Essex is famous for its celebrity culture, but what makes a rural Essex holiday special? The climate perhaps, the driest in Britain, home to over 20 vineyards including one of England’s oldest? Or the villages – from England’s most photographed, Finchingfield, to Tiptree, hot contender for the largest. Maybe the culinary delights: Maldon Sea Salt and Colchester oysters – not to mention Tiptree Jam? Or the architecture – 14,000 listed buildings, including the tallest Tudor gatehouse at Layer Marney?
There really is nothing like a rural Essex holiday. If you’re still not convinced – read on! We’ve put together 10 great reasons to escape here for a while and capture some memorable moments at our luxury holiday lodges.
1 The food & drink
Picnics, pubs and famous Essex produce – there’s plenty to tickle your tastebuds on an Essex holiday. Seasonal produce, fresh from nature’s larder, abounds in farm shops and farmers’ markets across the county. Try local asparagus and Little Scarlet strawberries, a special ingredient of Wilkin & Sons, makers of the world famous Tiptree Jam. Seafood is another speciality. Savour Maldon Sea Salt or cross the tidal causeway to Mersea Island and dig into a platter of Colchester Oysters. The driest county in Britain, Essex has also produced excellent wines since Roman times. Today there are over 20 vineyards around the county, including New Hall, one of the oldest and largest in Britain. Visit the newest vineyard in Essex, West Street Vineyard where English wine chills, or Dedham Vale Vineyard set in 40 acres of rolling English countryside. Or take a tour around Carter’s Vineyards rounded off with a tasting of their award-winning wines. Then rest your bones over a relaxing pint at any number of mouth-watering pubs and restaurants.
2 The walking
Just a short distance from the capital, yet worlds apart, over 70% of Essex is classified as rural – a walker’s paradise! Why not get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life, escape to our luxury Essex lodges …and breathe. Boasting 500 acres of private tranquil countryside and woodland on site that can offer a decent game of hide and seek or a stretching preprandial ramble, you may not want to venture further! If you do, however, there are miles of footpaths and bridleways on your doorstep, from lazy leaf-strewn forest rambles to long-distance footpaths like the 81-mile Essex Way. Unearth the rich history of Essex as the route takes in the former lace-making village of Coggeshall and pushes through the rolling landscapes of Constable Country before winding on to the coast. The coastal paths steeped in tales of oystermen and smugglers and trails through scenery that has inspired some of Britain’s best-loved artists all bring you closer to the real Essex.
3 The cycling
Essex is proud to have hosted world-famous cycling events including the Olympic Mountain Bike events at the London 2012 Games and both the Tour de France and Women’s Tour cycle race in 2014. For those that prefer a less strenuous cycle, Essex is prime cycling country, with miles of off-road cycle paths and silent country lanes winding past fields of scarlet poppies and hedgerows bursting with wildlife. Potter through picture-postcard villages complete with thatched cottages, windmills and duck ponds on the village green or pedal gently through the rolling landscapes of Constable Country, peppered with distant church spires. After some family bike action? Head for Great Notley Country Park – covering 100 acres with views across open farmland it links to the Flitch Way, a 15 mile stretch of disused railway line across the heart of rural Essex. Alternatively drink in the watery views on the riverside path from Britain’s oldest recorded town, Colchester to the quay at Wivenhoe, a pretty fishing town that has inspired a wealth of contemporary artists and writers including James Dodds and Martin Newell. Or, for a bike ride with a difference, take part in the Great Cake Escape challenge, stopping off at cafes along the way.
4 The history
Discover an array of stunning surprises at historic attractions near our luxury lodges, from grand stately gems set in glorious gardens to half-timbered treasures and rustic mills. Many form the setting for outdoor events – the perfect excuse to blow away the cobwebs with an active day out in the good fresh air. Pay a genteel nod to magnificent country mansions like Ingatestone Hall, or step back in time in half-timbered gems like Paycocke’s merchant’s house in Coggeshall or Thaxted Guildhall. There are more ancient treasures too: Hedingham’s mighty Norman keep, the best preserved in England and Cressing’s spectacular medieval barns, built for the prestigious Knights Templar. Essex also has an extraordinary legacy of windmills and watermills, scattered across the countryside. Escape from the grind and head to the iconic white-sailed post mill at Finchingfield and go snap happy at Sible Hedingham’s Alderford Mill, one of the best-preserved watermills in Essex. Or trudge out from Alresford along the lonely creek to Thorrington Tide Mill, the perfect spot to get away from it all on your Essex holiday.
5 The towns & villages
The picturesque towns and villages near our holiday lodges are the perfect havens to submerse yourself in a traditional way of life. Ramble through jumbled streets of half-timbered houses. Cycle past thatched cottages clustered round a village pond. Sift through treasures in tucked away antique shops and stop off for a picnic or a sinful cream tea. Our pick of the best includes Finchingfield, the most photographed village in England. The combination of duck pond and village green presided over by colour-washed cottages, windmill and medieval church, lend this quintessentially English village an unbeatable series of vistas. Thaxted nestles in a fold of the north Essex countryside with its white-sailed windmill visible for miles around. This beautifully-preserved town, with its crooked timber-framed houses, is dominated by its magnificent cathedral-like church and exquisite guildhall, reminders of Thaxted’s former important standing. Or stroll around the pretty village of Castle Hedingham with its sturdy Norman keep, Hedingham Castle, standing guard. Climb the spiral staircase and soak up the atmosphere or hop on a restored locomotive at the Colne Valley Railway nearby.
6 The artistic connections
Soak up centuries of the county’s creative spirit on a truly memorable stay at our Essex lodges. The gentle landscapes, sprinkled with rivers and lit by constantly changing East Anglian skies, have inspired generations of artists. Most famous is John Constable – in fact the area around Flatford, in the gentle Dedham Vale, was known as Constable Country even during the artist’s lifetime. The bucolic scenes at Flatford have hardly changed since Constable painted them. Ramble along the River Stour towpath from 16th-century Bridge Cottage, which houses an exhibition of his work, past Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s Cottage, which features in his most famous work, The Hay Wain, or hire a rowing boat and mess about on the water. Finish up in pretty Dedham, where you can drop in on the country home museum of 20th-century equestrian artist Sir Alfred Munnings. Restored today, it contains a superb collection of his paintings, including many of the rural scenes he loved, together with loans of other artists’ works.
Elsewhere, the charming thatch and timber village of Great Bardfield sprang to fame in the mid-20th century when it became home for the eclectic group known as the ‘Great Bardfield artists’, while a wealth of contemporary talent continues to thrive in hotspots across the county including seaside art in Wivenhoe, with its quiet quayside. An artists’ colony in the 1950s, painter Francis Bacon and photographer John Deakin both made their homes at Wivenhoe, while later names have included primitive painter Ernie Turner and James Dodds, famous for his linocuts.
Other innovative display spaces near our luxury lodges include the iconic golden-clad gallery firstsite in Colchester and The Minories next door. Then there’s the Gallery in the Garden, set in the Orangery in the beautiful 18th-century walled gardens at Saling Hall, which showcases the work of upcoming contemporary British artists and craftsmen, together with regular exhibitions by well-known names.
7 The activities
A world of outdoor experiences awaits guests at our lodges. Enjoy some relaxed fishing in the well-stocked two-acre private lake on site. It has plenty of places for keen fishermen and women to set up their tackle to catch the carp and rudd. Fancy a ‘drive’ out? Choose from a variety of golf courses nearby, from the superb greens and sweeping countryside views at Colne Valley Golf Club and The Essex Golf and Country Club to the championship greens at Stoke by Nayland, set in glorious Constable Country. Something a bit different? Reach for the skies on a champagne balloon flight, the perfect setting for that special celebration. Or slow the pace right down on a dreamy narrowboat trip on the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation. Whatever you choose, feel the exhilaration as you experience days out you’ll never forget on your Essex holiday.
8 The wildlife
Lose yourself in the 500 acres of secluded rolling private land surrounding our luxury lodges and wander the woodlands teeming with wildlife. The magnificent two acre private fishing lake is a playground for wildlife too – you may be lucky to catch a glimpse of a kingfisher. Beyond our lodges, the county is blessed with rich and varied wildlife, boasting eight RSPB reserves and 89 Essex Wildlife Trust sites. Inland are swathes of open grassland and heathland, rich in butterflies and reptiles. Large tracts of farmland and ancient woodland across the county are also havens for wildlife, including shy muntjac deer. Wildlife enthusiasts will also be keen to discover the many Sites of Special Scientific Interest Essex has to offer, including the Blackwater Estuary and Hanningfield Reservoir within a short drive.
9 The gardens
Green-fingered guests can look forward to a memorable day out at a range of gardens, large and small nearby. The driest county in Britain, Essex’s gently rolling landscapes have inspired many gardeners to work their magic. A number of historic gardens have been faithfully restored: Sir Humphry Repton’s landscapes at Hylands House and the ‘Forgotten Gardens’ of Easton Lodge, laid out by Harold Peto. Yet, there are also some outstanding new creations that have carried on the county’s garden-making tradition. Take garden-writer Beth Chatto’s creation in Elmstead Market, a triumph of planting in every condition, from the jewel-rich colours of the drought-resistant Gravel Garden to the Water Garden with its towering gunnera. Or the RHS garden at Hyde Hall, chock full of creative planting schemes, guaranteed to inspire while there’s also an excellent programme of events throughout the year. Bring a picnic. Enjoy the views. Whenever you visit, each season brings its charms – from secret bluebell glades and blowsy summer borders to autumn’s fiery hues.
10 The great days out
With festivals and events across the county showcasing everything from old bangers to brie, there’s something for everyone. Admire classic cars in the shadow of Layer Marney Tower, or cheer on the jousting knights at Hedingham Castle against the historic backdrop. For foodie fun, indulge in fabulous local fare at the Essex Festival of Food and Drink; or sup regionally-brewed ales aboard a vintage locomotive at the annual summer and winter Chappel Beer Festivals under two miles from your Essex holiday lodge. Glorious views and wide open spaces lend to the special atmosphere at the RHS Flower Show at Hyde Hall Gardens – or get along to the annual Thaxted Morris Men Weekend of Dance. Something a bit different? Try the Maldon Mud Race, a wild and wacky sprint through the thick mud of the Blackwater estuary. For more information, check out the Things to Do and Events section on our website for your chosen Essex lodge.
The getaway not far away
So what are you waiting for? For a complete change of pace, escape awhile to our 5 AA Star holiday lodges in wonderful rural Essex, where only the birds and your bubbling hot tub will disturb the silence. Although just 60 minutes from London by train, you’ll feel completely disconnected from the rest of the world.