Colchester’s Roman Wall

By Iris Clapp »

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.

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