7. Hillcrest & The Hall

The ‘dwelling house ‘ on the western side – Hillcrest

Having passed through this minor entrance to the north we turn left along a concrete path. The area to our right is the remains of the original garden and the wall on our left which adjoins the path along which we are walking is the north wall of the nuns’ chapel. This was part of the western extension constructed by the nuns. The County High School used it as a gymnasium and assembly hall and the Adult Community College used it for physical activities ranging from Scottish country dancing to flower arranging. Historical documents on the history of this corner of Colchester give conflicting evidence of the exact date that occupation of Grey Friars by the Sisters of Nazareth took place. We are told from an article written and researched by P. Manley aged 12 in the CCHS school magazine of 1946/47 that the nuns, whilst building proceeded, directed the builders through an iron grille. The only man allowed into the building was Dr Nicholson from Gate House, and only the lay sisters were allowed out. We also are told from research by the late Enid Bishop, Principal of the Adult Community College from 1973 to 1982, that whilst the building works were in progress the nuns are thought to have settled first at the Minories, before eventually moving to Grey Friars when they opened the school.

Hillcrest front Rear connecting passage

However, there can be no doubt that the chapel whose northern wall we are now passing had its stone laid (or perhaps was consecrated) in 1904 because a stone plaque set into the brickwork here on the outside is inscribed JMJ (Jesus, Mary Joseph) 1904 and has a Greek cross above.

Looking up we now see two elaborate and colourful Edwardian stained glass windows with the letters JMJ repeated and incorporated into the pattern. More of these will be seen inside. A few more paces along the path is the back entrance to the adjoining small house, Hillcrest. The rampant ivy here partly obscures the commemorative plaque and one of the stained glass windows. The first of the two doors leads into the northern end of the Hall where there is a slightly raised stage. This was obviously the altar end of the chapel. But we will take the second door which marks the position of the former right-of-way between Grey Friars and Hillcrest. And as we open the door and walk along the rather gloomy corridor we are following the former boundary between the buildings which were joined together by the nuns.

The corridor we are now following runs alongside the western wall of the chapel and it is therefore no surprise when on the right we see a piscina – a holy water basin in which the chalice was washed. This was appropriately placed near the altar end of the chapel. It also suggests that perhaps the nuns lived mainly in the building of Hillcrest and used Grey Friars as their workplace, school and religious centre – the chapel being the first room to pass through, participating in their morning service on their way into the main school.

Piscina    Hillcrest rear adjoining 1904 school wing

We move out of this dark corridor once more into the open air and enter a small completely enclosed back yard with the back door of Hillcrest in front of us. From here we can see more clearly the original position of the right-of-way and how it has been skilfully covered and incorporated into the two buildings.

Two windows added into the brickwork on the ground floor give this corridor more light and the very slight differences in the shade of bricks indicate the junction between ground and first floors.

Having viewed this covered right-of-way from the outside it is time to retrace our steps and go inside again. Ignoring the passage to the north down which we came as we entered, we turn to the south and follow the right-of-way to the entrance hall of Hillcrest, immediately behind its front door. It is obvious that the window on the left beside the front door has been added to give additional light. This is in the exact spot where the original right-of-way would have joined the High Street. The corresponding two ‘windows’ on the first and second floors are false.

In this hallway we notice the small but very fine quarter-turn staircase with winders which leads to the first floor landing. The plain wooden bannister with its white-painted balusters ends in an attractive spiral snail shape at its base. Surprisingly, another door which appears to be a cupboard leads to a narrow dark staircase which emerges in the middle of the room adjoining the large art room on the top floor – as we have already seen.

Upstairs in Hillcrest the rooms are small, plain and insignificant, but in plan match those on the ground floor. Several alterations involving the joining together of rooms took place in order to convert the house into a crèche  during the occupation of the Adult Community College.

One of the fireplaces on the first floor is however worth some attention. The cast iron grate is small and ornate and the surround plain but the vertical strips of tiles on either side are elaborate.