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Our favourite things to do in Essex
Essex has to be up there with England’s most diverse counties. Home to over 1.8 million residents, it’s also a magnet for a handy staycation with household names within its borders.
The county is a world of contrasts, with the west still very much within the sphere of London suburbs and the south retaining its industrialised feel. The further north you go, the quieter it becomes, and this is where the serene surroundings of the countryside really come to fruition. The northeast of the county is coastal, and a hub for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life. The atmosphere is relaxed, the sand glistens and the fish and chips are delicious. Get the most out of this revered region with the list of our favourite things to do in Essex.
Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market
Beth Chatto is a nothing less than a local legend in Colchester and its surroundings. Her project started on this site in 1960. Little more than an overgrown wasteland back then, it’s grown into a garden that inspires and enthrals visitors. Although Mrs Chatto has sadly passed away, her ethos of ‘right plant, right place’ lives on today and some of the finest examples of sustainable planting are found in this corner of Essex.
The plant nursery produces over 100,000 plants each year, most based on Beth’s collection. A fantastic tearoom overlooks the Gravel Gardens close to where Beth and her husband lived. It’s a lovely spot for a scone or two. Undoubtedly one of the most peaceful things to do in Essex, you’ll leave here feeling refreshed.
Brightlingsea is a truly quaint town neatly sitting between the far shouted about names of Clacton and Colchester. Its position at the mouth of the River Colne is a picturesque one, with Brightlingsea Creek playing host to a lovely harbour that harks back to the town’s role in a thriving fishing industry. Oyster fishing and shipbuilding have huge heritage in the area and the town retains links to the Cinque Ports which retain ceremonial prestige to this day.
International sailing competitions are hosted here, as are several luxurious yachts. These days Brightlingsea represents one of the quieter corners of Essex, where traditional pubs and fish and chip shops meet to provide a lovely day out. A ferry takes you over to Point Clear Bay, which happens to be where our park at The Orchards is located.
We don’t think anything says staycation quite like the glitz and glamour of Clacton-on-Sea. The town and its beach have been welcoming holidaymakers for around 100 years, providing one of the first much needed escapes from the hustle and bustle of then industrialised East London. It continues to offer an urban escape today, being one of the best hosts of the classic British seaside experience.
Whether you love the amusements, fancy a dip in the sea, or just want to sunbathe on the sand, Clacton is a great option on Essex’s sometimes unheralded coast. The Victorian pier sits neatly on the golden terrain, and with the centre of town just steps away, you’ll never be short of options for a adventure-filled day out. Stroll along to the historic Martello Towers along the coast to add the icing on the cake to your time at the seaside.
Colchester Zoo is one of the best zoos in the area and visiting here is one of the greatest things to do when you’re on a break in Essex. Home to over 200 species, the zoo was a childhood favourite of this writer and continues to attract people of all ages through its doors as one of the best experiences any zoo in the country could offer. 60 acres of parkland and lakes play home to animals from around the world, each given the love and attention they deserve from the unrivalled team of expert zookeepers.
Open since 1963, there are a range of extraordinary experiences that the zoo offers visitors to really bring the day out to amazing heights. This plays out literally when you feed the giraffes. You can also offer the elephants some food or shadow a zookeeper for the day. If you’re passionate about animals, Colchester Zoo will keep you coming back for more.
Tiptree Jam Museum and Tea Room
No matter which supermarket you go shopping in, you’re never far from a taste of delicious produce from this pretty part of Essex. Wilkin and Sons started their business in Tiptree all the way back in 1885, passionate about preserve making and making the most of village life in North Essex. As the business grew, Wilkin quietly stored away pictures, old machines and documents recording the manufacturing process. When a room was devoted to these pieces of history, the museum began to take shape.
Today, it’s free to enter and is hosted in a renovated farm building. You’ll see exactly how each delightful tin of jam is made and even have the opportunity to dress as a jam maker from the 1800s. The drive here simply adds to the experience, with the factory’s surroundings being a stellar example of the lush Essex countryside.
Weeleyhall Wood sits a short distance outside Clacton in the centre of some of Essex’s most affluent and traditional villages. Indeed, passing through the village greens of places like Thorpe-le-Soken and Great Bentley offer a snapshot of the slow pace of life in this lovely part of the country. Weeleyhall is a natural paradise for locals, managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust and coined as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
There are several walking trails to be followed, each clearly signposted to take you from A to B. You can make this 32-hectare site your own. Busy days are rare and this is the perfect place to sample some of Essex’s forested countryside. In spring, the wood’s colours come to life, with Bluebells and Yellow Archangel just a couple of the plant species that thrive in this setting.