The other way is Essex! Forget that TV image… this beautiful county has great art, a traditional seaside – and no crowds
- Start an Essex adventure in Epping where you can enjoy 6,000 acres of forest
- Colchester ‘punches above its weight for arts and culture’ with its castle and zoo
- Visit Mersea Island to take pictures of pastel-coloured huts on its sandy beaches
When I tell people I grew up in Essex, only those who have never been there turn up their noses. This is a shame, for the Essex I love is a wonderful mix of pretty rural life and coastal escapes.
The county’s image hasn’t been helped by reality TV show The Only Way Is Essex, which follows the tangled love lives of a group of wannabe celebrities. But letting yourself be fooled into thinking ‘Towie’ is all Essex has to offer would mean missing out on so many treasures.
Essex also has accommodation to match anything you’d find in Cornwall or the Cotswolds, often for a fraction of the price.
Rent a boat on the River Stour and row to Flatford Mill, almost unchanged since John Constable painted the area 200 years ago
The best place to start an Essex adventure is in Sir Winston Churchill’s former constituency of Epping. You’ll be surrounded by a 6,000-acre forest of ancient trees and misty bogs. The drier clearings around the Epping Forest Visitor Centre in High Beach are perfect for pre-walk picnics.
Get a fix of royalty at nearby Copped Hall – Henry VIII’s daughter Mary was exiled in the mansion and Elizabeth I loved it here. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed in the long gallery 425 years ago. A bigger, must-see mansion is Audley End House and Gardens, run by English Heritage. Renowned as one of the finest Jacobean houses in England, take a full day to tour everywhere from the servants’ quarters to the Capability Brown-designed gardens.
Stay in the heart of Essex to find some of Britain’s loveliest villages and charming towns. Finchingfield tops beauty parades with its white windmill, pastel-painted houses and perfect village green and pond. Wendens Ambo, Coggeshall and Thaxted are also favourites thanks to their mix of mills, cafes and colourful thatched cottages.
Head north towards Dedham to tour the landscape immortalised by John Constable. The Sun Inn, once a medieval coaching house, is a thriving pub with rooms. Cross the street to Dedham Parish Church to view The Ascension, one of three religious paintings by Constable. Then rent a boat on the River Stour and row to Flatford Mill, almost unchanged since the artist painted the area 200 years ago.
Colchester, Britain’s oldest recorded town with its castle, zoo and Roman history galore, also punches above its weight for arts and culture. Then head out of town to find the gingerbread-styled madness of artist Grayson Perry’s A House For Essex. Each week, four people get to stay there – allocated through a ballot – but you can see the property from the road.
On the way you’ll pass Manningtree, home to one of the country’s most photographed clocks. It was unveiled in 2009 with two numbers in the wrong place, and instantly became a tourist attraction.
Tick off a few more items on the world-beating list by going back to the days of the Knights Templar in the world’s oldest wooden barn at Cressing Temple. There’s the world’s oldest wooden church, St Andrew’s, in the village of Greensted, which is said to date back to the 9th Century. And there are stories of headless coachmen and screaming servants in Borley Rectory, reckoned to be the UK’s most haunted.
Perfection: Visit Mersea Island to take pictures of pastel-coloured huts on its sandy beaches
Working up an appetite is easy in Essex, so head to Wilkin & Sons in Tiptree, the Queen’s favourite jam-maker, to take a farm tour and have a fabulously fresh afternoon tea. You can also enjoy a meal with a difference by going back in time at Mess Hall Cafe at Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, or relive Cold War history at the not-so-secret Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch.
On the coast, you need to time the tides right to cross a causeway to Mersea Island for oysters at The Company Shed or to take pictures of pastel-coloured huts on its sandy beaches.
If you want old-fashioned fun, the longest pleasure pier in the world is in Southend, while ‘kiss-me-quick’ Clacton won’t disappoint. But if Towie is your thing, the Sugar Hut nightclub in Brentwood is waiting too.
Where to stay? Essex is bursting with pubs with rooms, historic hotels, coastal campsites and cottages. The Mistley Thorn has smart rooms above a top-notch restaurant, and it’s no surprise The Cricketers in Clavering – run by Jamie Oliver’s parents – also has a fantastic kitchen.