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16 must-visit attractions in Essex

From the big-beast tourist destinations we all know and love, to our insider alternatives, read on for our pick of 16 unmissable attractions in the county

HERITAGE HITS

Headliner: Hylands Estate

Highlands House Estate Chelmsford

A sprawling grade II*-listed public park in Chelmsford, complete with an elegant Neo-Classical villa and 574 acres of historic park and woodlands, the Hylands Estate is something of an institution in central Essex. Languid summertime picnics and outdoor concerts come as standard here, and its winter line-up of events, workshops, artisan fairs, heritage house tours and bustling craft markets are warmly welcomed by the well-heeled crowds. Our tip? Don’t forget to check out the Hylands Artist Studios. Set in the House’s beautifully restored Stables block, this diverse collection of skilled artists, designers and makers is open to visitors all year round and, as well as discovering unique handmade pieces available to purchase, you’ll often be able to watch the creative process in action and get stuck in yourself.

In-the-know intel: Layer Marney Tower

Layer Marney Tower Essex

The tallest Tudor gatehouse in England, this popular wedding venue set on the rural edge of Colchester hosts regular guided wildlife walks (keep your eyes peeled for soaring peregrines) and open days in which to stroll the perfectly-manicured grounds. There’s also a great play area for little ones to bounce around in while you soak up a slice of Essex history in the sun-dappled courtyard.

FAMILY FUN

Headliner: Colchester Zoo

Spanning 60 acres of parkland and home to more than 220 different species, Colchester is home to one of the biggest zoos in the country and serves up some unique animal encounters for days out. No wonder it scooped Muddy’s Best Family Attraction this year! Little ones will love walking the underwater tunnels that criss-cross beneath tumbling sea lions, and helping the keepers to hand feed elephants and giraffes. Meanwhile, those seeking a safari on staycation are in for a treat: the zoo’s family of lions, cheetahs, zebra and white rhinos can transport you to Colchester’s version of the African plains for a fraction of the cost.

In-the-know intel: Dedham Vale Boathouse

With its charming army of wooden rowing boats, Dedham Vale Boathouse is almost as synonymous with this stretch of the Essex countryside as John Constable himself. Moored nostalgically along the River Stour in the picturesque village of Dedham, the pub’s 26 clinkers date back to the 1900s and offer meandering views of the undulating farmlands for picture-perfect days out in the countryside. Plus, after a restorative row along the lush green fringe of rolling hills, you can all head inside for a cosy pub lunch.

KIDS’ CLUB

Headliner: Marsh Farm

Marsh Farm

From Pigmy goats and pot-bellied pigs, to parrots and alpacas, Marsh Farm in South Woodham Ferrers offers the dream day out for families with a penchant for making furry friends. Lambing season is, of course, always a highlight, but organised activities for little ones run all year-round and the adorable Shetland ponies are a personal favourite. 

In-the-know intel: Barleylands Farm Park and Craft Village

Barleylands Farm Park Birds of Prey

With its gaggle of geese and goats and sheep, Billericay’s own little hit of homespun heaven is perfect for little ones who love to let loose down on the farm. The popular potters’ and painters’ studios are still subject to government restrictions, but there’s plenty of wildlife walks on and the cheeky goat races (we’re not kidding) are going down a storm! Check out barleylands.co.uk for full details on when the next Birds of Prey displays and Goat Agility courses will run.

ACTION HEROES

Headliner: Stubbers Adventure Centre

Stubbers Quad Biking

With more than 35 action-packed activities across land, air, water and motor, this is the place to come if you want to step out of your comfort zone! Located on Ockendon Road in Upminster, Stubbers’ enormous activity park is perfect for dare devils who want to feel the wind in their hair and the waves/mud on their backs. From abseiling and assault courses to off-roading and quad biking, you can get the whole family kitted out, demo’d up and revved for the ride of their lives. We love the jet ski sessions, which come with slalom kicks for the full 30-90 minutes, and exhilarating banana rides are sure to float your boat too.

In-the-know intel: Curve Water Sports

Wakeboarding Essex

Hugging Mill Dam Lake in St Osyth is Curve Water Sports – the number one wakeboarding centre in Essex. With one-to-one wakeboarding lessons for beginners, plus advanced clinics for improvers and pro sessions for the, well, pros, this is the place to be if you want to learn to glide right into your best life. Curve’s Learn 2 Wakeboard package costs £30 and includes all equipment, or – if you’ve wakeboarded before – progress on to the Pay & Wake sessions, which cost £25 and include one-to-one training on the centre’s System 2.0 to get you up to speed. Afterwards, you can hit the Aqua Park too for a spot of inflatable fun (think Wipe Out with a wetsuit). You can also book paddleboarding parties and kayaking sessions, or just come down to watch the adrenaline junkies make it look easy from the safety of Curve’s alfresco café.

GORGEOUS GARDENS

Headliner: The Beth Chatto Gardens

The Beth Chatto Gardens Essex

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.

In-the-know intel: Audley End Gardens

Take a ramble round these English Heritage site’s glorious gardens and soak up the best of this majestic spot in Saffron Walden. We recommend a peek at the perfectly manicured rose beds mid-bloom. Or, take a ride on the miniature railway to get a sweeping overview of the sprawling grounds. Fancy a tour of the 17th-century country house, too? Be sure to book, as slots to see the still-in-use-stables and opulent Jacobean rooms get filled fast in peak seasons. 

COOL CASTLES

Headliner: Colchester Castle

Colchester castle

The crowning jewel in Colchester’s artisan quarter, Colchester Castle is the largest Norman keep in Europe and construction started in 1076 – when the town was still Britain’s first Roman capital. Set in beautiful parklands, a short hop from the historic high street, Natural History Museum, FirstSite art gallery, and English Heritage St Botolph’s 12th Century Priory, the county’s standout culture fix is a must-see. Explore the fascinating displays and exhibitions inside before taking a moment to soak up the stone turrets and gleaming gothic windows. This is an archeological treasure not to be rushed through.

In-the-know intel: Hedingham Castle

Hedingham Castle

An iconic medieval fortress nestled in leafy Halstead, this charming castle’s Great Tower is a thing of pure beauty. Despite its diminutive size, there’s a lot to discover here, so try to make a day of it if you can spare the time. From dungeons and turrets to tree trails and wooded glades, there’s something for all the family – and keep an eye out for the packed events programme that runs throughout the year here, too. We love the touring outdoor Shakespeare performances and comedy gigs.

WATERSIDE WINS

Headliner: Kitesurfing in Southend-on-Sea

Kitesurfing

Since launching in 2002, the Shoeburyness-based Essex Kitesurf School has trailblazed a path for this high-octane sport in local waters. Combining strength, skill, and a serious dose of Dutch courage, this adrenaline-packed day out isn’t exactly one for the faint hearted, but if you can harness the kite, you’ll fly like the wind. Specialising in beginner–advanced classes, you can learn the ropes on a one-day course with the school on East Beach, which costs £130 and includes all equipment. Keen to progress? Up your hours and plump for the two-day Beginner’s Course (£250) instead, which starts on dry land with training kites before advancing to water. This teaching technique will ensure you master the manoeuvres before you attempt to launch and land in the Big Blue – and help you nail the ride of your life.

In-the-know intel: Trekking the Thames Estuary Path

A 29-mile stretch along the Essex strait, The Thames Estuary Path 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 walking trail is clearly marked out and (don’t worry!) 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. 

ARTY OFFERINGS

Headliner: Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex

Grayson Perry House for Essex

Designed by Turner Prize-winning artist (and local lad) Grayson Perry, A House for Essex has become a landmark work of art whose quirky architectural motifs act as an ode to Perry’s home county. Clad boldly in green and white tiles and inspired by the famed artist’s ambition to construct a striking secular chapel, this beautiful building (now an unusual, luxury holiday let) overlooks Wrabness beach and the River Stour’s peaceful strips of blue. Even if you’re not lucky enough to be staying for the night, you can still stop by to appreciate its eclectic charm.

In-the-know intel: Firstsite

First Site

Despite its positively enormous proportions, £25m price tag and modern-art credentials (Tracey Erin and Sarah Lucas are previous exhibitors), Firstsite is still one of the those wonderfully rare in-the-know hangouts that you’d simply never stumble across without an insider’s nod. Set back from the bustle of Colchester high street in the genteel glow of Lewis Gardens, the gallery’s scale is, at first, genuinely unfathomable (say hello to Essex’s answer to the Tate Modern). Once inside though, you’ll be too immersed in the maze of contemporary art exhibitions, cult indie screenings and creative workshops to wonder why you’ve never been before. Be sure to check out the cafe and shop as you head out, too, which is coffee-table-tomes heaven.

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