Glistening in the late summer sunshine, the great Golden Banana is an unexpected architectural statement for a business-like garrison town in Essex.
Colchester’s new £28 million arts centre certainly glitters — the curved building is wrapped in polished panels of gilded metal.
Essex County Council hopes it will also prove to be a gold mine, drawing in a projected £500 million worth of investment to a commuter satellite town currently best known as the home of the Parachute Regiment.
There has already been a good deal of controversy about the Golden Banana (all right, its official name is Firstsite, but architect Rafael Vinoly’s exuberant design has made its nickname inevitable, much to the displeasure of gallery chiefs, who are presumably miffed that it makes it sound like a downmarket nightspot). It opened at the end of September, 2011, three years late and more than £10 million over budget.
'A lot of people move to the area to benefit from the education options, with the big prizes the town's two grammar schools'
Whether it will succeed in reinventing Colchester as the centre of South-East England’s arts scene, in the same way the new Turner Contemporary is supposed to be recharging the batteries of tired old Margate, remains to be seen.
What it has done is shine a spotlight on a rather anonymous town 60 miles from central London and 47 minutes by fast train from Liverpool Street (annual season ticket: £4,140).
It must be said that first impressions are not outstanding. The town’s high street, crammed with chain stores, is classic clone town: useful but extremely dull. There are, fans of The Only Way is Essex will be pleased to learn, no less than 40 tanning salons in the town.
But the Dutch Quarter, the streets just north of the centre, are lined with some improbably lovely Tudor timber-framed houses, some with the “modern” addition of a Georgian frontage. A two- to three-bedroom terraced house in the area would cost from around £200,000, according to Miles Redgrave, senior negotiator at Henleys estate agents.
The smartest area of Colchester is undoubtedly Lexden, which is around 15 minutes’ walk from the town centre and stuffed full of grand Victorian villas. By London standards, these roomy homes are affordable, starting at around £600,000 for a five-bedroom house. The biggest and best houses sell for up to £1.5 million.
City in the making?
Colchester is one of the fastest-growing towns in the UK — and is one of 25 areas bidding for city status to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee next year — so there are also plenty of new-build options. Conveniently close to the station, Taylor Wimpey (taylorwimpey.co.uk) is working on The Boulevard, a development of traditional-style homes. Flats start at £114,995, and semi-detached houses from £209,995.
One of Colchester’s biggest selling points is education, according to Tim Dansie, a director of Jackson-Stops & Staff. “A lot of people move into the area to benefit from the schools,” he says. The big prizes are the town’s two grammar schools — Colchester County High School (girls) and the Royal Grammar School (boys).
In terms of lifestyle, there is also plenty to do. Firstsite is starting strongly with an exhibition which places historical artefacts alongside loaned works by 20th century artists including Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol. On permanent show is the newly restored Roman Berryfield Mosaic.
There are also two cinemas, an Odeon and the independent and not-for-profit Moving Image in Wivenhoe, a village just south east of town. There are also several sports centres and a theatre, The Mercury.
For food and drink, Michelin recommends the oak-framed Rose and Crown Pub, for a pint or a meal, and also likes the Red House. The Lemon Tree, beside the town’s original Roman Wall, has a modern British menu, and locals suggest a pint at the Hospital Arms or — for a cocktail – try Qube. A new, and promising, entry in the town’s gastronomic offering is MUSA, Firstsight’s cafe/restaurant.
Colchester is located right on the Essex/Suffolk border, and the beauties of the Stour Valley are within easy reach. You are also only about 12 miles from the seaside at Frinton-on-Sea, although keen sailors may prefer a three-mile drive to the picture-postcard-pretty village of Wivenhoe, at the mouth of the River Colne, which has an active sailing club.
And if town-centre living doesn’t appeal, then Colchester is also encircled by a bracelet of charming villages, which are collectively known as Constable country. The landscape painter was born in the village of East Bergholt, and many of his greatest works feature the villages and countryside nearby.
Dansie picks Dedham and Nayland as the most beautiful of these villages. A five-bedroom period house in Dedham (which could mean Victorian, Georgian or 17th century) would cost in the region of £800,000 to £1 million. The village also has a great pub, the Sun Inn, to recommend it.
The downside for anyone choosing to live out of town, or indeed anyone not wanting to walk to the station, is the traffic. It is, during rush hour, something of a gridlock and would-be commuters must factor in the frustration of a queue to get out of the station car park at the end of a long working day.