Time Team Travels: Colchester

I decided to visit Colchester specifically because of a Time Team special about the discovery of the only Roman Circus (that’s chariot races, not clowns) in the British isles in Colchester.

Colonia

In the first century CE, Colchester was Colonia Claudia Victricensis—the city of the Emperor Claudius’s victory—or Camulodunum, a Latinized version of the city’s original Celtic name. It was the Roman capital of Britain from the 50s, built in the style of a Roman city. There was a huge temple at the city center (razed by Boudica in 60 and rebuilt), a theater, and the circus on top of the hill; the ruins of the latter only discovered in 2005.

When I arrived at Heathrow, I crossed London first thing that morning to Liverpool St. station to catch a train to Colchester. I was there before noon. Unfortunately, I couldn’t check into my hotel under 3:00; they let me leave my bags there behind the desk, but I was forced to wander the city without freshening up first or being able to change out of the clothes I’d been wearing overnight on the plane. But I had come here for one main purpose, and I meant to do it that day. (And I’d already made arrangements to drive to Layer Marney the next day.)

The castle and some temple foundations

The medieval castle that sits on the site of Claudius’s temple, and is partially built from its stones, was barely 100 yards down street from the hotel.

The castle is now a museum, with an information center adjacent. It was there I got a map of downtown Colchester and directions to find the Circus and the Roman Circus Visitor Centre.

The walk was quite a steep climb uphill, across the modern shopping area and an older part of town, through an underpass tunnel, and up another quiet street of houses.

Roman heads

Traces of Colchester’s Roman heritage can be found all over the place. You don’t have to look hard for them. Aside from the major ruins and what remains of the old city walls, which I would visit later, you can see bits and pieces of very old stone reused in many of the current buildings.

Outside one of the houses I passed on my way up to the Circus, I saw badly worn fragments of Roman sculpture embedded as decoration in the brickwork posts flanking the end of the driveway. Whether these came from the ruins of the Circus, or from another Roman building in the vicinity, I couldn’t say.

At last, breathless, I reached the top of the hill and the Visitor Centre.

As I went in, the Centre was playing that same episode of Time Team on a large screen in the entrance. I told the woman at reception, “I was just watching that,” and how it inspired me to come here. She said that it had drawn a lot of people there.

The interest generated by the publicity seemed to have diminished in the 10-plus years since the discovery of the Circus in 2005, but there were a few other visitors in the Centre. The woman at reception showed me around the Centre, and informed me about what there was to be seen outdoors.

The Time Team team did not conduct the dig here; the show normally conducted three-day investigations of sites of potential archeological interest, to be followed up on if they found anything. The Circus dig was, and is, a long-term project. The elongated ovoid shape of the Circus extended for nearly a quarter of a mile across the hill top; small sections of it have been uncovered. Much of it is lost under the existing roads and buildings.

Partially reconstructed Circus gate

You can walk a circuit around the Circus site. Most of the sections that were recovered are back underground now to protect them. Their locations are marked by brick pavement that echoes the curve of the massive walls that once stood. Some ruins are still visible under thick plexiglass.

The Circus’s starting gate at the western end is now in a little park across the street from the Visitor Centre. These foundations are displayed in partial recreation, along with a large plexiglass illustration; viewing the foundations through the glass with the illustration properly aligned, you can see how the gates that once stood here looked nearly 2000 years ago.

Inside the Visitor Centre is a large model of what the Circus looked like when races were run here, complete with crowds of tiny figures in the stands.

The Circus Gates, through the glass
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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.