a watching brief on the new Balkerne Hill bridge
The new combined pedestrian and cycle bridge across Balkerne Hill in Colchester was opened last week (Friday 24th March). In January-February, the Trust conducted a brief watching brief on works to install the new bridge across Balkerne Hill. Balkerne Hill was occasionally closed to traffic for several weeks during the removal of the original bridge in January and the installation of the new, wider bridge in early March. The results from the watching brief were negative. However, this is an area of high archaeological importance which includes the western side of the Roman town wall and the Roman Balkerne Gate. The Trust has previously conducted extensive area excavations in and around Balkerne Hill and these produced a lot of really remarkable evidence.
Balkerne Hill is a modern dual carriageway road which replaced the original Balkerne Lane. It connects the Maldon Road roundabout with the Middleborough roundabout. It extends parallel with and close to the Roman town wall, the Balkerne Gate, St Mary’s Steps and the former St Mary-at-the-Walls church (now Colchester Arts Centre). Also overlooking the bridge are the historic Hole-in-the-Wall pub., the Mercury Theatre and Jumbo, the town’s iconic Victorian former water-tower. On the other side it is bounded by the St Mary’s multi-storey car-park and the residential development of the Balkerne Heights. The roadway was opened in 1977 and the construction of the roadway and the car-park was preceded by the Trust’s excavation.
The Trust conducted the excavation of our Balkerne Lane site in 1973-6 (the Balkerne Hill roadway and St Mary’s car-park). We also conducted an excavation on the site of St Mary’s hospital (now Balkerne Heights) in 2001-3, after an evaluation in 1997. The evidence from Balkerne Hill spanned the Roman to the post-Roman periods, from about AD 43. The evidence represented an ?aqueduct, a set of water-mains, a large heap of oystershells which was the waste from a Roman roadside ‘fast-food’ stall, Roman houses, an area of Roman horticultural activity and, most importantly, the whole sequence of the town’s defences on this western side, including the construction of the town wall and the town ditch, and the major Roman road which was flanked by a small Romano-Celtic temple and a possible shrine outside the Balkerne Gate. The town defences had been preceded by the defensive ditch of the Roman legionary fortress here. On the site of St Mary’s hospital, we excavated a Roman cemetery and the buildings of the suburb which developed outside the walled town.
With the evidence from our excavations, we were able to reconstruct the whole sequence of the town’s defences, ie the building of the town wall in about AD 65-80 with its main west gate and the major road which led west from the gate to London, and the excavation of the defensive ditch with counterscarp bank outside the town wall and which included a gap for the road to pass through. Later, the defensive ditch was extended across the road to improve the town’s defences and then, in the late 3rd century, in an era of instability, it was widened. At the same time, the town’s main, west gate was blocked. (The buildings of the western suburb seem to have been demolished in about AD 275-300 and this area became waste land which was used for quarrying and pit-digging.) These major alterations changed the line of movement and access on the west side of the walled town from west-east to north-south, with the loss of the major route to and into the walled town (which would have shifted to the Head Gate). A track would probably have developed parallel to the town wall, and this would eventually have been turned into a road and which became the modern roadway of Balkerne Hill. The modern roadway is also an important route but it cuts across the Balkerne Gate and the line of the major Roman road leading west from Colchester to London, now represented by Lexden Road and London Road in Stanway (named after the Roman ‘stone’ road). Interestingly, the bridge parallels and is near to the line of the lost Roman road…
You can view a gallery of old photo.s of Balkerne Hill and the bridge online at www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/15029022.PICTURES_Balkerne_Hill_bridge/ and a time-lapse sequence of images of the installation of the new bridge at www.facebook.com/essexcountycouncil/videos/1419686714760721/ . Read more about our Balkerne Lane excavation in Colchester Archaeological Report 3: Excavations at Lion Walk, Balkerne Lane, and Middleborough, Colchester, Essex and about the St Mary’s hospital site in the Colchester Archaeologist magazine (no 16), both published in our online archive at http://cat.essex.ac.uk/all-reports.html .
The fieldwork was undertaken by Trust archaeologists. The project was undertaken on behalf of Essex County Council.
The images show a photo. from the watching brief; the Balkerne Hill and the new bridge in early March 2017, a couple of days after installation on the 5th March, with the Hole-in-the-Wall pub. on the right-hand side; and two reconstruction paintings of the area around the Balkerne Gate, based on the evidence from excavations before 1997 (image from the Trust’s popular book City of Victory, the story of Colchester – Britain’s first Roman town, painted by Peter Froste, © Peter Froste and © the Colchester Archaeological Trust). The reconstruction paintings show the area in about AD 80-100 and in about AD 400. The first shows the recently-completed town wall, the Balkerne Gate, the possible aqueduct, the road to London, the roadside temple and possible shrine, and the buildings of the extra-mural suburb. (The new bridge crosses Balkerne Hill at a point which would be just beyond the temple, which is beyond and to the left of the Balkerne Gate in the painting.)