Heading from the outskirts of Colchester, Via Urbis Romanae leads up to the Community Stadium, offering supporters easy passage on match days.
But this is no historic facility left by former Colchester resident, the Emperor Claudius. Opened in 2015, the Via Urbis – aka Northern Approach Road Phase 3 – is only the continuation of a decades-long movement to keep the Colchester community involved in its football club.
At best second-flight for two seasons in a league history dating back to 1950, Colchester United have a tradition as long and proud as any in East Anglia.
Along the Via Urbis, match-day shuttle buses, subsidised by club chairman Robbie Cowling, run from pubs near United’s former home of Layer Road – even from what used to be the legendary Drury Arms, now a Sainsbury’s.
This link to Layer Road runs parallel to the history that connects today’s United with the original amateur club of Colchester Town. Probably the only team in football history to play in pink-and-chocolate quarters, Town were formed in 1873 and won the inaugural Essex Senior Cup a decade later.
The early local football scene was equally colourful, featuring clubs such as Colchester Excelsior and Colchester Crown. In 1890 at the George Hotel, still standing today in Colchester High Street, Town and Excelsior agreed to merge teams for games against bigger clubs from outside Colchester.
From Town’s first base on Cambridge Road, these local teams played at several pitches, including Albert Road and Abbey Fields. After a local rifle regiment laid out a pitch on Layer Road, it provided the perfect solution for burgeoning but nomadic Colchester Town, bogged down in quagmires across the borough.
Layer Road had already seen action by the military XI in 1907. Within a few years, these riflemen were in the crowd, watching Colchester Town – the Oysters – playing games in the South Essex League.
By 1919, Town had entered FA Cup and played in leading amateur leagues around the South East in the 1920s. The success of East Anglian rivals Ipswich Town, regular Southern Amateur champions, in turning professional in 1936 encouraged a similar move in Colchester.
Trial matches of newly formed Colchester United attracted big crowds and record gate money at Layer Road. The writing was on the wall. By Christmas 1937, the Oysters had folded and United, the U’s in blue and white, were established at Layer Road.
A decade later, non-league United’s cup run to the fifth round, and brave defeat to Stanley Matthews’ Blackpool, boosted their case for full league accession in 1950.
Inconsistent in the league, United produced occasional heroics in the cup, most notably the famous victory by Dick Graham’s U’s over Don Revie’s Leeds in 1971.
After United dropped out of the Football League altogether in 1990, the debt-ridden club sold Layer Road to the council and focus fell on the building of a new stadium at what was Cuckoo Farm.
It took a huge Community Stadium Now! campaign and £14 million but United’s new home opened in 2008 – ironically just as a brief stint in the Championship had come to an end.
The nearest airport to Colchester is Stansted, 58km (36 miles) away. There is no direct train service – you have to go into London Liverpool Street and back out again. A regular National Express coach takes 1hr and costs £9-£10. Less frequent SX Connect bus No.133 is £12 single/£15 return from bay 26 to Colchester bus and train stations (1hr 30min).
Colchester-based Roman Cars (01206 515 515/01206 521 521) charges from £42 from Stansted and £55 from Southend, with prices also quoted for all accessible arrival points, including the port of Harwich.
The station for mainline services to and from London Liverpool Street (from £9 single, 45min-1hr) is Colchester, less and less referred to as ‘Colchester North’. This is also the most convenient for the stadium, with regular and match-day buses nearby. Colchester Town station at the bottom of the city centre is only handy for pubs near the former Layer Road ground.
In town, most buses are provided by First Essex.
Opposite each other on the High Street are the Brook Red Lion, with original Tudor features, and the George, also a former medieval coaching inn, where displayed Roman-era remains include ashes from Queen Boadicea’s rampage of AD60. In more recent times, Victorian amateurs Colchester Town and Excelsior signed their merger deal at the George. Both venues have varied, individual guestrooms.
Facing each other up the slope from Colchester Station, the Blue Ivy is a boutique hotel in a 100-year building, with its own fine-dining restaurant, while the North Hill Hotel is also a quality, contemporary lodging, set around a courtyard and 15th-century barn. Its Green Room restaurant is one of the best in town.
In the more affordable bracket, the pleasant Riverside nearby has standard rates of £59 for a twin/double, £45 for a single. Nearer the station, the Premier Inn adjoins the Albert pub/Beefeater restaurant. Another Premier Inn out on the A12 is handier for those coming to the match by car.
Independent, contemporary, chain or traditional, Colchester is full of pubs and bars. On the fringe of the city centre and prominent enough to be designated as a setting-off point for match-day shuttle buses, The Fat Cat is an ideal spot to sample the regularly changed selection of real ales and foreign lagers, complemented by a quality menu and TV football. Note also the framed poster for the Clacton Weeley Festival of 1971 – T Rex, the Faces and Mott on one bill…
The nearby Ale House is also great for sought-after beers, atmosphere and football action.
On this side of town, the Fox & Fiddler offers a jukebox and more rare beers while a few doors down, the TV-facilitated Playhouse is the only Wetherspoons in town, set in a former theatre – hence the cut-out figures from Hollywood, the Royal Family and the Muppets gazing down from the balconies.
The best selection of beers can be found at the newest pub in town, opened in July 2015 by the Canadian-Ecuadorian team behind the local PitField’s Brewery: the Queen St Brewhouse. Belgian brews and Bavarian Hacker-Pschorr on draught, local Harbour Pale Ale on the pump and though there’s no TV football, vinyl DJs entertain – where else in Colchester could you find a Pixies night?
Also recommended, next to the landmark that provides its name, The Castle fills a prominent corner of the town centre with a large, traditional pub and terrace. Faintly underscored by a horror-film theme, it’s dotted with TVs.
This part of the High Street is party central as far is Colchester is concerned, standard nightspots set alongside each other. Further up, towards the station, honest, friendly Pat Molloy’s provides plenty of TV sport and pub grub.