Just a stone’s throw from London – as you’ll know if you’re based in the capital – is the ancient county of Essex.
Sure, it’s a place many of us love to drive to for a day on the beach, or trip to Colchester Zoo, but why just spend a few hours there when there’s literally so much to see and do?
Did you know, for example, that Essex boasts a 350-mile coastline, one of the sunniest and driest climes in the country, as well as top eateries and amazing places to stay?
To give you a hand navigating it all, below we’ve rounded up some of the best tips to help you discover one of the UK’s most underrated counties.
First up, some coast
Essex is famously home to the much-loved tourist resorts of Southend and Clacton-on-Sea, two iconic places to have fun on the pier, catch the sun’s rays, build a sandcastle and scoff an ice cream (or three).
But there’s so much more to explore along the county’s impressively diverse shoreline. Just a short drive from the town beaches, for example, are at least thirty different islands, more than any other English county. Packed with wilderness and wildlife, as well as meandering estuaries and secluded beaches, they underline how Essex really does offer something for everyone.
Explore the coast on foot and ramble around the county’s awe-inspiring saltmarshes and mudflats. Then take to the waters and feel replenished with a wild swim on its shores. Families will love the seal watching trips that depart picturesque Harwich quay, too.
Next: get active
Yes, Essex is the ideal location to hop on a kayak or SUP (Stand-Up Paddleboard) and start exploring. The waterways provide an idyllic backdrop to a short break, not to mention the fact that watching the world go by, as you blissfully float along a river or canal, is basically 100% relaxation.
If you’re new to the sport, hire a kayak or SUP and take in a training session. Clacton Kayaks are based in Dovercourt Bay in Harwich, a beach that’s recently been voted one of the best in Britain, while Frangipani offer hire and training sessions from their Maldon-base.
Walking and birdwatching are also super popular. RSPB Wallasea Island is a magical landscape of marshland, lagoons, ditches and sea. Walk along the seawalls to see the saltmarsh, mudflats and lagoons; and watch terns dive into the water during the summer months, or huge flocks of waders and wildfowl arrive in winter. More info here.
Hungry? Now let’s eat (and drink)
With around 70% of the terrain devoted to agriculture, it’s not surprising that Essex dishes are brimming with vivid flavours and farm-fresh produce. And, with one of the longest coastlines in the country, you have to savour mouth-watering seafood and native Mersea oysters (see our pic, above).
But don’t just take our word for Essex’s fabulous eateries: flick through the Michelin guide and tuck into highlights like the Galvin Green Man serving the best of British, the Cricketers in Clavering’s sensuous Mediterranean cuisine, or The Sun Inn in stunningly beautiful Dedham, with its Italian influences.
Or perhaps you and your friends might prefer to hone your own skills in the kitchen? The Mistley Kitchen, near the panoramic open waters of lesser-known Manningtree, and The Cookery School at Braxted Park (pictured above) are prestigious places for budding chefs to raise their game.
With a heritage of winemaking since Roman times, there are twenty vineyards across the county that allow you an exhilarating taste of the grape – many of them award-winning.
Treat yourself to a guided tour of the vineyard at Saffron Grange, just a short drive from the market town of Saffron Walden. This family-run vineyard offers an outstanding selection of English sparkling wines: toss a coin to see who’ll be the designated driver, as wine tasting is included in the tour.
Afternoon teas are also a must on holiday, and what better accompaniment than Tiptree jam? Berries are farmed across the county and shipped around the world, but ensure you savour the flavour of a traditional afternoon tea in one of nine Tiptree tea rooms.
Finally, rest your limbs
From glamping to boutique hotels, Essex offers accommodation options for everyone. The county is famed for its much-loved seaside resorts, such as Southend-on-Sea, where families and couples can all find accommodation.
One tip here is the Roslin Beach, a boutique four-star spa hotel overlooking the quiet beach at Thorpe Bay, just outside Southend: it’s ideal for those looking for a pamper by the sea, with rooms priced from a very reasonable £70 upwards.
As a county of contrasts, full of tucked-away treasures, quaint villages and beautiful countryside, it’s now time to let you into one of its best-kept secrets. Burnham-on-Crouch is ideal for yachties, kayakers and paddleboarders. Here you can relax in style at Hall Cottages at Crough Ridge vineyard: priced from £650 per week, the ‘cottages’ can sleep between 4-6 people, and are self-contained apartments within a spacious barn conversion which offers stunning views over the Crouch estuary.
Or why not get back to nature and take the family camping? Lee Valley campsites in Sewardstone and Edmonton are just a stone’s throw from the capital, yet perfectly positioned for you to explore the 1,000 acre River Lee Country Park or Gunpowder Park, where you’ll find a wide range of cycling and walking routes. Touring pitches are priced from £19.20 per night (inclusive of two people and one car). More info here.
And we have to tip you off about the world-class Dedham Vale. Originally popular due to the romanticised paintings of early 19th century artist John Constable, today the area attracts tourists from far and wide to explore ‘Constable Country’.
If you wish to stay here, nestled on the Essex/Suffolk border is the magnificent 18th century four-star Wivenhoe House Hotel, once painted by Constable himself (rooms from £118.75 per night). The hotel is set in parkland on the outskirts of Colchester and ideally located for visitors to explore the picture-perfect village of Dedham and the atmospheric Stour valley.
Finally, a few miles down the road is The Stoke by Nayland Resort (rooms from £66.50 per person per night), which has availability in its 80-bed contemporary hotel and offers golf, spa and leisure breaks throughout the summer.
So staycationers, what are you waiting for? This year that winding 350 mile coastline is quite simply yours for the taking.
Main image: Mersea Island. Photo: Visit Essex
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