Colchester

From fearsome Roman Aquilae to Eddie the Eagle

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

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 their height, 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.

Welcome to Colchester/Peterjon Cresswell

Until 2018, along the Via Urbis, match-day shuttle buses ran from pubs near United’s former home of Layer Road – even from what used to be the legendary Drury Arms, long since 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.

Welcome to Colchester/Peterjon Cresswell

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.

Welcome to Colchester/Peterjon Cresswell

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 ever since, 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.

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Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

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 National Express coach to Colchester East Hill/High Street (advance singles £12, journey time 1hr) runs every 2-3hrs.

Also close is Southend Airport, 67.5km (42 miles) away. From the station alongside, a frequent train to Colchester (£25) requires a change at Shenfield, overall journey time around 1hr 20mins.

Colchester-based Five and Five Fours (01206 544 444) quote £44 for Stansted and £55 for 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 £12 single, 45mins-1hr) is Colchester, less and less referred to as ‘Colchester North’. This is also the most convenient for the stadium, with bus services nearby. Colchester Town station at the southern edge of the city centre is only handy for pubs near the former Layer Road ground.

Adding a Colchester PlusBus (£4.20) to your fare allows you to use all local buses for the rest of the day. The main companies are ArrivaFirsthedingham & chambers and Stephensons. A Colchester Borough Card (£4.50/day) is valid for all four, the inner zone including the stadium on the northern edge. Arriva also runs the separate Park & Ride service (£3) between the High Street and the P&R car park near the ground, via the station. Buses run every 15mins Mon-Sat until just before 7pm, the timetable usually extended until 10.30pm for evening kick-offs. The Borough Card is not valid on this special service – although it’s sometimes free in the run-up to Christmas.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Independent, contemporary, chain or traditional, Colchester is full of pubs and bars. On the fringe of the city centre but prominent enough to have been designated as a setting-off point for match-day 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 Queen St Brewhouse. Find 50 Belgian brews, eight ciders and perries on tap, plus mead. Though there’s no TV football, vinyl DJs entertain – where else in Colchester could you find a Pixies night?

Next to the landmark that provides its name, The Castle Inn fills a prominent corner of the town centre with a large, traditional pub and terrace. Recent gentrification has seen it up its game on the gastro front.

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, The Centurion has taken over where Pat Molloy’s once stood, with TV sport and pub grub still main priorities.

Finally, down towards the station, the excellent Magnet is Colchester’s first micropub, replacing the somewhat dowdy Norfolk, near the Albert Beefeater pub/restaurant. Locally sourced ales and ciders are well cared for and served in a neat interior and pleasant courtyard. The bar’s name comes from the great Elizabethan scientist William Gilbert, a notable Colcestrian, discoverer of the magnetic poles.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the ground and around town

Visit Colchester has an online booking service. There are no hotels within walking distance of the ground.

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 guest rooms.

Facing each other up the slope from Colchester Station, the Colchester Boutique Hotel, the former Blue Ivy fills a 100-year building with ten lovely rooms, one suite, a bar and 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 Colchester Cowdray Avenue (A133) adjoins the Albert pub/Beefeater restaurant. Another Premier Inn out on the A12 is handier for those coming to the match by car.