Sites and sounds

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Starting at the castle of Britain's oldest town, Gillian Thomas sets off on a tour of Essex, taking in clocks, looms and barns

The chain mail worn by Roman soldiers was exceedingly heavy. I speak from the heart, having tried some on at Colchester Castle Museum. I could scarcely move, let alone march or fight. Wearing a toga was another revelation. It may look a simple garment but putting it on is a complicated process of folding and wrapping, almost impossible without the help of a slave.

The museum succeeds brilliantly in presenting the various layers of the castle's long history. Visitors can make a coat of arms, try to build a Norman arch or even handle genuine Roman pottery - the only place in the UK where this is possible.

Standing in the cramped cells of its prison, you hear a voice telling the "Gaoler's Tale", the gruesome story of how "witches" were interrogated and condemned to death.

As Britain's oldest town, Colchester is certainly an appropriate starting point for a visit to Essex, a county which has a surprisingly broad mix of historic sites that are relevant across the curriculum.

The bricks and tiles from the original Roman colony, founded by Claudius in ad54, were used in the building of the castle. Begun in 1076, it is Europe's largest Norman keep (roofed over in 1934 as the first stage in its conversion to a museum) and stands on the site of the colossal Roman Temple of Claudius, which the mighty Boudicea burned down in ad6O. A model is on display in the Roman section of the museum alongside Roman glass, jewellery and a splendid bronze statue of Mercury.

The story of medieval Colchester is told in scenes which begin with the arrival of refugees from Holland. Another story, devoted to cookery, has a period kitchen with rabbits and herbs hanging up to dry and baskets of oysters and seaweed waiting to be prepared. And why were diarrhoea and fever so prevalent then? Press the buttons on the wall quiz to find out. The museum's final section, due to re-open in July after refurbishment, shows how the town was destroyed, for the second time, during an ll-week seige in the Civil War.

Three different school visits packages are available. There is a fully-guided tour, mainly for younger children, which includes the Roman vaults, roof and chapel ; a Roman tour with activity sheets and a 30-minute story in the vaults; and a tour which adds on an hour in the theatre for two videos, plus archaeological sorting activities and drama: this is particularly suitable for 7 to l0-year-olds. For GCSE students, a lecture on a specific topic can also be arranged.

Near the castle, large sections of Roman wall still stand, together with Britain's largest surviving Roman gateway. A very different aspect of the town's history is on show at Tymperleys Clock Museum in Trinity Street. This splendid 15th-century timber-framed house is crammed with more than 200 locally-made grandfather clocks.

Silk weaving was first brought to the area in the early l9th Century when exiled French Huguenots settled in Braintree. The Working Silk Museum in the town's 150-year old "New Mills", Britain's last remaining hand loom silk manufacturer, is the only place in Europe where you can watch silk being commercially woven.

Sixteen 150-year old Jacquard looms are in operation, clattering noisily as the weavers throw their bobbins from side to side through the network of threads and deftly operate the wooden foot pedals. Each one produces just half a metre a day. Everything is made to order, mostly for ceremonial robes and grand furnishings, costing at least Pounds 400 a metre. One colourful length taking shape was being made for the Sultan of Brunei.

A small museum area explains how strands of silk are prepared from the cocoons and then woven into intricate patterns by being fed through thousands of hand-cut cards. School visits for 7 to 11-year-olds can be booked in the mornings, including an introductory talk on the history of silk.

Cressing Temple farm buildings near Braintree date back 800 years to the Knights Templar "warrior monks" who protected pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land.

Since Essex County Council took them over in 1987, several have been restored - two original barns, both masterpieces of construction with vaulted timbers under soaring red tile roofs, a half-timbered Elizabethan Court Hall with a granary above it and a waggon lodge. Now the walled garden is being replanted to 15th-century designs.

Schools can arrange for the Court Hall to become a Tudor or Stuart classroom where children can dress up in period costume, play medieval games and cook medieval food.

Colchester Castle Museum. Book three months in advance. Contact Julia Grant, Education officer, tel: 01206 282937 * Tymperleys Clock Museum. Tel: 01206 282931 * The Working Silk Museum. Tel: 01376 553393 * Cressing Temple farm buildings, near Braintree. Tel: 01376 584903 * Essex Council's Group Travel Manual gives details of places to visit in the county, tel: 01245 437545. For museums contact Susan Aldridge, tel: 01245 284981

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