot races, and you can see the excavated foundations of the starting gates.
The visitor centre explains how this discovery was made and presents a timeline of the building, as well as artefacts unearthed in excavations, like the remains of one of the three turning posts.
9. High Woods Country Park
A mere half a mile from Colchester’s train station, High Woods Country Park is a Green Flag-winning patchwork of meadows, woodland, scrub, meadows and lakes.
The park is within the town’s limits but on the signposted walking trails it will be hard to believe you’re not out in the countryside.
Much of this land once belonged to the Medieval Forest of Kingswood, prized for its timber, while the innumerable sweet chestnuts were planted in the last 200 years.
The lake is well stocked with roach, carp, gudgeon and tench, and is beloved coarse fishery outside of the spring months.
The visitor centre has a cafe and there’s no lack of picnic tables if you bring your own lunch.
10. St Botolph’s Priory
An English Heritage site moments from the train station, St Botolph’s Priory was England’s first and most prominent Augustinian convent.
The priory was founded at the start of the 12th century and that early Norman architecture is evident in the semi-circular arch and the zigzag patterns of the archivolts on the main west door, or Pardon Door.
The bulky columns in the former church nave have alternating bands of local flint mixed with red brick reused from Colchester’s Roman monuments.
The Botolph’s was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536, and much of its damage was sustained during the Siege of Colchester in the summer of 1648 during the English Civil War.
11. Natural History Museum
Since 1958 Colchester’s Natural History Museum has been housed in the defunct All Saints Church, which has stood in some form since Norman times.
There’s plenty of interesting things to uncover, like the story of an earthquake that shook Colchester in 1884, as well as info on some of the unusual creatures like hippos and mammoths that used to inhabit this part of Europe.
You can also view a display dedicated to the stag beetle, an insect mostly seen only in Kent and Essex, learn about climate change and get to know Essex’s geology in detail.
For youngsters there’s a recreated badger sett to crawl through, and an interactive microscope.
In a bright, curving building by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, Firstsite is an art museum an easy walk from Castle Gardens.
The attraction raised eyebrows for its idiosyncratic design and construction cost when it opened in 2011. In the intervening years Firstsite has displayed work by László Moholy-Nagy, Eduardo Paolozzi, Nam June Paik, Barbara Hepworth, Grayson Perry, Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol.
The only permanent exhibit is a Roman mosaic discovered at the site during construction.
In summer 2018 there were four concurrent exhibitions, the most prominent of which was the satirical “Bronze Age c.
3500-AD 2018”, first displayed by London’s Hauser & Wirth Gallery for the London Frieze in 2017, and with art by Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti.
13. Munnings Art Museum
A short drive to Dedham, eight miles to the northeast, the Munnings Art Museum is dedicated to one of England’s most treasured equestrian painters.
Sir Alfred Munnings lived at this residence, Castle House, for 40 years until he passed away in 1959, and was noted for his dynamic racing scenes.
The building itself is noteworthy, and has elements dating back to Tudor times.
It’s an apt location for the largest set of Munnings’ works in the world, and each year a new chronological exhibition of 150 of these paintings goes on display.
In 2018 there was also an exhibition celebrating Munnings’ association with the Royal Academy to mark the 250th anniversary of the institution.
14. Mersea Island
Under ten miles southeast of Colchester is an island in the Colne and Blackwater estuaries.
The island is joined to the mainland by the Strood, a causeway that can flood when the tide is in.
West Mersea has long drawn holidaymakers in summer, and there’s a sand and gravel beach traced by colourfully painted beach huts.
Around the island are cute weatherboard cottages and military vestiges like pillboxes from the Second World War.
But Mersea is best known for its fish and seafood, and oysters have been harvested on the mudflats since Roman times.
The Company Shed is a humble-looking establishment in a wooden building serving ultra fresh crab, prawns, eel, oysters and mussels, and has won rave reviews over the last decade.
15. Tiptree Tea Room, Museum and Jam Shop
Most people who have had a cream tea or stayed at a hotel around England will be aware of the brand Wilkin & Sons, which has been making preserves, jams and marmalades in the village of Tiptree since 1885. Queen Elizabeth II paid the factory a visit when the company celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2010. You can make the short drive from Colchester for lunch and tea.
The factory shop has special treats like strawberry and champagne jam or salted caramel spread.
The jam museum at the site has vintage machinery, historic document, photographs accumulated over the company’s 130+ years.