About Roman River Music

Gwyneth Herbert, appearing at the 2017 festival

Roman River Music brings mind-boggling variety of performers to informal and unexpected venues in Colchester and coastal Essex each year for a 3-week festival. From internationally renowned classical musicians to beatboxers, choreographers and digital artists, there’s something for everyone at the Roman River Festival.

Saturday night was outstanding.  I had no idea we had access to such high standard music in Essex.

Dance by Joseph Toonga, premiering a new work at the 2017 festival

Our festival is informal, open to everybody, with no rules. We convert disused urban buildings into performance venues because there is no concert hall in Colchester. Audiences can clap where they want, bring drinks into the concerts, and no shushing is allowed! We run bars and often serve food as well.

Nicola Benedetti who performed at Roman River Music in 2016
Photo Rhys Frampton

Everyone is welcome.

If you’re aged under 30, you can get tickets to all our concerts for either £3 or £6. Every year one of our concerts is pay what you can.

Roman River Music put on the first concert for 117 years in St George’s Hall, Colchester

With our partners Dance East, the Mercury Theatre, and Colchester Arts Centre, we commission new work and collaborations, nurture emerging talent.

Richard Melkonian, composer of hEARd, a work-in-progress at the 2017 festival

We give artists the time and space to develop their skill and create new work among the salt marshes and wide open skies of coastal Essex.

Errollyn Wallen, whose new cello concerto is featured in the 2017 festival

concert, arts, colchester, culture, dance, digital, inspire, live music, music, night out, social, theatre, classical music, performances, performers, international, world, folk, jazz

We create opportunities for over 1,000 young people to compose, perform or listen to music and get involved in the performing and visual arts.

I was quite simply blown away by everything my class achieved on Tuesday. It was a joy to watch and the whole school loved the performance.

Active involvement in music by schoolchildren has been shown to improve concentration, self-confidence, social awareness and ability in maths and English. Giving young people the chance to listen to live music and develop their own music-making has remained at the core of our organisation, and our dream is to give every schoolchild within reach of the festival the life-enhancing opportunity to compose, perform or listen to music.

Primary school pupils on stage at the 2015 festival
Primary school pupils on stage at the 2015 festival


The charity combines strong grassroots support from over 100 volunteers with a truly international quality programme. The summer festival 2017 concerts will be broadcast on Radio 3.

Maya Youssef playing the kanun
Maya Youssef, appearing at the 2017 festival

The final concert was an absolute triumph and a very fitting end to yet another fantastic season. We are already looking forward to next year.

Tell me more about the unusual venues

We’ve performed in art galleries, an Edwardian horseshoe theatre currently housing a nightclub but with balconies and proscenium arch intact, the waiting room of the local bus station, a 15th century half-timbered townhouse, the ticket hall of the local rail station, the medieval chapel of Colchester Castle, shopping centres, a disused 1851 public hall, restaurants and bars, medieval churches in idyllic villages, and a lightship moored at the quayside in Colchester.

Matthew Sharp, appearing at the 2017 festival


Thank you so very much indeed for all your much-appreciated hard work in producing yet another wonderful fortnight of glorious music in unusual venues.

Primary schools on rehearsing at the 2015 Festival
Primary schools on rehearsing at the 2015 Festival

Tell me more about the education programme

Our wide-ranging engagement and participation programme is intrinsic to the festival. Many young people perform at festival concerts, and festival musicians often give a recital in a local school as well as at the festival. We work with at least seven secondary schools and twenty primary schools every year, complementing the fantastic work teachers do with our own specialist and high quality people. Our work with primary schools provides a unique context in which children can create and play their own music, working alongside top-class professional musicians. There are opportunities for those who already play to sit alongside top professionals, and for young professionals t be mentored by more experienced performers under our Roman River Jerwood Musicians programme. Our emphasis is on quality and inspiration to give a positive and long-term legacy.

Chineke, appearing at the 2017 festival

We provide opportunities for young players to perform side-by-side with the outstanding musicians coming to the area for the festival, to give talented young musicians inspiration and improve their skills.

The King’s Singers, appearing at the 2017 festival

We offer free entry to open rehearsals for school groups, and top quality professional performances of syllabus works for GCSE and A level students.

In 2011 and 2013 we won Essex County Council Chairman’s Fund Award in recognition of Roman River Music’s commitment and dedication to enrich the lives of young people in their local community

The Chiaroscuro Quartet outside Fingringhoe Church, 2015 Festival
The Chiaroscuro Quartet at the 2015 Festival

So how did it start?

It all started one misty autumn Saturday in 2000 as a one-day event – a music day for 12 young people among the medieval whitewashed walls of Fingringhoe Church in North Essex, with a quartet concert in the evening given by Juliet Jopling and friends.

The autumn festival has steadily grown in popularity over 15 years, and each year  over 100 international quality performers give 25 concerts in 15 unusual venuesenjoyed by almost 4,000 ticket buyers and funded by Arts Council England, sponsors, individuals, Trusts and the Friends of Roman River Music.

And who funds all of this?

A talented young bass player learns from one of the UK's top professional players.
A talented young bass player learns from one of the UK’s top professional players.

Roman River Music’s community work and festival could not happen without amazing support from the Essex Community Foundation, our Friends organisation, several Trusts and Foundations, generous businesses and individuals, and Arts Council England both via their Lottery-funded Grants for the Arts programme, and via the local Music Education Hub.

We are incredibly grateful for everyone who has supported us.

In 2015 we won our first support from the Jerwood Foundation. Jon Opie, the General Manager of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, said:

“We are delighted to confirm funding for the development of Roman River Music Festival’s artistic programme in 2015.

We were impressed by their vision for creating a programme that promoted both talented emerging and established musicians, offering them high quality performance opportunities and bringing their music to an area of low cultural engagement.

The festival has over 15 years grown steadily from its community-based roots to a full scale operation committed to an ambitious concert series for its audiences. A convincing argument for funding was made to us that 2015 would be a break-through year and we made this investment in the festival’s commissioning and artist professional development strands to ensure its success.”

Klanghaus at the 2016 festival

… and I’ve always wanted to ask – where does the name come from?

The very first concert 15 years ago was in Fingringhoe Church, which overlooks a pretty valley along which runs a tributary of the Colne called the Roman River. It joins the Colne opposite Wivenhoe, another gorgeous spot where we put on a concert every year.

But the name Roman River is also serendipitous, as Colchester is a Roman town with a magnificent and fascinating history, plus we love putting on concerts on boats – there’s already been one in the Lightship on the Hythe Quay, and more are planned for the lovely Thames Barges which still sail out from Maldon, and at venues along the newly renovated river path with stunning views from Colchester to Rowhedge.

And watch this space for a river-themed opera in 2020 ….

Registered charity 1158366

A historic ship sails up the Colne estuary, near Colchester
A historic ship sails up the Colne estuary, near Colchester