The Pyramids, Great Wall of China, Stonehenge and...Colchester? The Essex town is preparing an audacious bid to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and it's not as unlikely as it sounds. Destination Colchester, a group of local business owners and heritage enthusiasts, is preparing a bid to be entered onto a tentative list of the UK's heritage sites. If the bid, due next Friday, is successful, Colchester could find itself inscribed alongside famous British landmarks like Bath Spa, Hadrian's Wall and the Tower of London.
Colchester has already been making headlines this year with a bid to preserve Britain's only known chariot racetrack, or circus. But while the campaign, which enlisted the help of famous faces such as historian Dan Cruickshank, reached its £200,000 target earlier this year, Destination Colchester member Bill Hayton thinks the city has undersold itself for too long. “We want to put Colchester on the map – it's been our intention for some time,” he says. “We are fed up with the way the town has failed to make the most of what it's got here. And when you stand back and look at what Colchester has, it is pretty extraordinary – yet very little-known outside the town.”
Colchester is thought to be the first Roman town in the UK, called Camulodunum. Replacing an already thriving Iron Age community, the city boasts Britain's oldest and longest Roman wall, its first Roman church, two theatres, a temple of Claudius – on which Colchester Castle sits today – and the circus. It was also where Celtic queen Boudicca began her bloody revolt, burning the city to the ground. Despite an illustrious Medieval history, the bid's organisers are focusing solely on Colchester's Iron Age and Roman era. “We think we have an amazing assemblage of Roman and pre-Roman sites in the town,” adds Hayton. “It's the fusing of Roman and pre-Roman cultures...when you look at the whole landscape, you can see it's a very large-scale settlement.”
If the initial bid is successful, “there'll be a lot more serious work to go forward,” says Hayton. A second proposal would have to be sent to UNESCO through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. “We're being assisted by the borough council officers and we're seeking formal endorsements from the local council, the county council, our local MPs and other people,” adds Hayton. Anyone wishing to help the bid can voice their support on the team's Facebook page, Love Roman Colchester. There will also be a photo shoot for supporters in Colchester High Street at 11.00am next Tuesday.
Local archaeologist Philip Crummy, who led the circus campaign, claims a successful bid would be “good for heritage and good for archaeology,” but admits some people may be “concerned.” While inscription on the list may offer prestige there is no extra money – though funding through other parties may become easier. It also protects from future development: good news for some, but it has caused problems in developing nations and historic city centres like Brugges.
None of this is likely to deter Destination Colchester, however, who are determined to make a tentative list which currently includes ancient UK sites such as Monkwearmouth and Jarrow Saxon monasteries and Anguilla's Fountain Cavern. “We're looking to raise the profile of Colchester as a desirable tourist visit,” says bid organiser Jess Jephcott. “I think we've neglected our heritage too much in Colchester and we're trying to make it sexy."