Colchester’s changing times

EXG OCT 13 Colchester

EXG OCT 13 Colchester - Credit: Archant

If only Colchester’s Roman walls could talk, they would certainly give a fascinating account of all the changes that have taken place within their now crumbling embrace. From its first days as Camulodunum, the provincial Roman capital of Britain, and its rebirth after the destruction wreaked by Boudica’s rebellion to manufacturing prosperity in the Medieval period, a siege in the 17th century, expansion by the Victorians and establishment in the 20th century, Colchester’s past has been a colourful one and the walls are about to witness yet more change that will propel this oldest of towns boldly into the future.

‘A compelling fusion of heritage, culture and a great mix of retail – that’s what Colchester offers to its people and visitors,’ believes Councillor Nick Barlow, portfolio holder for regeneration at Colchester Borough Council. But in these days of early economic recovery, no town can rest on its laurels. Mary Portas’ review and many other reports have highlighted the need for town centres to evolve beyond functional retail and business into places for leisure – places where people choose to invest their time as well as their money.

Colchester’s population is on the up and it’s clear that the town needs to appeal to its own residents as well as those from across the county and beyond if it is to uphold its reputation as one of the county’s most attractive places. Indeed, the plan is for Colchester to tempt an extra 500,000 visitors a year to come and have a look around.

‘These are testing times for the high street,’ recognises Nick, ‘so we’re coming up with ideas that combine Colchester’s best assets to create a strong and vibrant future for the whole of the town centre.’

The Better Town initiative is a blueprint for a future-proof Colchester. Its intention is to make the very best of the town’s many existing attractions – and add a few more for good measure. Culture, shopping, open spaces, new facilities and a spruce-up for the old favourites are set to give the town a boost, thanks to an injection of £500m from the private and public sectors.

Perhaps the most obvious changes will be three new hotels, an improved Castle Museum and a crop of new shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. The town is to be covered by a WiFi network and anyone visiting will be entitled to 30 minutes’ access free of charge.

Within the town, there will be comprehensive £30million redevelopment of the Williams & Griffin department store, with construction set to begin in earnest in the new year. Once complete, the development will increase the floor space of this iconic Colchester store by 50%, creating a bright and airy shopping experience built around a central atrium with up and down escalators to all floors, an exciting rooftop restaurant and a brand new café overlooking the High Street. This acts as a major boost to the regeneration of Colchester and its High Street.

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Lorraine Barnett, sales & marketing director for the store, comments: ‘The store will be completed by Spring 2016 and we can only ask our customers to bear with us during the construction work. The finished store will be amazing and well worth the wait.’

Getting to all of these goodies will be made easier too. People arriving in Colchester will notice a real difference as the Town Square will be transformed by a new hard-landscaped plaza, serving as a gateway into the town centre from Colchester Town train station and a starting point for the Heritage Route. Work should be finished by Christmas 2013, while the Park and Ride service is also to be made more accessible and traffic will be deterred from clogging up the High Street.

Headlining these exciting plans for the town is Shops on the Walls, a project that will bring a Brighton Lanes style of shopping to Colchester. One of the most historic routes in the town – from Balkerne Gate, along Sir Issac’s Walk, Eld Lane, Short Wyre Street and down to Priory Street – will be lined with a mixture of independent stores selling all manner of interesting bits and bobs, in contrast to the more mainstream High Street retailers. There will also be nods to stories and characters from Colchester’s past along the way.

Shops on the Walls has the backing of many local independent retailers and two have gone as far as taking leadership positions in the traders’ group, which is working with Colchester Borough Council and the Colchester Retail & Business Association (CORBA) to give the project impetus.

One is local entrepreneur Harriet Leggett-Auld, now chair of the group, whose vintage business What’s Your Tale, Nightingale?, has developed since 2010 from stalls at fairs across the country to fill a successful shop in the centre of Colchester, right on the Shops on the Walls route.

‘The Shops on the Walls experience will work for retailers as well as for shoppers,’ says Harriet. ‘I’m enjoying driving the project forward and engaging with other businesses on the route.’

Harriet is assisted by CORBA deputy chair, Harriette Naylor. Colchester born and bred, Harriette manages and runs her parents’ business, Eclettico, which stocks gifts and objects by top designers from around the world.

‘Colchester has a lot to offer,’ says Harriette. ‘I would like to see it reach its full potential.’

But Colchester is not just about shopping. It also stakes a claim as the most culturally exciting town in Essex, with its museums, galleries and historic architecture making it an enriching place to live, work, study or visit. Colchester’s contemporary visual arts centre, firstsite, has really put Colchester on the arts map and its success is set to spread to the surrounding area with a proposed new cultural quarter for the town in the St Botolph’s area.

As well as plenty of space for public events and activities, a Creative Business Centre will be the hub of St Botolph’s. There, workspaces, networking and showcasing facilities will be a breeding ground for innovation.

Colchester’s walls have seen many exciting times and many changes. With the historic town’s latest regeneration, they will witness a new era, one in which they themselves will play an important role, and which will make sure that Colchester remains a vibrant, lively, enriching place for many years to come.

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