IT’S the Colchester equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge. Safeguarding the town’s Roman walls is truly a never-ending job, but work is finally soon due to finish on the latest section of repairs.
A £115,000 project has seen builders carrying out work they liken to keyhole surgery on part of the wall which runs behind Roman Road.
Vegetation has been stripped away and the top of the wall has been rebuilt.
Philip Wise, heritage manager for Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, said the work had confirmed the walls, which show signs of previous repairs over the centuries, are Roman in origin all the way around.
“We’ve exposed the whole stretch and excavations have confirmed even under the bits which have been repaired above ground, there are Roman foundations,” he said.
“We also found a brick pillar, built in the 18th century to support the wall, and discovered a hole was knocked in the wall in the early 19th century to enable access to market gardens outside the walls.
“You could do that then. It would be a criminal offence now!”
The work has been carried out by Essex heritage building company, Bakers of Danbury, which specialised in historical structural and building work, with architectural advice from Colchester-based Purcell Miller Tritton.
Mr Wise said: “It’s been a bit like keyhole surgery – doing small bits of work just where it’s needed, “We’ve used the materials and methods the Romans would have used.
“For the repairs, we’ve used original bits which have fallen off the wall wherever we can. Some of it is septaria, which is compressed mud in layman’s terms, and quite hard to get hold of.”
The work, which started in March and is due to finish next month, has been paid for by a £46,000 grant from English Heritage and money from Colchester Council.
Paul Smith, borough councillor responsible for culture and diversity, is pleased to have been able to use Essex companies.
He said: “Sometimes, you have to cast your net wide to find the appropriate contractors, but this shows what a diverse range of expertise there is in the local economy.
“Looking after the wall is an ongoing process, but the work we have done here will protect these walls for the next 30 years.
“We’re already looking at securing funding to do the next stretches, and will keep working our way round.”
The walls played a key role in defending the town down the years, not least when it was besieged during the English Civil War, yet they had been left to fall in to disrepair.
The council made its first concerted repair effort in 1941, on the stretch along Balkerne Hill. The fact resources were diverted from the war effort to carry out the work says a good deal about the poor state into which they had fallen at that stage.
Since then, regular maintenance has been carried out –£300,000 was spent between 1987 and 1996 with a further outlay of £100,000 since 2005.
Mr Smith said: “It is important we continue to look after the walls, and indeed all of Colchester’s rich historical heritage.
“They are a major part of the town’s character and attraction to tourists.”