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Gallery: 10 things you didn’t know about Colchester

19:00 13 May 2014

A model of the giant Chariot Racing Circus which lies buried under the old garrison area of Colchester.

A model of the giant Chariot Racing Circus which lies buried under the old garrison area of Colchester.

Archant

So what is Colchester famous for? A castle? A League One football team? Er, Damon Albarn and Blur? Local historian Andrew Phillips proves there is more to this historic town than just the obvious with 10 facts you may – or may not –have known.

A sergeant major cycles past the former Prisoner of War Camp where the Kray twins first met their future gangland friends.A sergeant major cycles past the former Prisoner of War Camp where the Kray twins first met their future gangland friends.

1. Britain’s first city, Colchester, has the oldest town walls in Britain. Built by the Romans after Boudicca wrecked the place in AD 60, about a mile of the wall is still there.

2. Colchester has Britain’s only military ‘glasshouse’, where, during National Service days (1946-1960), hard men did porridge before dismissal from the Army. Graduates included the Kray Twins, one of whom broke the jaw of a corporal who shouted at him. More recently it was trialled as a ‘boot camp’ for naughty boys, before they invented ASBOs. It began life as a German prisoner-of-war camp but is now the Army’s only Military Corrective Training Centre.

3. The best known nursery rhyme in the world, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, was written by Jane Taylor, aged 23, in 1806 in her attic, which still exists in Stockwell Street, Colchester.

4. The Oldest Hot Cross Bun in the world was baked in Wyre Street, Colchester, on Good Friday 1807 and is now rock hard. Owned by a couple in Wormingford, it beats one kept in the British Museum, baked in 1869.

5. Probably the oldest visible church remains in Britain are the foundations of the church built for a Christian cemetery in Roman Colchester about AD 330. To date over 800 hundred burials have been excavated. The church now stands outside the main Police Station.

6. At 140 years old, the second oldest continuously used site in Britain for making powered engines is the Paxman (now MAN Diesel) Works, opened off Hythe Hill, Colchester, in 1874. They are currently building the Paxman 18VP185. At 5,000 horsepower it is the largest diesel engine, and the only British-designed one, made in Britain.

7. The least known major archaeological site in Britain is Gosbeck’s Archaeological Park, Colchester. It was the royal centre of Camulodunum, the Iron Age fortress of King Cunobelin, whom Shakespeare called Cymbeline, and the Roman historian Dio Cassius called ‘king of the Britons’. Camulodunum was enormous, defended by 15 miles of defensive dykes. The Romans added a temple, (where Cunobelin may be buried), and a ceremonial theatre. Both have been marked out on the site.

8. A Second World War pillbox in Colchester was the unlikely place where the immortal Second World War song, ‘There’ll always be an England’ was written by Ross Parker, co-author of ‘We’ll Meet Again’, in 1940, while stationed at Roman Way Camp. The camp was so noisy he retreated to the pill box for quietness while composing his song.

9. Proportionate to its population, more Protestant martyrs were burnt alive in Colchester during the brief reign of Queen Mary than in any other town in England. Foxe’s famous 1563 ‘Book of Martyrs’ declared, ‘The ancient and famous city of Colchester for the earnest profession of the gospel became like unto the city upon a hill and...gave light to all those who came to confer there.’

10. Roman Colchester had the only known Roman Chariot Racing Arena (like Ben Hur) in Britain. 470 metres long and 75 metres wide it housed up to 15,000 spectators. The starting gates are being re-created on their original footprint and will soon be a tourist attraction.

Corrie McKeague

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