Day 111 – A God in Colchester

Essex

Essex

The Sea takes with one hand, and gives with another; the sand and shingle stolen from Dunwich coast is thrown onto the great spit of Orford Ness, safely enclosing the narrow strait and the cosy little harbour of the small town of Orford.

The Ness is now just another in the number of bird and wildlife reserves along the East Anglian coast – known for its avocets and rare plants – but its recent history is much more fascinating than that; for decades, it was the site of the MoD’s experimental research facilities, ranging from advanced radar to high explosives and even, as rumour would have it, nuclear programme. The result is a uniquely dense accumulation of mysterious buildings and remains – monolithic black towers, concrete pagodas, arrays of radio antennae; obviously, like Roswell in the US, Orford has its share of UFO and Nazi conspiracies.

The only way to get on the Ness is by a National Trust ferry, which stops running in October; otherwise you need to satisfy yourself with spying the building through binoculars. But that’s not all that’s to see in Orford; back on the mainland, in the town, a tall, remarkable tower of a castle keep stands on a mound – one of the most unique Norman keep in Britain. It’s in the shape of a circle with three rectangular towers in a triangle, a far cry from the usual simple rectangle the Normans built. Nobody knows for certain why this castle – founded by Henry II on a rebel land – was build like this, why here; most plausible explanation is that, like Edward I’s Caernarfon, it was supposed to evoke the walls of Rome and Byzantium, as symbols of the royal power.

The symbolism of royal power stands at the centre of another major tourist attraction of this region; we pass it on our way south and naturally, we decide to stop as soon as we hear the name – a name possibly most famous in the history of English archaelogy: Sutton Hoo.

For some reason, I was certain Sutton Hoo was somewhere around Wash; I must have confused it with one of many other Suttons scattered throughout Norfolk and Suffolk. But here it is, just outside Woodbridge, the burial ground of chieftains of East Anglia, and the site of the by now almost legendary discovery of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial. Given that all the treasure from the most famous Mound I is now in British Museum (and we’ve already seen most of it there) we were mostly curious what exactly can a visitor centre offer in this place. Turns out, quite a lot.

The site is divided in two parts: outdoors is the burial ground itself, a collection of barrow mounds and enclosures, some 15 minutes walk through grassland and forest from the visitor centre. The other part is much nearer, a museum and treasury showing the history of the site, painstakingly crafted replicas of the artifacts (which are almost as, if not more, impressive than the originals, considering they were created using reconstructions of Dark Age methods); the new and unexpected part is a small exhibition of burial goods found underneath the visitor centre itself, which turned out to be built on another burial ground itself.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the reconstruction of the boat burial as it was believed to look like. Without explanation you’d be forgiven to think this is a reconstruction of a home of some rich warrior, sleeping after a mead hall feast, rather than a tomb. All the items are replicated here again, though with less precision – the famous helmet (now obligatory on the cover of every book on Anglo-Saxons), the grand shield, the sword-sharpening sceptre, and so on; it’s impossible to imagine what it must have been like to discover all these riches at a time when Dark Age Anglo-Saxons were still believed by many to be just primitive barbarians.

What surprised me slightly about the exhibition was the straightforward assumption that the person buried at Sutton Hoo was King Raedwald of East Anglia, the 7th century Lord of All Britain. I was under the impression that there is still no certainty over the identity of the buried hero, and yet here everyone just spoke of Raedwald as if the helmet had been signed with his name.

We drive past Ipswich – despite its modern industrial demeanor an old town, established as harbour by the very kings of East Anglia buried at Sutton Hoo – and leave Suffolk, heading for an even older town; some say, the oldest in Britain: the ancient capital of Roman Britannia, Camulodunum – or Colchester.

Colchester was one of the first towns we planned on visiting during this trip, back in the earliest stages of planning; it is one of the last we actually see, and only briefly – it’s quite late in the day by the time we reach the car park. Apart from the fact that it produces some of the best oysters available in London, there are two things I remember about Colchester: that it has the best preserved Roman town walls in Britain, and that its castle has the largest of all Norman keeps in Europe, larger even than the Tower of London; and there’s a specific reason for that.

The walls still manage to surprise us; as we get out of the car we see what looks like a wall around the car park, upon which some old houses are built. On closer inspection, we realize that this is it: part of the Colchester Wall, actual Roman stone and tile; and the town proper is beyond it, on a low hill.

Colchester town centre, surrounded by the Roman walls, is largely pedestrianized, made up of criss-crossing rectangular grid of narrow streets – another legacy of its Imperial past – lined with old shops, some of medieval provenience. In places, there are plaques and other memorabilia, reminding of what the archaeologists have found underneath the modern pavements of the city – a Roman tomb by the Body Shop, a house floor behind Boots… following these signs takes us to the castle gardens, and the castle itself.

It is a remarkable sight, something no description, and no amount of Norman castles seen before, can prepare for. Half a heap of rubble, half a Byzantine palace, the Colchester castle is built not only on, but of, the ruins of the Roman city. It is indeed enormous as Norman keeps go – the size explained by it having been constructed upon the foundations of the Temple of Claudius, the city’s chief temple, razed to the ground by Boudicca’s troops; built of the Roman rubble, its walls are not the usual dull grey, not even the white marble of the medieval plastering, but a jumble of yellows, ochres and reds. The Roman tiles, bricks, bits of concrete and mortar are all incorporated into its walls. Even the shape is unique, with one of the corner towers rounded into an apse, making it look almost like a Roman basilica.

Further in the garden there are some more Roman finds, including a genuine terracotta house floor; at the bottom stands the rest of the Wall, encompassing the entirety of the town centre; if you have more time, you can walk the length of the wall back to the car park – we opted for crossing the town again.


Somewhat unexpectedly, we managed to reach London tonight! Our campsite for the first night is the Caravan Club site (non-members welcome) in Crystal Palace Park, right at the bottom of the transmitter mast, shining eerily red in the night. Unfortunately, the place is full for the rest of the week! That’s only the second completely full campsite on this journey – and it’s middle of the week in October. That’s London for you.

It’s a good thing we have to move, actually. Like everything in London, the campsite is ridiculously expensive – £30 per night in low season – big, crowded and noisy; the pitch we’re given is a long walk from the facilities, and is just a bit of concrete. Still, it’s the nearest camping to the centre of London, so I’m not at all surprised it’s full.

We’re staying here for a few days; there’s one last day left to complete the Full Circle – a brief sojourn of northern Kent – before we’re off for our winter quarters!

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