The media has a huge influence on how we feel about a place, and this is certainly true for one of England’s most underrated counties – Essex.

Behind its portrayal on TV and in the tabloids, Essex hosts so many beautiful surprises that a visit is a must. Let us whet your appetite and ensure that it is firmly placed on your touring map! You can also get more touring destination inspiration by taking a look at our guide to the best caravan sites.

Seek out new territory

Keen explorers, we had not given much thought to Essex before the pandemic hit, but the halt on foreign travel soon set our sights on some UK destinations.

When the country opened up enough for us to travel again, we searched for places that were new to us and which would not fall foul of high-season crowds.

Exploring Essex was the answer! Dig into its roots and you will uncover a wealth of fascinating history. It is home to Colchester, England’s first city and the capital of Roman Britain. Add to this stunning sunrises, a remarkable coastline, quintessential English villages and characterful homes reminiscent of those found in Scandinavia and Holland.

In addition, despite being on the edge of London, Essex is blessed with acres of undulating fields of golden corn and purple borage – it really is beautiful.

Our sat-nav route took us directly east from Herefordshire and we entered Essex at its north-west fringes, close to Stansted airport and a stone’s throw from the many charms of Saffron Walden.

Saffron Walden’s medieval streets
Saffron Walden’s medieval streets

As its name indicates, this venerable market town was once the trading centre for locally grown saffron, the spice that is so labour-intensive to harvest, it costs more per ounce than gold.

These days, farming of the beautiful Crocus sativus is left to an experimental corner of the public gardens, although this enchanting market town is still well worth a visit on its own merits. The impressive central square looks like something from a travel magazine and its brightly coloured medieval houses, overhanging the streets, will keep your camera busy.

Saffron Walden’s market square
Saffron Walden’s market square

Gardens and galleries to see when exploring Essex

You can easily while away a day here as you roam through the ornate gardens, which have a definite air of Kew about them, visit the free art gallery and pay your respects
at its impressive church and castle ruins.

With excellent daytime parking at the Swan Meadow Car Park, you are free to explore without stress; although we would recommend arriving early, because this is clearly a very popular destination.

Heading for the coast, we meandered through beautiful countryside that defies TV’s portrayal of the county, with gently rolling landscapes and winding roads – some of them rather narrow!

The area is speckled with windmills and cornfields, reminding us this rural county is not all about human bling – nature has its own sparkle. Town after town, village after village invited us to pause and explore: Finchingfield, Great Bardfield and Thaxted are particularly appealing.

John Webb’s Windmill, Thaxted
John Webb’s Windmill, Thaxted

Thaxted, with its backdrop of thatched almshouses, 19th-century windmill and perilously off-kilter Guildhall, is a stunning example of Essex charm. The Margaret Street car park offers free parking, making Thaxted feel a very welcoming destination.

A couple of hours’ drive from the county’s northern boundary, we found ourselves at the coast, with expectations of cockles and jellied eels. Essex has the second longest shoreline of any English county, topping 350 miles (only Cornwall is longer), and offers much that appeals beyond the typical bucket and spade holiday.

Water plays an important part in the history of Essex, too, as it has shaped the landscape, providing inspiration for artists and the backbone of its trading success.

Life on the water

Along the coast is a plethora of creeks and rivers, where huge houseboats rest on the tidal waters and rub shoulders with marinas full of gin palaces and jetskis.

Hundred-year-old Thames sailing barges navigate the waters from Hythe Quay at Maldon, now geared up for tourists rather than the traditional transportation of salt and hay. A trip on one of these magnificent red-sailed beauties gifts would-be sailors with the art of boat restoration and an appreciation of their historical significance in Essex’s economic stature.

Historic Hythe Quay
Historic Hythe Quay

Away from the tourist hotspots, though, the coast offers many hidden gems just waiting to be discovered. These include the idyllic Osea Island, near Heybridge. There is a causeway here and at low tide, you can watch as the water ebbs away to reveal the Roman-built pathway to the island, providing a precious four-hour window for residents to cross to the mainland.

The island is privately owned, so walking across is prohibited, although watching the causeway being exposed by the retreating seas is still fascinating.

Another must-see is the ancient Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea, which dates back to 660 AD and sits beside the Othona Community, set up to promote peace and harmony after WWII.

The village of Heybridge, by contrast, is a vibrant modern settlement that lies between the River Blackwater, as it sets course for the North Sea, and the 14-mile Chelmer & Blackwater Canal.

The Essex coastline has a plethora of creeks and rivers
The Essex coastline has a plethora of creeks and rivers

Essex certainly draws plenty of summer visitors from London to its crowd-pleasing and award-winning beaches, but beyond these popular destinations, you will find quieter beaches, charmingly adorned with rows of colourful beach huts.

Brightlingsea is one such beauty. This delightful little town has a thriving port, and the promenade is a great introduction to the charms of the Essex seaside.  Heading around the coast, we passed on Clacton’s amusement arcades and headed for the more upmarket Frinton-on-Sea and historic Walton-on-the-Naze.

Sunrise at Walton-on-the-Naze
Sunrise at Walton-on-the-Naze

History and geology

A visit to The Naze will reward you with a geological wonder, where the eagle-eyed among you might spot a fossilised shark’s tooth, and far more recent remnants of WWII can be seen strewn on the rocks that have fallen from the clifftop.

There’s a guided walk here that reveals how this area contributed to the war effort, providing battle training for the troops and the location for top-secret radar trials.

In fact, the 300-year-old Naze Tower played a critical part in winning the Battle of Britain, thanks to its radar technology. Today it is home to local artists, and for £4 you can scale the spiral staircase’s 111 steps to capture some fabulous views.

A rather more sedate amble along the promenade is a bit like walking through a Disney cartoon, with its 1000-plus tiered beach huts painted in rainbow colours. We defy you not to smile!

Artistic inspiration

Having had our fill of seaside air, the final place on our itinerary on this trip was Dedham Vale, lying on the boundary between Essex and Suffolk. This Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was made world-famous by 19th-century artist John Constable. With the River Stour weaving its way through the region, this is an atmospheric scene, little changed since Constable’s time.

Dedham Mill
Dedham Mill

Captured in his iconic landscapes, such as The Hay Wain, Willy Lott’s Cottage, Flatford Mill and Dedham Lock also remain largely unchanged. Visiting here will allow you to follow in the artist’s footsteps and discover this beautiful part of the world through his eyes.

All in all, Essex really does have much to recommend it, with an impressive coastline, compelling history and a landscape that characterises its surprisingly rural nature.

Set aside the narrow roads and lack of Wi-Fi coverage, and you’ll find that Essex has a gentle grace that can’t fail to entice.

Looking for other parts of the country to head to? Then why not take a look at these:

Trip planner:

When to go

There’s a great deal to enjoy in Essex at any time of year, but touring off-season means you can avoid the crowds.

Way to go

Karen and Myles drove to Essex from Herefordshire, spending two weeks there. They mostly avoided the motorways, travelling via Lechlade and Thame.

Find out more about exploring Essex

Visit Essex

Visit England

Where we stayed

Golf World Stansted CL

Address Hall Road, Elsenham, Bishops Stortford CM22 6FL, 01279 812 865

  • Open: All year
  • Charges: From £12

Court Farm CL

Address Brantham, Near Manningtree, Essex CO11 1PW, 01473 327 090

  • Open: All year
  • Charges: £15

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