I’ve spent a lot of time defending Essex. Too close to London? Too built up? Too loud? Too boring? I will throw every negative to the ground.
Being near London makes Essex easy to get to. Always – for centuries, movers and shakers poured city money into rural retreats, and Colchester oysters came the other way on roads built by the Romans.
The journey is easier these days: all of these trains that leave Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street, many of them on small, half-forgotten lines.
Ruined Hadleigh Castle, the setting for Hubert de Burh, King John’s casual buddy
Gillian recommends a walk from Benfleet (picture) to Leigh-on-Sea parallel to the river mouth
Forget the built-up nightmares of the ring road of your imagination – these trains chug into the swamps of South Essex for wonderful walks along endless walls and through areas carefully cared for for bird life.
This is the heartland of the RSPB and the great Essex Wildlife Trust. Your hectares are ours.
Otherwise, go where the roads lead you.
First, try Benfleet to Leigh-on-Sea. You can walk parallel to the estuary, keep an eye on the sea with its constant traffic of container ships, and look left at the ruined Hadleigh Castle, the setting of Hubert de Burh, King John’s casual pal who lost the lot. As friends of King John often did, Constable painted his broken outlines centuries before. You can walk and explore or drive straight to Leigh along the waterfront.
In Leigh-on-Sea, Gillian writes, “seafood is everywhere” and you can enjoy the “salty breeze” and “watch the little birds work along the mudslides”. It’s a “blessed place for the lockdown to end”
The tide can be up or down, but the shore is dotted with small boats and the seafood is everywhere to eat or buy and take home.
Even in a couple of hours if you step out into the salty breeze, whatever the weather, you’ll have seen the little birds working along the tide line mudslides, and in the spring you’ll hear the curlews. A blessed place for the lockdown to end.
Drive? Essex streets are like the spokes on a bicycle wheel, A11, 12, 13 …
One after the other, they lead to Saffron Walden, the quaint market town famous for strange things – mazes, artists and crocuses – and nearby that give its name to the train station, the vast palace of Audley End, named after the 1st Earl of Suffolk and then surrender to the 4th Duke of Norfolk.
Saffron Walden, “the quaint market town known for weird things – mazes, artists and crocuses”
The huge palace at Audley End was built by the 1st Earl of Suffolk and served as a base for the training of Polish intelligence agents after the war
After the war, in which Polish intelligence agents were trained, the 9th Baron Braybrooke (from Northamptonshire) did not want this and was briefly on the plan as a retreat for the embarrassed Duke and Duchess of Windsor. (Essex barely got a peek inside.)
On the A12, stop at Cressing Temple, with its stunning medieval barns next to a walled garden and, best of all, a tea room maintained by Wilkins of Tiptree (maker of James Bond’s favorite jam).
On to Colchester, in whose Norman castle – built on a Roman temple – the witch finder general Matthew Hopkins interrogated his suspects.
In contrast, the ambitious FirstSite gallery, dubbed the Golden Banana for its unusual design, offers the best of the new and a great hub for cultural life.
The Cressing Temple is home to stunning medieval barns and a tea room maintained by Wilkins of Tiptree, maker of James Bond’s favorite jam, Gillian points out
Witch Finder General Matthew Hopkins interrogated his suspects at Colchester Castle
Southend has a pier (pictured) “as long as you lose sight of it,” writes Gillian. And on the beach there are “endless horizons and tidal pools”.
The final speech, the A13, takes you to Southend: the pier is so long you lose sight of it, and in the 1930s the iconic Kursaal amusement park hosted Al Capone’s bulletproof car. Down at the beach there is sand, endless horizons and tidal pools.
Too loud? That is the attitude that was captured in Towie, but is now almost an attraction in its own right.
Too boring? Do you have a laugh
Excellent Essex – Welcome to England’s Most Misunderstood County by Gillian Darley is published by Old Street Publishing£ 9.99.
Excellent Essex – Welcome to England’s Most Misunderstood County by Gillian Darley is published by Old Street Publishing, £ 9.99