Colchester, Essex: The purpose-built capital city of Roman Britain

Clive Aslet considers the town that was one of Roman Britain's greatest cities — and even, for a while, its capital: Colchester.

The Emperor Claudius ordered the Roman invasion of Britain in AD43, arriving in person once the fighting was all over to lead his army into what would be the capital of his new province, Camulodunum, present-day Colchester, which became Britain’s first formally laid-out town and a useful port for trade.

Claudius would have found a settlement on a gravelly rise overlooking the highest navigable point of the River Colne, surrounded by earth defences; the earthworks protected the local Trinovantes from incursions from the west. A Roman colony helped secure the region, the first move of which was to raise a great temple to the deified Claudius, on the hill later occupied by the Norman castle.

Temple of the Deified Claudius, Camulodunum, Colchester dating from the 1st century AD.

Camulodunum was sacked during the ferocious revolt of the Iceni, led by Boudicca, but, it was rebuilt, this time with the strong walls, parts of which still survive, and the imposing Balkerne Gate — the largest surviving from Roman Britain — for traffic using the three-track road that led to London.

However, Camulodunum lost its place to Londinium as capital; Colchester’s greatest moment of Roman glory had lasted a mere 17 years. But glorious it was: there were fine houses with heated-mosaic-floors, no fewer than three theatres, and the only chariot racing circus in Britain.

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A Roman mosaic dating from the second century is displayed inside Colchester Castle. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

How to visit Colchester

Colchester is an hour north-east of London, an hour’s train ride from London’s Liverpool St Station.

Many of the most important sites can be seen in and around the city centre; the site has an excellent list, while the award-winning Colchester Castle Museum (adults £11.25) is an unmissable stop-off point for those wanting to find out more about the city’s history. It’s also a historic spot in its own right, being the the largest Norman Keep in Europe.

The 11th century Norman castle in Colchester.

The Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire

Thousands of years ago, ancient Britons created a vast and spectacular stylised portrayal of a horse in the hills of