I’ve spent a lot of time defending Essex. Too close to London? Too built-up? Too loud? Too dull? I’ll knock every negative to the ground.
Being near London makes Essex easy to get to. Always did – for centuries, movers and shakers poured city money into country retreats, and Colchester oysters came the other way on roads built by the Romans.
The trip’s easier these days: all those trains running out of Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street, many of them down little half-forgotten lines.
Ruined Hadleigh Castle, show-home of Hubert de Burh, King John’s sometime pal
Gillian recommends a walk from Benfleet (pictured) to Leigh-on-Sea, keeping parallel with the estuary
Forget the built-up ring road nightmares of your imagination – these trains chug out into the marshes of south Essex, where there are wonderful walks along endless sea walls and through areas carefully tended for their bird life.
This is the heartland of the RSPB, and of the splendid Essex Wildlife Trust. Their acres are ours.
Otherwise, walk where the paths take you.
For starters, try Benfleet to Leigh-on-Sea. You can walk parallel with the estuary, keeping an eye on the sea with its continual traffic of container ships beyond, and look left up to ruined Hadleigh Castle, show-home of Hubert de Burh, King John’s sometime pal, who lost the lot, as pals of King John often did, centuries before Constable painted its broken outline. You can walk up and explore it, or head straight ahead for Leigh along the seawall.
At Leigh-on-Sea, writes Gillian, ‘seafood is everywhere’ and you can embrace the ‘salty breeze’ and gaze upon ‘little scuttling birds working along the mud slicks’. It’s a ‘blessed spot for the end of lockdown’
The tide may be up or down, but the shore is littered with little boats and the seafood is everywhere, to eat on the spot or to buy and take home.
Even in a few hours, heading into the salty breeze, whatever the weather, you’ll have seen the little scuttling birds working along the mud slicks of the line of the tide and, in spring, you will hear the curlews. A blessed spot for the end of lockdown.
Driving? Essex roads are like the spokes on a bicycle wheel, A11, 12, 13…
Sequentially, they lead to, first, Saffron Walden, the picture-perfect market town famous for odd things – labyrinths, artists and crocuses – and nearby, lending its name to the railway station, the huge palace of Audley End, confusingly built by the 1st Earl of Suffolk and then passing to the 4th Duke of Norfolk.
Saffron Walden, ‘the picture-perfect market town famous for odd things – labyrinths, artists and crocuses’
The huge palace of Audley End, built by the 1st Earl of Suffolk and used as a base for training Polish secret service agents after the war
After the war – during which it housed trainee Polish secret service agents – the 9th Baron Braybrooke (of Northamptonshire) didn’t want it, and it was, briefly, on the cards as a country retreat for the disgraced Duke and Duchess of Windsor. (Essex barely got a look in.)
Next, on the A12, why not pause at Cressing Temple, with its breath-taking medieval barns preserved alongside a walled garden and – best bit – a tearoom tended by Wilkins of Tiptree (makers of James Bond’s favourite jam).
On to Colchester, in whose Norman castle – built on top of a Roman temple – the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins interrogated his suspects.
For contrast, the ambitious FirstSite gallery – dubbed the Golden Banana for its unusual design – offers the best of the new and a great focal point for cultural life.
Cressing Temple is home to ‘breath-taking medieval barns’ and a tearoom tended by Wilkins of Tiptree, the makers of James Bond’s favourite jam, Gillian points out
The Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins interrogated his suspects at Colchester Castle
Southend has a pier (pictured) ‘so long you lose sight of it’, writes Gillian. And on the beach there are ‘endless horizons and tidal pools’
The last spoke, 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 played host to Al Capone’s bullet-proof car. Down on the beach, you have sand, endless horizons and tidal pools.
Too loud? That’s the attitude captured in Towie, but now almost a heritage attraction in its own right.
Too dull? Are you having 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 Old Street Publishing, £9.99