Travel: Essex, Countryside and Coastlines
Traveling in the southeastern county of Essex, UK, finding a rich history, varied landscape and family-friendly destinations
With the United Kingdom’s longest coastline, oldest recorded town, most islands, longest pleasure pier, largest Norman Castle Keep, smallest town and largest village, the county of Essex is a mixture of quaint facts and records that can certainly hold its own against almost anywhere..
But as well as being the ancestral home of 5 US presidents, world famous jam and the most haunted house in England, Essex is also a collection of quaint villages, fun family days out, and trips back in time.
History is indeed a major draw for the county, with countless attractions spanning the centuries.
Those with an interest in times gone by can add to their agenda a plethora of castles, including one of the best preserved Norman keeps in the country – Hedingham Castle; the largest Norman keep in Europe – Colchester Castle; and the open-air museum of Mountfitchet Castle – a reconstructed motte and bailey castle and village harking back to the year 1066.
Other explorations into the past can take you to the remote seventh century St Peter’s Chapel; to the site of the Battle of Maldon, which took place between the Saxons and Vikings in the year 991; to Napoleonic era defensive sea fortresses; and to Cressing Temple Barns – former home to the infamous Knights Templar.
Expect plenty of historical re-enactments at many of these places – especially Hedingham Castle, which draws huge crowds to its jousting tournaments and staged medieval battles.
Perhaps the destinations providing the most well rounded excursions, however, are the range of country estates and stately homes that proliferate the countryside.
The most notable among these is the decadent Audley End House, with its sprawling grounds and immersive visitor experience. Layer Marney Tower, Hylands House, Ingatestone Hall and Copped Hall all deserve mention, too – especially during the summer months when gardens are in full bloom and programmes of events are in full swing.
These estates mirror the majesty of the county’s natural environment. Benefitting from being one of the UK’s driest regions, Essex produces vast green tracts of land with an arresting array of plant life, trees and shrubbery.
Dedham Vale, on the Essex-Suffolk border is a fine example of the chocolate box beauty the county can offer. Art enthusiasts will enjoy spending time amid the landscape that inspired John Constable and has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
For a slightly more rugged experience, try Hatfield Forest or Epping Forest, both of which offer lengthy woodland walks, with plenty of wildlife to spot along the way.
So replete is Essex with natural wonder that those with the energy and fitness would be well advised to hire a bicycle for their visit. This way you can take in quaint towns and villages such as Saffron Walden, Coggeshall, Tillingham and Thaxted with ease – stopping at the numerous inns, cafes and farm shops for refreshment along the way.
However you’re traversing the county, be sure to make the most of the sprawling and varied coastline.
Six of Essex’s beaches hold the prestigious Blue Flag – a mark of high water quality, environmental awareness and safety. Among the most popular spots are Clacton, Frinton, Southend, and Dovercourt, all of which have their own appeal and charm.
For something a little different head to Walton to scour the cliffs for fossils. Erosion has revealed a treasure trove of prehistoric findings, with sharks’ teeth in particular in plentiful supply.
A more traditional British coastal activity is a trip to the pleasure pier. Southend’s is the longest in the world and comes complete with its own railway that runs the length of its 2.16km. Here and close by you can find entertainment, including a newly opened cultural centre and Adventure Island fun park.
A little way west along the coast you will come to Leigh-on-Sea, where you can find some award-winning shellfish. Track down Osborne Bros for possibly the best cockles you’ll ever try. Travel at the right time of year and you can also enjoy the excellent Leigh Folk Festival – an oftentimes lively celebration of traditional music, dance and poetry, which in 2017 takes place between June 22 and 25.
Seafood plays a big role in Essex’s culinary scene, with fish and chips being a staple favourite up and down the coast. But head slightly inland and you’ll find a plethora of produce available in the most unlikely of places.
Farmers markets pop up in towns and villages with alarming regularity, offering the best food and drink from local farms, cottage industries, and suppliers.
Good quality eateries are in equally plentiful supply, including the highly rated Smiths of Ongar, Le Bouchon in Maldon, Magic Mushroom in Billericay and Haywards in Epping.
While Essex is home to neither the biggest nor most glamorous towns or cities, there is a growing number of shopping and entertainment options available.
The main urban centres of Chelmsford, Southend, Basildon, Brentwood and Colchester offer plenty of nightlife attractions and growing retail propositions, but the county is well placed geographically for visitors craving something grander.
Only a short train ride into the centre of London and in easy reach of Paris by air, road, sea or railway, Stansted Airport also connects Essex with much of Europe, North Africa, North America and Dubai.
All in all, Essex might not be high on most people’s list of dream destinations, but its picturesque countryside, varied coastline and proximity to Europe’s major cities make it a left field option worth considering.
By Neil King
Paul Ebeling, Editor