Car-free adventures aroundColchesterEssex
Britain’s oldest recorded Roman town (known then as Camulodunum), Colchester was home to the UK’s biggest classical temple, along with theatres, mosaic-floored villas and racing tracks. Colchester castle, an eleventh-century Norman keep, was built on top of the Roman temple. Enriched over the centuries by Flemish weavers and Victorian engineers, it also has a long military history and is now one of Britain’s fastest-growing towns. In 2022 it was given city status. A great network of trains and buses makes it easy to escape into the Essex countryside, visiting hilly bluebell woods or seafront beach huts. Colchester is a great base for a staycation - scroll to the end for more tips.
1. Hollytrees museum and more
Colchester has two railway stations. Greater Anglia‘s trains from Chelmsford, Norwich, London and the coast arrive at both regularly. Colchester Town station is just ten minutes’ walk from the city’s central attractions, but there are faster to Colchester’s main (or North) railway station, where there is a taxi rank. Frequent buses into town leave from the far side of the main road.
- The red brick Georgian mansion at the end of the High Street, with namesake holly trees outside and ornamental gardens nearby, houses the engaging Hollytrees museum and the town’s tourist information. Open Monday to Saturday 10am – 5pm, this free museum takes you on a tour of Colchester life since the 1700s. It is stuffed with costumes and grandfather clocks, rocking horses and and intricate dolls’ houses, as well as huge collections of things to do with tea.
- Nearby, Colchester Castle is a major tourist attraction with hands-on chances to explore 2000 years of history – from archaeology in the Roman vaults to tales from wartime Colchester.
- From the tourist information office, you can pick up cycling and walking maps of the area, bus timetables and more.
- Cross the High Street and turn left a few steps to find the lovely Minories Art Gallery.
- First Site, Colchester’s gleaming new Arts Centre is just beyond this walled garden – there are film screenings, exhibitions, craft sessions and more inside this stylish glass cliff of a building.
- Bus 75, which can take you to Colchester Zoo leaves from Osborne Street and takes about 15 minutes to get there. Follow Good Journey’s directions.
2. Hillhouse Wood by bus
Colchester’s main railway station (sometimes called “North Station”) is – slightly awkwardly – out of the town centre to the north. The good news is that several great trips by train or bus start from outside the station, including a railway-themed adventure (see 4 below), a trip to the seaside (see 3 below) or a stroll in lovely Hillhouse wood.
- With flowering valleys and clear steams, nightingales and woodpeckers, patches of wild garlic and bluebells, a springtime walk in this small but perfectly formed wood is a delight.
- Turn right out of Colchester railway station and find the layby with stop Ea. No need to cross the road. Catch bus S3 which leaves from frequently (less on Sundays) and takes you to the Queen’s Head pub in West Bergholt.
- A few steps beyond the bus stop, turn right up Lexden Road and, after five mins or so, left into Firmins Court. A path leads from the end of Firmins Court across the fields to the old church. Then take the lane beside the church and follow it left to the wood’s main entrance.
- There are many paths through Hillhouse, where getting lost in May is a pleasure; one scenic route is to fork left near the pond, through the valley, and follow any way-marked path through the woods in this direction until all ways converge to cross two little bridges and climb up to a gate in the southeast corner of the wood.
- Follow the path ahead along the edge of a field. Reaching a brick cottage, you can either turn left back to the old church, or follow Cooks Hall Road towards West Bergholt.
- This quiet lane leads past paddocks with goats and donkeys and a stately Georgian rectory. Turn left at the cross roads and go on over Lexden Road to find the stop for buses to Colchester and the unpretentious Queen’s Head pub, reflected in the village pond.