Craig Roberts ignores the sterotypes and sees the county in a whole new light.
Essex gets a very unfair press, a real raw deal and is the butt of countless jokes, especially about the females of the county, including this classic; what do call an Essex gir… no, no jokes from me, honest!! It is often seen as little more than an extension of London’s commuter belt, but can this really be the same county that inspired the idyllic landscapes of Constable, have the oldest town in the country, the tallest Tudor gatehouse and Europe’s largest Norman keep, not to mention the oldest wooden church? It seems there’s more history here than you would think and even the white stiletto dates back…. no sorry, no Essex jokes from me, I promise!
My arrival in the county was at the unfortunately named village of Ugley. Unfortunate, because it isn’t and certainly not a description of the rest of the county either. Lunch beckoned after the long drive south and so I followed the signs towards Clavering and the Cricketer’s pub. Fields of yellow rape is a sight you will get very used to on a late spring visit, with most country lanes flanked by the colourful sight. Not very good for the hay fever I grant you, but a beautiful sight nonetheless. By the way, this route, as are several on the tour, take in some more narrow country lanes. This may not be ideal for camper vans, especially those of the bigger variety, but I was impressed at the number a regular passing places on these lanes, which makes taking your vehicle down these routes less of a headache and I wouldn’t mind trusting my sat nav’ to guide me on these shortcuts.
The Cricketers had been recommended to me firstly, because it is generally a nice pub, but also because of who owns it. Trevor Oliver is the landlord, whose son is quite famous for his cooking. Yes, this is the family home of TV chief Jamie Oliver, who started his career peeling potatoes at his Dad’s pub when he was eight. There are lots of photos on the walls to remind you of this and Jamie’s books are also for sale here, signed copies of course. Being over 6ft tall, as I am, is not an advantage in this establishment however, as the ceilings are only about 5ft10in high and I was glad when I actually sat down to eat (luckily the overflow car park is a lot bigger, so plenty of room to park even the largest van).
Keeping to the north of the county, it was next on to Audley End House, one of Essex’s finest country homes. I would recommend, if only to briefly stop and take a quick photo, that you go via Wendems Ambo. It’s only a tiny village, but the view up to the church is one of the finest in England, with thatched cottages on one side. Very picturesque and one of many examples across the county.
The gardens at Audley End are spectacular and this is what I came to see rather than pay to go inside on this visit. He’s a clever chap that Capability Brown and the gardens were in fine display. I did chuckle to myself when I checked out the English Heritage website for the house beforehand. It stipulates that no stiletto heels are permitted inside the house! Do you think they mention that on all their properties or expressively to this one? Just thought I would warn you, especially you gents!
As I mentioned, Essex has some lovely villages and Finchingfield is the star of them all. Lovely houses gathered around the village pond and a white windmill on the edge of the village make it an idyllic setting. It wasn’t really what you would call a hot day, even though the sun was out, but the Bosworth’s ice cream shop was too enticing to ignore. It’s never to cold for an ice cream is it and anyway I missed having pudding at the Cricketers!
Just a stones throw away, is Thaxted and I was enticed to this historic town by its delightful windmill, which I had seen on postcards. It was not to disappoint either, but I also found a lot more besides. The church for starters is stunning with its tall spire. Then there’s the Guildhall, perched on its columns, which holds the towns museum and the street leading up the side of this towards the church is one of the finest in the country (or did I give that accolade to Wendems Ambo? Joint first position then. Pity about the parked cars though). The Almshouses behind the church and other architectural delights in the main street make this a favourite in Essex and an interesting fact for those who like their classical music, is that apparently Gustav Holst lived in the town and wrote some of the Planets Suite whilst living here. I was warned by one local that grown men in frilly shirts, hankies on their sleeves and bells on their ankles, all called Morris coincidently, might be present over the weekend. I was rest assured however, that this was quite normal and just give them a wave as they dance by.
I based myself around the site at Colchester for the first few days, heading back to just east of Finchingfield on day two. Here you find Hedingham Castle, billed as Britain’s finest and best preserved Norman keep and it is an impressive sight, both inside and out. They hold several jousting events throughout the year, which would be worth timing a visit to coincide with, as I’m sure the atmosphere at such an event would feel very medieval with the backdrop of the castle. Coggeshall is another nice town in the area with several quaint attractions to see. There’s the Victorian clock tower in the High Street, Paycocke’s House with its timer framed exterior and the Grange Barn, a vast medieval barn said to be one of the oldest in the country. Just full of pigeons when I visited, but I suppose it has the history.
I then double backed on myself and went round Colchester itself on the A12 and headed for East Bergholt, where you find Flatford Mill. Okay, so this isn’t officially in Essex, instead a stones throw over the border in Suffolk, but it is certainly worth a visit if in the area. There’s a nice large car park here and luckily the narrow lane you go down to access it is one way only. A friend of mine said this car park has provided a good overnight spot if you don’t want to find a site. Very quiet, but very dark and a little spooky at the same time though. The mill is now a field studies centre and across the pond from it is Willy Lott’s Cottage, which some of you may recognise from Constable’s famous painting ‘The Hay Wain,’ and amazingly it still remains much the same.
Dedham Vale surrounding Flatford is Constable country and it’s easy to see where he got his inspiration. The River Stour meets the Essex coast here at Manningtree as well and is a wonderful place to be at sunrise. Nearby are the Mistley Towers, two free-standing towers that are all that remains of a church built in 1735 and remodeled to the designs of Robert Adam in about 1776.
A short drive south along the B1029 and then west towards Elmstead Market took me to Beth Chatto’s Garden. I’m not a horticulturalist myself, although I have been called similar names in the past, so I came for the stunning gardens rather than the adjacent nursery. It’s a delightful little garden with ponds and decorative borders full of colour, although today was not the best to see it, with overcast skies and a strong easterly wind. I didn’t expect to bump in to Miss Chatto herself however as I did, pottering around with trowel in one hand, basket of flowers in the other, who seemed most guilty for the unpleasant weather and apologised profusely. A homemade cake and cup of tea in the Tea Rooms soon made me forget how bad the weather was outside and I even bought myself a plant to take home. Perhaps I’ll take this gardening lark up myself after all.
If you fancy a trip into Colchester itself, then it can offer several attractions. The castle, as mentioned has the oldest keep in Europe and is home to an excellent museum. At the right time of year it’s a nice stroll around the surrounding park, with its fine display of roses and makes a good starting point for a tour of the town.
Apparently, if you were a witch or even just a regular woman in the 17th Century, then Essex was not the place for you. A man called Matthew Hopkins convinced authorities he had a special talent for discovering witches. Being paid for his services he amazingly found them all over the place and in 1645 actually had 60 women executed, earning £1000 for his efforts. Nice job if you can get it I suppose.
Colchester also has its own zoo, a nice shopping centre and a collection of interesting museums. The car park at Sheepen Road is also for lorries, so this would be suitable for large motorhomes as well.
More history is present at Layer Marney Tower, the first location of my trip heading south of Colchester. This Tudor brick gatehouse is the tallest in England in fact and built by Lord Marney during the reign of Henry VIII, as a place to rival Hampton Court to reflect his wealth, as most manor houses are. It was never finished though and maybe it’s a thanksgiving, as it now remains a friendly, intimate place. Tiptree, the town to the west of here may sound familiar, as its home to Tiptree jams and conserves. There’s a museum and shop, where you can stock up all you need for your morning toast, although the recipe for apple and blackberry pancakes I picked up, makes it good enough for lunch and tea as well.
Promenade Park is a large open space at Maldon, on the head of the Blackwater Estuary and there is a lovely view back to the town including the famous Thames Sailing Barges. I thought this would make a quiet place to park overnight, but returning in the evening, I found that they lock the gates overnight, so that put paid to that idea. So instead, I headed down to the site at Steeple near Southminster.
Although I was concentrating mostly on the area north of here, I spent an extra day in the south of the county. Here you’ll find Southend, a hot spot for seaside visitors. It’s the largest town in Essex and of course the nearest seaside resort to London. If you didn’t know, Southend has the longest pier in the world and you can walk the 1.3-mile length out to sea. It’s so long that a train runs the whole length to bring you back (including me) again.
Hadleigh castle is also down here, an impressive ruin of a fortress built over 700 years ago. The views from here are wonderful, looking across the mouth of the River Thames to the Isle of Sheppey. In fact from here you can see Kent, Canvey, Southend Pier, Canary Wharf and the Dartford Bridge. With all these great views, the country park that the castle sits in is lovely to walk around and made an ideal place to end the trip, returning back to the van for late tea (remember those pancakes?!), before heading for home.
So, you could say I was pleasantly surprised by the county, there’s a lot more to see and enjoy here than I first imagined and certainly as good as any other county. Full of history and really nice to drive around, it seems very motorhome friendly and you soon realise that the only joke is the one on you, if you in anyway doubt this counties potential.
All images and text copyright © Craig Roberts 2008