Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society coach trip to Colchester on 7th August. Teams of people and vehicles clearing what seemed to be a continuous layer of bottles and cans and food wrappers covering every open green and paved space down the central valley of Brighton – the morning after Pride.
Colchester has heritage all over, its the oldest town in the UK. The Romans built it first, using their red bricks and tiles and a curious stone called septaria. Essex is a land of clay and glacial deposits – not a lot of building stone, so hard concretions washed out of the London Clay along the Thames were collected and used. Hardly good stone, but the best available locally. They built a huge temple to the emperor Claudius, and the Normans used the large and solid foundations to site their castle – making it the biggest Norman castle anywhere – bigger than the Tower of London, but the same architect – a Bishop of Rochester. The Romans also built a defensive wall – but not until after the Boadicea rebellion made it necessary.
The Normans did reuse lots of Roman brick, tile and collected septaria, but they also imported a white limestone from Caen in France. Caen stone can be seen in hundreds of Norman churches in the SE, and there is a big patch on the left of the main gate into Colchester castle, above, as well as in the quoins up the corners of the structure.
I borrowed this photo from Bob Williams, in an article he wrote in Deposits Magazine – the magazine of fossils, geology and minerals (17th may 2016 issue). It shows a beach on the north side of the Isle of Sheppey, and many septarian nodules washed out of the London Clay cliff. They are called septarian nodules because, during formation they develop internal cracks which fill with calcium carbonate solution from the surrounding mud, and this crystallises out to give veins of calcite. When a nodule is broken it tends to break along one of these veins, so they divide the nodule. Septum is Latin for a dividing line or boundary between parts – thus septarian.
Above is a piece of Colchester’s Roman wall showing the typical bands of horizontal red brick between areas of less regular building materials (septaria mainly).
Before the Normans came over, and after the Romans left the Saxons (amongst many others) appeared. They built defensive towers and churches – sometimes a defensive tower could be incorporated into a church – and they used a distinctive doorway and window element – a simple pointed arch. And a church I passed whilst seeking a beer (found Elephant School Brewing’s Black and Weiss – a black wheat IPA!) showed one nicely. Note that the structure is all reused Roman brick and collected septaria.
Recently archaeologists have discovered the biggest Roman Circus in northern Europe just south of the castle. It happened during the demolition and redevelopment work of the old barracks. The interpretation centre is beside the circus in an old NAAFI building. Just outside there is a stainless steel cross-section of what the seating might have looked like, located on the very footing of the seating and wall of the circus. The stone foundations and buttresses of this stone seating and retaining structure are preserved below the glass panels set in the ground.
Inside the NAAFI there is a model showing the likely appearance of the 450 metre long circus. I took the picture below by peering through the west end of the perspex cover over the model.
By the time the Romans built this vast entertainment complex society must have been flourishing. They went all the way to Kent for building stone, importing Kentish Ragstone from the Weald, via the rivers Medway, Thames and Colne to Colchester.
But enough geology and Romans. In the museum of Colchester in the castle, there is a fine jug dating to the 13th century. It is in the shape of a ram, and I liked it. I cannot be alone, because the museum now sells a jug based on the design, but made without the feeling for sheep, and detail of the original, so I resisted buying one.
Dashing up to date, on the way to visit some of the walls we passed a Victorian water tower, a wonderful listed building nobody knows what to do with. The tank is made of iron and sits on top of the 4 brick piers. The whole is at the highest point in town, allowing water to flow by gravity to all parts of the town, once it had been pumped up the the huge tank.
But a family of peregrine falcons have found a use for it, raising young in the middle of the town. Apologies for the lousy picture.