Finding the Oldest Inn in the Oldest Town in England

The Rose & the Crown in Colchester dates to 14th century

By Lucy Komisar

Map showing London bottom left and Colchester to the northeast.

Given a choice between a hotel that‘s spiffy modern and one that‘s historic, I‘ll take the historic place every time. And when that history goes back 700 years, staying in a hotel becomes just as exciting as going out to see the sights. I discovered that in Colchester, where I found the oldest inn located in the oldest recorded town in Britain.

I was going to a conference at the University of Essex, just outside Colchester, which is an hour‘s drive or train ride northeast of London. So I did some boning up on local history. I found that Cunobelin, King of the Britons, had lived here from 5 AD. Then the Romans invaded. The gritty Brits fought back! Queen Boudica burned the town and the Roman Temple to the ground in 60 AD.

To smash the rebellion, Roman Emperor Claudius marched his troops to Colchester in 43 AD, making it the first British Roman capital. To protect themselves from the feisty natives, the Romans built a wall with the largest Roman gateway in the country. It extended all around the city. You can see the ruins. The Romans stayed till 400 AD. When the temple to Claudius was burned down, its foundation was used to build the Colchester Castle. You can see that, too.

The Rose & Crown.

Looking for more history, I discovered the Rose & Crown, which looks just as it probably did in Shakespeare‘s time! It was originally a 14th-century posting house, and the original oak beams adorn the ceilings of many of the rooms and corridors and are set into the outside. People must have been very short then; we had to duck some of the low corridor beams! Most of the patrons were livestock drivers and coach travelers.

During the English civil wars of the 17th century, a siege occurred just down the road. Colchester was a Royalist (Cavalier) stronghold, and Oliver Cromwell‘s Parliamentarians (Roundheads) camped all around the Roman Wall. One of the final battles took place at a building now called the Siege House (now a restaurant) a block from the Rose & Crown; there are still musket balls imbedded in it. Cromwell‘s forces won, and the people who held out were arrested and shot.

Rose & Crown dining room.

In the 1700s, the Rose & Crown was described as a roomy and commodious inn with a bar, taproom, kitchen, scullery, dairy, two parlors, six sleeping rooms and two attics. There were also stables for horses as well as houses for cows and pigs, plus gardens and pastures. The old inn got a new life in 1973. It‘s popular: when we arrived, all the other rooms were booked.

The main restaurant, with a glow from the fireplace hitting off the wood beams, features a fusion of Indian and French cuisines. We also liked the cozy Tudor Bar and Brasserie with its original wood beams, brick walls and small tables with a chalkboard menu set over the open log fireplace. The room was filled with locals, a bit of smoke, and lots of atmosphere! (The menu included scallops, haddock, salmon, chicken at £8 ($14.50) to £10 ($18). And reasonably priced wine.)

Rose & Crown guest room..

We had a large four-poster room that we imagined had been the site of some ribald goings-on in the long-ago past. The other rooms were comfortable and charming, if not grand; just a few of the old rooms were quite small, fine for singles but not roomy enough for two. They must have been where the ordinary folks stayed, while the four-poster was booked by the landowners. But no class distinctions now! (The hotel also has standard-size contemporary rooms.)

Serious tourists seeking a more organized view of the regional history should contact the University of Essex, just outside town in Wivenhoe Park, which can advise on itineraries. You‘ll want to visit historical Colchester Castle, nearby stately homes and villages in “John Constable” country, and the haunts of the Witchfinder General in Witch Country. There certainly was a dark side to the 14th century!

OLYMPUSIf you go

The Rose & Crown Hotel
East Street
Colchester, Essex CO1 2TZ

Tel 44 (0)1206 866677
Fax 44 (0)1206 866616

Some rooms are historic, in the original structure, others are contemporary, in the new wing.

BritRail: I arrived in Colchester from Bath, and when I departed, I stopped in Cambridge on the way back to the capital. It‘s easy to move around the country with the BritRail pass, good for trains that stop throughout the British Isles. Four days of travel in two months costs $265. The pass is available only to non-residents and must be purchased before arrival in the UK. Eight days costs $385, and 15 days is $585. Prices vary for youths, seniors and first class.   For information, BritRail or 866-BritRail.

For local train schedules, One Railway.
National Rail Enquiry Service: 44 (0)8457 484950

Colchester is 30 miles from Stansted Airport, which runs a bus to town.

Tourist Information

Colchester guided tours
Visitors Information Center
Queens Street, opposite the Castle
44 (0)1206 282920

The University of Essex
Wivenhoe Park
Essex, CO4 3SQ

Tel 44 (0)1206 872358
Fax 44 (0)1206 868510

Accommodations on campus for individuals and groups.

Photos by Lucy Komisar

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