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Why Essex should be your next staycation in 2021

Written by Travel Adventures

Essex is much misunderstood, a cliché lodged somewhere between suburbia and the green belt, thought to be a little bit shouty, a little fly-by-night, its edges nothing but mud flats and flotsam. But it’s time for a rethink. Because Essex, both the county I knew as a child and the one I’ve got to know so well since, can be reticent, and so it’s continually springing surprises.

West Mersea sands

Holly Farrier

To start at the beginning, St Peter-on-the-Wall, on the tip of the Dengie Peninsula, dates from the seventh century, one of the oldest church buildings in the country and, easterly as it is, a Celtic foundation. Utterly ancient and isolated. It’s a jigsaw of materials – a lot of them Roman – repurposed from the fort that was there first. The best approach is via the sea wall, an undeviating route towards that minute pinprick of a structure, watching it grow. Nature writer Robert Macfarlane pitched his tent on the water-facing side and wrote about it for The Wild Places. This is the nearest wilderness to London. Sea lavender, marsh and waves of migratory birds hog the view, all tonally between dun, silver and mauve, although I’ve seen a kingfisher flash by, momentarily electrifying the colour spectrum. Inland lies an ocean of farmland below sea level, much of it growing marrow-fat peas which go to the Far East before returning home covered in wasabi.

The Dukes Seafood

Holly Farrier

The remoteness attracts those trying to find peace, an alternative life and even obscurity. In the 1890s, a handful of Tolstoyan anarchists chose Purleigh, near Maldon, for a smallholding experiment. They welcomed Russian visitors as well as bemused locals, but soon moved west to a colony at Whiteway in the Cotswolds (it’s still there). However Tolstoy’s English editors, Aylmer and Louise Maude from Moscow, stayed behind in a dacha near Chelmsford, their son driving a goat around in his motorcycle sidecar. Where they’d lived became known as the Russian fields – though people had forgotten why. South Essex was home to an extreme Protestant sect, the Peculiar People, leading John Betjeman to write about their chapels and others about their grim lives. Recently, and with more cheer, Haredi Jews moved to Canvey Island from Stamford Hill for fresh horizons and more space.

Mistley Kitchen

Holly Farrier

But most people experience Essex on their way to somewhere else via the unlovely A12 or the fearsome M25. They never see or reach the borders of the county, hundreds of miles of fraying river estuaries heading to the North Sea, a seductive, shifting pattern of creeks and inlets dictated by the tide. Maybe if its river had been more impressive, Camulodunum could have been the first city of Roman Britain. Instead, Boudicca’s stand led to the torching of Colchester, though the Romans left traces of their temple under the castle, among much else. Meanwhile, the paltry Colne makes its way out to sea via Mersea Island, almost French with its breezy bevy of sail boats, excellent oysters and decent wines from recently established vineyards.

Boats for hire at the Boathouse Restaurant in Dedham

Holly Farrier

From top to bottom, estuarial Essex carves deep into the fat of the cushion-shaped county. First comes the Stour, my own childhood river, the making of those lush water meadows overhung by huge cloudscapes captured so fluently by John Constable from Dedham. The Stour heads on to Mistley which, incredibly to a modern eye, once supported a ship-building industry, making whalers for the North Atlantic. After that is Grayson Perry country. His A House for Essex is a glittering reliquary-cottage clad in ceramic tiles and evokes Julie, the artist’s fictional Essex Girl. It can be rented, if lucky in the Living Architecture ballot, or glimpsed while walking through Wrabness on the Essex Way, the eerie-looking derricks of Felixstowe rearing up, silhouetted across the estuary. Fabulist as the house is, the landscape anchors you firmly in the present, and on Essex soil.

Affluent market towns to the north – Saffron Walden, Dunmow, Thaxted and Finchingfield – knitted similar materials together, the cashmere-sweater-coloured plasterwork and crinkly tiled roofs making for satisfying domestic architecture. But the contemporary elbowed its way into Essex early. Francis Henry Crittall started producing metal windows in his Braintree hardware store before World War I, and later built an entire village. I first visited Silver End in the 1970s and still remember how unkempt the white cottages looked. Scroll on four decades and I am taking part in an ambitious Radical Essex weekend, its young, curious audience drawn to an event celebrating modernism across the county. The sheer improbability of Silver End makes it seem like a mirage, floating on ploughed fields.

Oyster Smack Inn in Burnham-on-Crouch

Holly Farrier

And the area had one world-beater, at Burnham-on-Crouch. The Royal Corinthian Yacht Club is a modest pleasure palace, a tiered succession of balconies looking out over the water. It was the only British construction included in the epochal International Style exhibition held in New York in 1932. But for me, the Labworth restaurant, designed that year by a young engineer, Ove Arup, is the best. Tucked onto the sea defences at Canvey Island, near beachfront murals that commemorate the terrible floods of 1953 and the resilience of the locals, the Labworth is a spirited little place. So too is the new visitor centre on top of the landfill site at aptly named Mucking, near Tilbury. As the waste below breaks down, the structure is ingeniously designed to float on it. From the coiled, hedgehog-spiky building, birdwatchers are directed to the shore and ship-spotters to the roof to see container traffic gliding to and fro amid the forested cranes. In Essex, now as ever, it’s a matter of nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Shellfish at The Dukes Seafood in West Mersea

Holly Farrier

THE BEST DAY TRIPS AND PIT-STOPS IN ESSEX

Colchester

A town with Roman bones and a big history, though contemporary highlights include the angular, gold-skinned Firstsite gallery, designed by Rafael Viñoly, and the Church Street Tavern in a former bank, its punchy cooking set against local artworks.

Georgian house in Mistley

Holly Farrier

Mistley

Its name is redolent of the atmosphere in this coastal village near the Suffolk border, Horlicks-scented by the malt works, with ghostly towers and swans by the dozen. One wonders how Distant Voices, Still Lives director Terence Davies, a resident, would frame it. The social hub is The Mistley Thorn, a restaurant with rooms run by Californian Sherri Singleton on a site once used by witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins. The on-point plates make use of fish landed on the quay. Two doors down is Singleton’s Mistley Kitchen which also gathers books, plants and well-chosen wine; and a 10-minute walk away in Manningtree is Lucca Enoteca for wood-fired pizza, the Estuary Wine Bar and The North House Gallery, whose artistic roll call includes Norman Ackroyd and Kate Boxer.

Cured mackerel, apple and dill at The Sun Inn in Dedham

Holly Farrier

Dedham

Set in the vale of the same name, and quite as handsome as anything the Cotswolds has to offer. On the Georgian high street, The Sun Inn is a wide, butter-yellow embrace of a building with duck breast and smoked plum on the menu, brass beds upstairs. True to its word, the Boathouse Restaurant has rowboats for hire after a long Sunday lunch.

The Essex Rose tea room in Dedham

Holly Farrier

Finchingfield

Once home to legendary travel writer Norman Lewis (and now Jamie Oliver, the latest occupant of Tudor-era Spains Hall), this has the requisite duck pond, village green and windmill – along with colourful examples of pargeting, in which plasterwork is hand-printed with abstract patterns. There’s the Finchingfield Lion for house-smoked meat and ales; indie bookshop Between the Lines in nearby Great Bardfield and, down the road in Little Dunmow, the Michelin-starred Flitch of Bacon, where Tim Allen whips up dishes such as heritage carrots with caramelised sourdough. From spring, the newly pegged Finchingfield Camping, run by lavender farmer Julia Dimmock and her husband, will have 10 eco pitches in a wildflower meadow.

House in Dedham

Holly Farrier

Epping

Right at the end of the Central line, a stepping-off point for Epping Forest rambles (home to some of the best walks near London), coffee at Fred & Doug’s and the seriously accomplished menu at Haywards. The latter is set in an old skittle alley, where Jahdre Hayward uses beetroot, micro herbs and wild garlic from the garden, as well as honey from the hives.

Chocolate tart at the Oyster Smack Inn in Burnham-on-Crouch

Holly Farrier

Great Waltham

Romford-born brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin are cheerleaders for the county’s suppliers, buying the Green Man pub in order to save it while bringing a French-accented approach to local ingredients. ‘When I was at The Ritz I got my leg pulled,’ says Chris. ‘They called Essex the gastronomic desert of Britain, but there’s wagyu on the Suffolk border, quince, woodcock from the fields, and we make a lovely syrup from the hops here. Brook Farm’s Pete Thompson grows meyer lemons and figs, and there’s still saffron in Saffron Walden!’

Beach huts on Mersea Island

Holly Farrier

ISLANDS NEAR ESSEX


The estuary islets of Essex are Dickensian-like ramshackle worlds, cut off for hours by tidal causeways. On Mersea, The Company Shed, The Dukes Seafood and West Mersea Oyster Bar have been shucking for years (devotees overnight at The Victory), but Osea – known for its private raves and recent starring role in Jude Law folk-horror The Third Day – is now set to become a foodie frontier. Foraging Borough Market restaurant pioneer Native has just relocated here, gathering sea buckthorn, fennel and wild oysters, and mixing drinks with island vermouth, with beach campfires and feasts in a former wartime torpedo store. ‘There are incredible ingredients here,’ says chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes. ‘You can walk to the shore and harvest seaweed and samphire by the armful.’

Artist Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex in Wrabness, ‘a monument to thwarted female intelligence’, designed with FAT Architecture

Holly Farrier

ART IN ESSEX


Southend tends to be defined by its old-school, East End-on-sea larks, but over the past few years its creative reputation has been rising. The Village Green and Estuary festivals, both returning in 2021, celebrate the region’s contemporary scene, which also has a home in the Focal Point Gallery and its events venue Twenty One. ‘They’ve changed the dynamic,’ says Elsa James, an artist based at the town’s Old Waterworks studios. ‘I don’t have to travel to London for my art fix – it feels as if there’s an Essex renaissance happening.’ James’s identity as a Black woman living here informs her conceptual pieces alongside her activism work with the Essex Girls Liberation Front collective. Her film projects, such as Forgotten Black Essex, drawing on historic muses such as Princess Dinubolu from Senegal, who entered a Southend beauty contest in 1908, and Black Girl Essex, in which James, dressed in Carnival costume, walks around Tilbury Docks (where Windrush landed in 1948), give a new narrative to the stereotype. (For another take, Sarah Perry’s new book Essex Girls is a spirited defence of ‘profane and opinionated women’ who dare to speak out of turn.) ‘Westcliff-on-Sea is very culturally diverse, while Leigh-on-Sea has cafés and small places such as Vino Vero for wine,’ says James. ‘After an art preview, most head to The Railway for drinks; there’s also Craftwerk for ales. The Oyster Creek Kitchen, set in a Victorian sun shelter on the seafront, is lovely. And if friends are staying, I point them to Seven Hotel for the night.’ Rick Jordan

Gillian Darley’s ‘Excellent Essex’ is out now (£14.99, Old Street Publishing)

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