The Castle as a Cushion
By Liz Lee Reynolds, Colchester Museums Cushion Volunteer
Since moving to Colchester, I have been enchanted by the history which seems to hide around every corner of this well-established settlement. Though sometimes easily overlooked, history feels deeply embedded in this oldest and newest city.
The Roman walls still cradle the city centre, sometimes in whole sections, rebuilt and reinforced over the years. In other places only scraps of walls peek out from between buildings. The remains of the Roman Theatre suddenly appear in the window of a line of terraced houses and further down the road an Anglo-Saxon church is built on its foundations. Another 1,000 year old church tower stands in the middle of the town, hundreds of shoppers passing it by every day. Musket ball holes scatter across the beams of one of the many Tudor buildings which are still used for living, retail and eating. It often feels like you can’t help but stumble over some hidden memory of Colchester’s past wherever you are.
But one remnant of Colchester’s past can’t be missed. The Castle stands at the entrance of the park, just off the High Street. Its architecture is a mosaic of Colchester’s history, encapsulating in one structure the various eras the city has evolved through. The layers of bricks mirror the layers of history, its own process of reuse and reimaging is immediately visible from its foundations to its roof.
When I heard that local craft group S+B Colchester were planning a project for new window cushions for the neighbouring Hollytrees Museum which would be made from needlepoint depictions of Colchester, including the Castle, I immediately knew it was a project I would love to be involved in. When Megan (the amazing co-ordinator of this exciting project) let me know I had been chosen to take part and could do the Castle design I couldn’t wait to thread my needle and begin work on this iconic structure.
As the project got underway and I whiled away months of quiet evenings with this immense piece of aida fabric and a tote bag full of wool I was tentative to make a start on the Castle itself. The blank space in the middle of the design was daunting and I spent weeks and weeks skirting around the edges of it, trying to plan how to capture that chaotic brickwork which perfectly reflected the history of the building.
I wanted to make sure the layers stood out. The dark bottom layer, standing on the remains of the foundations of the Temple of Claudius which was burnt to the ground by Bouddica’s army nearly 2,000 years ago. The walls of earthy toned stone, pieced together without any sense of uniformity, reflecting the various periods of rebuilding and decay the Castle has been through, half abandoned by the Normans and then reclaimed and turned to new uses throughout the centuries. Lines of terracotta tiles break up the stones, a nod to limited building materials in the area and the need for all construction to reuse what was already there. Because of this, we find the Romans were constantly rebuilt into Colchester. New tiles ordain the roof where MP Charles Gray topped off the Castle’s most recent rebuilding. Believing it to be an original Roman structure he restored it to a classical style.
All this history I wanted to evoke, with only wool and stitches. Even more than previously, I gazed at the Castle as I walked by trying to think of how to capture its essence. In the end I decided to draw on that lack of uniformity as much as straight lines can. I abandoned any attempt to create an exact replica and just tried to produce something which would echo the iconic building. I played with a mismatch of stitches, one on top of the other to replicate that blending and melding of eras. I threaded different colours together to create mottled walls whose exact placement I had less control over. In the end, I hope I achieved what I set out to do, and captured a building so shaped by time.
After around three years, we finally put all the cushions in place in Hollytrees. Before we moved them to their new homes we assembled on the top floor of the museum and through the window that my cushion was sitting in front of I could see the Castle, glowing in the April sunshine. Looking between the two it felt incredibly special to have been part of this project and to be allowed to add another piece to the fabric of Colchester’s history.