Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: A day out, a bit of history... and then a nice cup of tea and cake

Your correspondent with historical re-enactor Jo dressed as Boudicca at Colchesters new Roman Circu

Your correspondent with historical re-enactor Jo dressed as Boudicca at Colchesters new Roman Circus Centre. - Credit: Archant

Last weekend I attended the opening of Colchester’s new Roman Circus Centre up on the old garrison site, writes Martin Newell.

I didn’t know what to expect but hoped fervently that it wouldn’t be another over-designed ‘heritage experience’. It wasn’t. Colchester Archaeological Trust, their cohorts and volunteers have done something very smart. They’ve installed a visitor centre with a reasonably-priced, unpretentious café on the ground floor of their HQ, which is right next to the Roman Circus site.

Now, what is it that we in Great Britain most like on a historical day out? Our history comprehensively but simply told? Of course. We also like a few scale models so that we can see how things might have appeared within the context of their own time. We like a few film clips, some pictures, some lumps of stone and maybe a bit of period clothing. Am I correct? But what do we really, really like? Exactly.

A place to sit down afterwards with a cup of tea and a bit of cake. Then we can have a think about it. After that, we’ll willingly buy any amount of brochures, books and mementos. The Roman writer Juvenal, put it in his inimitable own way: “Panem et circenses.” Bread and races. Or more commonly, ‘bread and circuses’.

From Juvenal, it was a typical, for him, bit of moralist cynicism. He was implying that if a politician wanted either to rise to power, or to hang onto that power, then all he needed do was to make sure that his jaded electorate had their games and a bit of grub.

Most of us here in the UK can only absorb so much history or culture before we need “tea and a wee”. He or she who understands this simple tenet of native hospitality will usually swing the game in their favour.

On a breezy late March day, therefore, with turbulent skies threatening rain, the tea room at the Roman Circus Centre was cheerily full. For a blustery Saturday morning, in fact, it was a hell of a turnout. The building housing the Roman Circus Centre, is Victorian, ex-military in origin, and has great high ceilings and large windows. It’s rather elegant in its own spartan way. A former Army education building, so I was informed, it could equally have been and possibly had been at some point, an officers’ mess.

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As a “barrack rat”, the son of a professional soldier, the building and the space in which it was situated seemed immediately familiar to me. My family was never stationed in Colchester, but the layout of such institutions rarely varies much. It reminded me of Chester, Aldershot, or Millbank in London, all places where I lived when growing up. The old buildings, even the tall trees which still line the camp roads, bear the look of a British Army barracks from almost any point during the 20th Century.

The thing is, that almost two millennia earlier, here was the site of Britain’s only known Roman Circus. St Albans never had one. Nor, so far as we know, did Wroxeter, Bath or London. It was only here in Colchester. That’s a really big deal.

The archaeologists are still turning stuff up. No wonder that the trust’s traditionally-reserved supremo, Philip Crummy, was almost bubbling over with it all. No wonder that Sir Bob Russell, who was also there, was in twinkling form. In the midst of Colchester’s prevailing problems: a street-lighting controversy, a High Street market row and a potential arts funding meltdown, it seems that those modest muddy archeologists have quietly got it right.

Nobody minded that there were a few bits and bobs still needing to be nailed up, that the new turf at the entrance was still bedding in, the Roman Circus Centre and its nice café are now open. Even ‘Boudicca’ turned up in a proper chariot pulled by burly chaps in hi-viz jackets. The Iceni Queen, (her real name is Jo) described herself to me as a historical re-enactor.

She was convincingly Boudicca-like. Junoesque, with long auburn tresses, she brandished a dangerous-looking spear. Close up she gave lie, I told her, to an ancient Roman eyewitness description of her as being “fierce of face and harsh of voice”. A small frown crossed her face at this. Regarding her spear, however, I didn’t press the point

– in case she pressed her own.

The cameras liked her a great deal and so I moved gallantly out of the way for them. Sir Bob, more fearless than I, managed to get in a photo-op, complete with a peck on the cheek for the Iron Age Queen. I wandered off, meanwhile, to talk to a nice lady in the Circus Centre, who was washing muddy Roman pot-sherds.

Attending the centre’s opening was a pleasant activity for a blowy Saturday morning. It surprised me how much of “old” Colchester was there, people to whom, if I’d mentioned long-gone names such as Jacklins or Sheepen Market, would have known exactly what I was talking about. The centre, whose address is Roman Circus Walk, is about eight minutes stroll from the bottom of Scheregate Steps. Cross the road and in a straight line walk down Abbeygate Street, through the underpass, up to the top of Flagstaff Road, turning sharp right. You’ll see a sign. No, it’s not a burning bush, it’s an actual sign with writing on it. You’ll know what to do.

The Roman Circus Centre and café open Mondays to Saturdays 10.30am to 4.30pm. Entrance is free.