Autumn walks in Essex
Love the great outdoors? Us too – especially if there’s a cosy inn along the way. Step forward our pick of the county's prettiest routes in all their autumn glory.
Those easy summertime strolls may be giving way to Welly-wielding hacks through muddy fields and fingers of fog, but there’s plenty of daylight hours left for a crisp autumn walk when the mood strikes – followed (naturally) with a pint and Ploughman’s in a cosy inglenook corner. Not sure where to explore? Here’s our edit of the county’s most picturesque routes – and their perfect-pub pit stops.
The walk: Hanningfield Reservoir
Part of the Essex Wildlife Trust, this working reservoir and nature reserve spans 870 acres of mature woodlands and wild meadows, making it the ideal spot to get lost in for the day with your binoculars. Tread the labyrinth of foot trails through the ancient oaks and stop off at one of the myriad bird huts (I love Lyster Bird) to watch the swallows and swifts dip in gin-clear pools.
Good for: Families and birdwatchers. Given the vast range of routes on offer, chat to staff at reception for advice on the best routes. If you’ve got little ones in tow, though, we recommend the Wind in the Willows sculpture trail. Comprising characterful wooden sculptures from the classic book, children will love the brass rubbings they can make along the way (crayons and trail map available for £1) and exploring the ‘Wild Wood’ where Mr Toad and co lie in wait.
The pub: The Folly Bistro
What started life as a village butchery in 1642 is now a cosy gastro jaunt complete with a wraparound garden. Inside, The Folly Bistro is all log burners, polished glassware and fabulous fixtures and fittings. Outside, you’ll find an immaculately dressed terrace to decant to if winter sun strikes. Oh, and don’t forget about the food: mouthwatering moules, sautéed wild mushrooms, pie of the day and chunks of lamb are all local favourites, best washed down with a Pucks Folly ale from the Brentwood Brewery. Don’t mind if we do. thefollybistro.co.uk
The walk: Epping Forest
Spanning more than 8,000 acres, this green oasis fringing West Essex and East London is every woodland walker’s paradise. Not been before? Try one of the nine waymarked trails on offer, all of which are circular and fully signposted. From the Gifford path – a gentle, undulating 1.25-mile jaunt through a newly-planted patch of forest – to the more challenging Oak trail (6.6 miles), which launches from Theydon Bois underground station and promises tough terrain for seasoned hikers, there’s something for every level. Our pick? The picturesque Rowan route, which starts from Knighton Lane Car Park and navigates you past some of the forest’s most water-rich hotspots for a 1.5-mile meet and greet with kaleidoscopic emperor dragonflies.
Good for: Teens with energy to burn and wildlife lovers who fancy a long woodland wander.
The pub: Theydon Oak
Festooned with winter blooms and framed by the ancient boughs of Epping Forest, Theydon Oak is a real gem of a country pub. Even Epping local Rod Stewart agrees: he opened up the venue’s sprawling gardens with wife Penny Lancaster. This autumn, punters can enjoy one of three spacious creekside patios with outdoor heaters or head indoors for a traditional roast and ruby red shiraz. thetheydonoak.co.uk
The walk: The Thames Estuary Path
Up for a challenge? This 29-miler along the Essex strait wiggles its way through some of the county’s most dramatic landscapes, from a tapestry of mud flats in the south and Tilbury town’s industrial docks, to the sheaf of cockle-shed bays that bid the Thames goodbye in Old Leigh. Positively brimming with biodiversity, a criss-cross of bubbling creeks and clay-like marshes dominate this low-lying riverscape, but the trail is clearly marked out and you can easily break it up, too: stations along the London Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness line serve to slice the route into manageable weekend romps.
Good for: Serious day-trip trekkers seeking a seafaring adventure.
The pub: The Peterboat
Situated in the heart of Old Leigh’s cobbled lanes, with uninterrupted views out across the estuary, it’s no surprise that The Peterboat is an all-seasons staple. Famed for serving up the freshest fish dishes in Leigh-on-Sea since 1695, head down early to bag a table overlooking the seafront and order its signature Peterboat cockle chowder. If you’re lucky, you might just catch one of the pub’s buzzy live music nights too. the-peterboat.eastangliapubs.com
The walk: Wivenhoe Trail
Always a crowd pleaser with the sailing set, this 10-mile yacht-dotted route launches at Wivenhoe Quay and weaves its watery way through Hythe for unrivalled views of the River Colne’s lattice of salt-marshes and mud creeks. Watch oystercatchers, terns and little ringed plovers as they dip and dance over the natural footpath, which threads through Colchester’s allotments before landing in historic Castle Park.
Good for: Waterside loafers looking for a long weekend meander.
The pub: Church Street Tavern
Coveting Soho House vibes? Check out Church Street Tavern. Housed in a handsome townhouse (formerly a bank built in 1852) set less than 10 minutes from Castle Park, this ground-floor bar and top-floor bistro delivers relaxed, sunken sofas, complimentary Scrabble boards, indie-label pale ales, premium regional plonk and swoon-worthy local artworks you’ll be Googling where to buy afterwards. Quality grub comes as standard, but we love the cheddar and onion marmalade sandwich with fries for that perfect post-walk refuel. churchstreettavern.co.uk
The walk: Stour Valley
Taking in Flatford Mill, Manningtree’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the ribbons of green made famous by John Constable’s 18th century paintings, this fairly flat 1.8-mile route from Manningtree Train Station ends in the chocolate-box village of Dedham – where you can stop off for some fabulous gastro fare before taking in another iconic Constable scene, ‘The Leaping Horse’. With seemingly endless valley vistas and an RSPB garden en route, this is one to save for crisp, sun-drenched days with your mates.
Good for: History, art and culture buffs who will love spotting painterly scenes captured by Constable along the way.
The pub: The Sun Inn
This attractive-looking watering hole in the heart of historic Dedham isn’t just perfectly placed – it also happens to have a cracking fire pit complete with squishy sofas for post-ramble sinkage. Set up camp under the character-filled oak beams, order a glass of something local and peruse the regional menu, which is always season-led and a favourite with foodies. thesuninndedham.com
The walk: Norsey Woods
Hit Norsey Woods for a four-mile linear trek that cuts through 67 hectares of woodland before emerging in the charming village of Stock. In springtime this area is famed for its carpet of bluebells, but in autumn swathes of lavender are replaced by mounds of mushrooms, passing clouds of damselflies and 26 species of butterflies. Kids will love climbing the low-level trees and scrambling through the family-friendly wooden dens, while dogs and walkers alike can take in the sounds and scents of the forest floor.
Good for: Country bumpkins who want to stretch their legs before tucking into a fireside feast.
The pub: The Hoop
Constructed in 1640 from the timber of warships at Tilbury Docks, this stunning Stock stalwart is big on heritage, hearty dishes and premium pub dining, so no wonder it won Muddy Awards 2021 Best Destination pub! A secluded stretch of lawn greets locals round the back, while villagers often spill out onto the green for languid rounds of late-autumn sundowners. Inside, you’ll find roaring feature fireplaces, rustic wooden tables and plenty of village cheer. Order a full-bodied vino from local vineyard, New Hall, or a fruity pint of Adnams from nearby Suffolk before tucking into a classic plate of pie, mash and parsley-rich liqueur. thehoop.co.uk
The walk: Hylands Estate
For a stately stroll, head to Hylands Estate – an elegant grade II*-listed public parkland set in 574 acres of historic grounds. Loop one of the five woodland walks (which range from a 30-minute stroll to a four-mile hike), take a whimsical tour round the elegant Neo-Classical villa, then navigate your way to the House’s manicured herbaceous beds for the full Pride and Prejudice experience.
Good for: Taking the ’rents out, plus heritage house enthusiasts who live to potter round a formal garden.
The pub: Galvin Green Man
Set in the picturesque countryside fringing Chelmsford, this beautifully refurbished building dates back to 1341 and serves up panoramic views from a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. Kids will love the huge dedicated play area outside if the sun’s shining while mum and dad dig into the menu. Owned by the Galvin brothers – both award-winning Essex-born chefs – this super stylish bistro boasts Bib Gourmand credentials in a humble corner of the Essex countryside. galvinrestaurants.com
The walk: Dovercourt Bay to Harwich harbour
Set against the industrial backdrop of a commercial shipping hub, this 3.5-mile stretch starts from Dovercourt – where a swathe of toffee-coloured sand and shingle beaches mark this quiet, historic corner of coastal Essex. Head for the far end of the beach for blustery views up to Cornwallis Battery and Beacon Hill Fort, or trek out to the two Victorian lighthouses at low tide before winding your way towards Harwich harbour. Water levels high en route? Say hello to the resident family of seals that are bound to pop their heads up somewhere off shore.
Good for: Blowing away the cobwebs on a windswept beach walk.
The pub: The Pier
Located a stone’s throw from the estuary, this popular coastal haunt is a breath of fresh (sea) air and a favourite with foodies, who flock for its catch-of-the-day dishes and views across Harwich harbour. Fancy a longer stay and a hot soak after all that activity? There’s 14 Scandi-style bedrooms on offer upstairs, but we love The Mayflower Suite for super-king luxury, a power shower with Aromatherapy Associates, and in-room telescope for a spot of stargazing before bed. milsomhotels.com