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Your cultural guide to what’s on this summer

Had your fill of creative, forward-thinking podcasts? Fresh out of Netflix documentaries to devour? Chill. Cultural events across Essex are back on the agenda – and we’ve got the lowdown on where to find all your local arty offerings

cultural guide to Essex

Crying out for a little arts and culture after spending months staring at the same four walls/parkland ponds? Us too. That’s why we’ve rounded up the best cultural reopenings across the county right now. From outdoor theatre performances in Chelmsford to lockdown-inspired exhibitions in Colchester, here are the hubs to hit for a soul-enriching day out.

An original artwork from the 'Lockdown Garden' series
An original Sonia Code-Adams piece at Firstsite’s ‘Lockdown Garden’ exhibition

The exhibitions to see

Lockdown Garden

Inspired by her time spent in quarantine, artist Sonia Coode-Adams has created a series of tranquil watercolour landscapes of the grounds at Feeringbury Manor in Braintree, Essex, as part of her new exhibition at Colchester’s contemporary art gallery, Firstsite, entitled ‘Lockdown Garden’. Celebrating nature’s transition from spring to summer, the artworks are as soothing to view as they are impressive: the collection marks the end of a long professional hiatus for Coode-Adams, proving good things come to those who wait.

cultural guide to Essex
‘Natural Beauty’: one of the many pieces being shown at North House Gallery

Natural Beauty

Now open on Saturdays from 10am-5pm, or weekdays by appointment only, North House Gallery in Manningtree is a suitably scenic space in which to house ‘Natural Beauty’ – an exhibition inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Stour Valley and Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Beauty. Running until 22 August, various artists – from Norman Ackroyd and Esmond Bingham to Neil Bousfield and Charlotte Knox – have offered their own interpretation of the theme, with Luke Elwes’ ‘Waterline’ series, in particular, capturing the wild and wonderful labyrinth of East Anglia’s salt flats with creative flair. 

Essex Art Trail
An extraordinary piece by local artist Barry Andrews, for Essex Summer Art

Essex Summer of Art

OK, so this one is still virtual but as it’s bringing the county’s collective art trails to you, it’s well worth a click. Essex Summer of Art has supported more than 160 art trails and open studio events across the county for the past 10 years. Now though, the organisation has turned its focus to helping local painters, photographers, sculptors and artisans to show and sell their wares via the web, curating more than 50 original pieces by Essex artists for collectors to view and purchase. We can’t think of a better way to discover homegrown talent – and spruce up your home at the same time, especially as artworks start from as little as £25. What’s not to love?

Car Park Party Horrible Histories
Say hello to Horrible Histories at Chelmsford City Racecourse

The outdoor theatre performances to book

Car Park Party

Pulling up to Chelmsford City Racecourse on 1 August, the award-winning Birmingham Stage Company is bringing Horrible Histories to life live on stage for families to enjoy from the front (and back) seats in this car park theatre. Cue an afternoon of battles with Boudicca, a ruckus with Richard III, head-rolls from Henry VIII and a very dastardly Dick Turpin. This is Barmy Britain drive-in style – and the kids will love every socially distanced second. Car slots are priced at £32.50; see here to book.

Twelfth Night Hedingham Castle
Make a point of seeing of Twelfth Night at Hedingham Castle in September

Twelfth Night

This open-air production comes to the glorious grounds of Halstead’s Hedingham Castle on Thursday 10 September and promises to be a family-friendly take on the Shakespeare classic. Presented by critically acclaimed Pantaloons Theatre Company, you can expect live music, picnic-style spots for you to spread your tartan blanket and wicker fare, plus plenty of laughs. The show runs from 6–9.30pm and tickets cost from £9; see more here.

Audley End House
The majesty of Audley End

The heritage homes and gardens to visit

Audley End Estate

Exploring the spacious grounds and organic kitchen gardens at Audley End in Saffron Walden is a thoroughly civilised affair. From Service Wing tours that take you right back to life below stairs for the Victorian household, to stable-yard pony strokes and long potters through the idyllic woods and peaceful Elysian Garden complete with cascading stream, this is a win for history buffs and Downton Abbey fans alike. The House itself remains closed to visitors, but if it’s an afternoon stroll in the sun and a whiff of nostalgia you’re after, you’ve stumbled across the perfect Essex mansion. 

Highlands House Estate Chelmsford
Meet your book club at Hylands House and make like Lizzie Bennet

Hylands House 

This sprawling grade II*-listed estate in Chelmsford comes with an elegant Neo-Classical villa rising over the hillside like a scene cut straight from Pride & Prejudice, plus 574 acres of historic park and woodlands. We can’t think go better place to decamp to with book club for a suitably boozy picnic under a sun-dappled canopy of oaks. Pack your latest literary tome and a couple of gins in a tin. Summer, sorted.

The Beth Chatto Gardens Essex
Elmstead’s award-winning oasis

The Beth Chatto Gardens

Small (in terms of public gardens), but oh-so perfectly formed, the world-famous Beth Chatto Gardens in Elmstead, north Essex, have been attracting green-fingered visitors from across the country since 1960 – when the award-winning gardener Beth Chatto first begun to turn this once wild, overgrown seven acres of wasteland into a series of five inspiring outdoor spaces. Take your time wandering from the Water Garden and Woodland to Screen Garden and Reservoir – there’s beauty to behold at every turn.

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