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The Muddy insider guide to Essex

Close to London yet home to beautiful countryside and a stunning stretch of coastline with in-the-know islands and hidden estuaries, Essex is the underrated jewel of East Anglia and it’s time you paid a visit.

Essex might not be the first place you think of for an East Anglian escape, but it should be. This characterful county’s got the lot; vibrant towns, gorgeous beaches, a sprinkling of National Trust sites, fascinating history, loads to see and do and more than its fair share of good gastro pubs and restaurants. Want to know more? Read on…

WHERE TO STAY

Luxe hotels 

Down Hall

For a Downton Abbey vibe book Down Hall, an Italianate mansion in 110 acres of parkland in Hatfield Heath on the Essex/Herts border. Rooms are super luxe (think four-poster beds, balconies and free-standing bathtubs) and there’s an excellent restaurant serving fresh, seasonal food, a pretty terrace (amazing spot for afternoon tea) and Eden spa, which is a destination in its own right. Kids are welcome too, with a Sharky & George adventure club taking care of the minis while you get a massage/mani/sleep. 

Wivenhoe House

Once a private home immortalised on canvas by famous local artist John Constable, today Wivenhoe House is a hotel mixing historical glam – twinkling chandeliers, high ceilings, marble fireplaces and 200-acre grounds – with loads of modern touches. It’s a popular spot with locals and tourists thanks to its popular restaurant, Muddy loves afternoon tea (ok, make that Prosecco) on the terrace.

Milsoms

Milsoms is an Essex escape I’m not sure I want to share. Tucked away in Dedham Vale, (that’s Constable Country and an area of outstanding natural beauty dontcha know) this blissful hideaway has a country house vibe with 15 lovely rooms and a restaurant, bar and grounds so good people are prepared to travel across the county to get their fix. Close by lies its sister hotel, Talbooth House & Spa , also in Dedham Vale and equally as special, with a knock-out restaurant overlooking the River Stour, 12 bedrooms named after English poets plus a pool and spa. Just don’t ask me to choose my favourite. 

GreyFriars

Star-lovers will adore GreyFriars Hotel in Colchester as it has five of them. Based in a handsome, Georgian building a short hop from the town’s castle, there are 26 grand rooms and suites and Art-Deco-style Cloisters, its fine dining restaurant. Don’t miss the cocktail bar (the menu is looooong), choose your tipple then sip it on the terrace.

Seven Hotel

The Seven Hotel in Southend adds some sparkle to the UK’s latest city. I love the Aurum restaurant serving up local faves like Mersea oysters and Essex burrata (Jamie Oliver’s a fan), plus the sea-facing rooms with balconies. Or, head to the Roslin Beach Hotel in Thorpe Bay. It’s a favourite haunt of many an Essex celeb, no surprise when it boasts sumptuous rooms, an AA rosette-awarded restaurant and spa bursting with ESPA and Elemis goodies. Book The Mulberry Suite for super-king luxury and panoramic sea views.

New opening

The White Hart Inn on Mersea Island closed in 2013…but this summer (June!) it’s launching as a hot new gastro pub with a restaurant and six bedrooms. Word on the street is Egyptian cotton linen, bespoke fabrics, local artwork and Bramley toiletries. Food-wise it’s looking fancy pants too, with dishes like salt marsh lamb leg & belly, barley, baby beetroot and green sauce on the menu. Psst…there’s a ‘soft’ opening 8-12 June and they’re offering 50 per cent off food all week.

Spa escapes 

Lifehouse Spa

The Lifehouse Spa in Thorpe-le-Soken is a sleek spa and hotel set in 12 acres of beautifully-kept gardens with a treatment list as long as your seaweed-cocooned, salt-scrubbed arm, including Clarins and ELEMIS facials and body treatments, wellness experiences like singing bowl sound baths and facial acupuncture, and mani-pedis in the OPI Prosecco & Nail Suite.

Glass House Retreat

Looking for a complete detox or reset? Glass House Retreat in Upminster is where you need to check-in. We’re talking a personalised, 360˚ approach to wellbeing, from new-gen (hello Lipofirm technology) spa treatments and a cryotherapy chamber – nothing like standing in -100˚ for four minutes to get your skin glowing (I sang Let It Go from Frozen to distract myself!) – to delicious organic plant-based food, yoga and meditation and aromatherapy workshops. Brownie points for its eco cred – solar panels, ground source heat pump, rain-water recycling. 

Self-catering boltholes 

The Old Farmhouse

Some of Essex’s cottages and country piles could out chocolate-box any Devon or Cornwall getaways. Take The Old Farmhouse in the pretty village of Finchingfield. This pink, timber-framed beauty dates back to the 16th Century but is full of modern touches, like Smart TVs, open-plan kitchen/diner, three luxe bedrooms (it sleeps six) and outside hot tub. Best of all, you can help yourself to seasonal veg and fruit in the kitchen garden and stroll to the vineyard where there’s a hut for drinking and dining with a countryside view. 

Creeksea Place Barns

Creeksea Place Barns on the banks of the River Crouch on the outskirts of Burnham on Crouch – aka the Cowes of the East Coast – is another gem. Whether you’re looking for a romantic break for two in one of the six luxuriously converted barns, or take over the whole place with up to 30 family and friends, its a wonderful place to get away from it all. All the barns have access to a barbecue area, courtyard, Parlour Cafe, small gym, spa and even a golf course – weekend break heaven. 

And Duck Duck Goose in Little Bentley, which was previously a popular Scandi-style, family-friendly cafe in a barn where mums met with their toddlers, has been transformed during Covid into a luxe self-catering escape with the same cool interior chic that made us all flock there in the past for lattes and gossip. 

Glamping 

The Browning brothers spent their childhood building little hideaways on the idyllic, expansive family farm — and when they grew up, they turned it into a business. The dream, right? From cosy log cabins and shepherds huts to big and beautiful bell tents, glampers are spoilt for choice when it comes to luxury accommodation. Just six miles from Colchester and an hour from London, it’s perfect for couples, families and pooches (at a small additional fee). Or you might want to try Finchingfield Camping, a North Essex hideaway that’s officially the county’s most Instagrammable campsite – it lies in a lavender farm!

WHERE TO EAT 

Restaurants with rooms 

Dessert at The Cricketers

Some of Essex’s top places to dine handily have a few luxurious rooms too, meaning you can scoff and quaff to your heart’s content before rolling into bed! The Cricketers in Clavering near Saffron Walden has been on any self-respecting Essex food-lover’s radar for years – it used to be run by Jamie Oliver’s parents and was where he honed his skills in the kitchen. Now it’s part of the Chestnut Group (they have lots of hot spots in East Anglia) and its gastropub credentials are better than ever, with 22 refurbed rooms (categorised good, better and best) and a really strong menu, featuring things like local lamb, homemade pasta and a stonking Sunday roast. 

Lobster at The Pier

The Pier in Harwich has got it going on. For starters it’s a contemporary harbourside hotel with Scandi and US flair, 14 rooms and, most importantly, an upstairs restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows and cooking of such high quality it should definitely be on your must-visit list. It’s by the sea, so the menu naturally has an emphasis on seafood (the local oysters are SO good), but there are plenty of meat and veggie options too. FYI its Navyard Bar has a 140 Gin Library and Scandi-inspired snacks – cheers!

Cosy at The Sun Inn

Muddy enjoys nothing better than a meal and overnight stay at The Sun Inn in Dedham, with its cosy atmosphere and exceptional food. Kick off with a glass of red by the fire in the nook followed by chicken with wild garlic and a delicious cheeseboard before heading upstairs to sleep it all off in the Dovecot (one of seven rooms) beneath a large skylight. Flitch of Bacon next to the River Chelmer in Little Dunmow is all about seasonal, British cuisine like sirloin of English rose veal served with Essex asparagus. Bonus points for its three lavish bedrooms upstairs, ensuring eating and drinking until you feel sleepy isn’t a problem. 

By the sea 

Ocean Beach

If you want to dine right by the sea (we’re talking barefoot on the beach) make a beeline for Ocean Beach on Thorpe Bay at Southend, which has a cool outside seating area right on the sand. Order an Aperol Spritz and tuck into a coconut tiger prawn salad beneath one of the cream parasols – your holiday pictures will look like you’ve flown long-haul rather than driven to Essex. And Frinton-On-Sea’s Pier One restaurant is a nautically-inspired new eatery serving up all things fishy, from plates of whitebait to catch of the day. 

Mersea Island’s oysters are. famous

On Mersea Island you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to decent places to devour seafood by the sea. Food critics rave about The Company Shed and yes the freshly caught seafood is mouthwatering (buy local oysters for half the price you’d pay in London), however Muddy actually likes West Mersea Oyster Bar down the road where the seafood platters are just as impressive plus you can sit outside on picnic tables in the sunshine. On the other side of the rue you’ll find The Coast Inn, another lovely spot for sharing a seafood platter (the fish and chips are also great!), with a big garden for summer and roaring fire in winter. 

Something special 

Haywards Restaurant

A former coach house, Haywards Restaurant in Epping serves the kind of fancy ‘I never make this at home’ flavoursome dishes worth making the journey for, like venison, parsnip and quince which you can pair with local wines such as Martin’s Lane Pinot Gris. 

Pho bowl at Bambu

Family-run Vietnamese restaurant Bambu is another Muddy fave. Hidden away in The Hythe on the edge of Colchester, the plant-filled terrace with reclaimed wood furniture feels like an enchanting secret and the food tastes so fresh and authentic (I rate the Pho bowls).

Square 1 Restaurant on Great Dunmow’s high street is one of those places you recommend to friends. From the pretty dishes, like poached Cornish cod, courgette and pea fricassee and tempura crab stuffed courgette flower, to the gorgeous presentation and relaxed dining room, it’s all a treat. No wonder they have more than 4000 followers on Instagram. 

Food by John Lawson

Michelin-Recommended Food by John Lawson can be found amongst a row of shops in Leigh Road on Leigh-on-Sea and is very zeitgeist – the no-choice, surprise menu is focused on healthy, locally-produced food and is served Thurs-Sun at 7pm sharp for ‘a community vibe’.  

Tuck into Mediterranean-Inspired nosh at Aspera Restaurant in Benfleet, a lovely low-lit, relaxed restaurant, where staff are super friendly and the cocktail menu is massive – kick things off with a Bellini. 

The Pig & Whistle just outside Chelmsford in Chignal Smealy is a special spot, forget minimalist, this place is filled with flowers, antique furniture and pictures, and has a pretty new courtyard. Pop in for the set lunch menu (think langoustine bisque and panfried sea bream) or make a night of it and go a la carte – lobster and clam vongole for the win.

Alec’s Restaurant

And for the finest fish dishes outside the capital, those in-the-know rave about Alec’s Restaurant in Navestock and Felix Warley (grilled fruit de mer with garlic parsley sauce is a fave dish), in Brentwood while at Smith’s Ongar, the setting, service and food are always on point.

Gastro pubs 

Galvin Green Man

Essex is dotted with delectable gastro pubs, places where the setting and drinks are as good as the triple-cooked chips. Bib Gourmand, award-winning (it was voted Best National Pub In Great Britain at the 2021 National Pub & Bar Awards!) Galvin Green Man is definitely one for your must-visit list. You’ll find it in countryside near Great Waltham serving up lip-smackingly great dishes with ingredients sourced from local providers, like Blackwell Farm’s ribeye, wood roasted breast of Suffolk chicken and catch of the day. 

Fox on the Green

Fox on the Green in Finchingfield is another belter; former 16th-Century coaching inn overlooking the village green serving the kind of classic comfort dishes we all crave from time to time like beer-battered haddock or topside of beef Sunday roast. The Dog & Pickle in Moreton is a top 50 gastro pub and even has its own Gin Festival (2-3 June), while the award-winning The Hoop in Stock is all about classics with a gourmet twist, like Toad in the hoop with mash and gravy.

Cafes & delis 

With so much amazing local produce on our doorstep, it’s no wonder we have an abundance of cool cafes and decent delis. 

Mrs Salisbury’s cafe

Mrs Salisbury’s, is a totally charming cafe tucked away down an alley in Maldon and worth hunting out for its tiers of fingerless sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, pastries, yummy salads and vegan bites. 

Just-opened Tea At The Quay in Mistley is another treat, with bagels, cake, super food smoothies, muffins and a great cup of coffee all served with a stunning estuary view until 4pm. While The Loft Tea-room in Tollesbury has a vintage vibe, drool-worthy cakes, art works upstairs and a busy events calendar too.

Stop The World (and diets)

Stop The World Cafe in Leigh-on-Sea is where the town’s stylish set hang out and tuck into brunch at a chic marble-topped table beneath the awnings, or pick up some delicious bits from Milly’s Deli and picnic on the beach instead (its garden’s a great place to soak up the sun with a beer on a weekend afternoon!). 

Pick up a picnic at Sip & Tuck

Sip & Tuck in Colchester, opposite the town’s historic castle, is where I like to go for a hot chocolate with all the trimmings, freshly ground coffee and to pick up some homemade bits for a picnic across the way in Castle Park. Chelmsford’s slick A Canteen is a popular spot for pizza, handmade burgers, brunches and bottomless dinners. It’s also way more than a cafe, with supper clubs and comedy nights on the menu too. 

Finally Hanningfield Reservoir Cafe near Billericay has great waterside views and hearty lunch options, like a traditional ploughman’s and cheesy scones. 

KIDS & FAMILY 

Of course Essex boasts miles of beaches (see The Great Outdoors below), but this is a county with loads of fun to be had inland too. 

Audley End’s miniature railway

Anyone in the fam going through a Thomas The Tank Engine phase will love Audley End’s miniature railway and the stately home and gorgeous gardens aren’t bad either, with lots of family events on.  

Colchester Castle

Spend a day at Colchester Castle, where little ones can explore dungeons, dress up like Romans, discover ancient pottery and jewels, climb on ancient walls and use interactive tablets to bring the exhibits to life…and then let off steam in the massive playground in the nearby park (there’s an ice cream kiosk with delish flavours btw).  

Colchester Zoo

Award-winning Colchester Zoo is always a hit, kids are wowed by activities like feeding elephants, watching leaf cutter ants go about their business and seeing rhinos roam – don’t miss feeding lorikeets in the exotic aviary, it’s my kids’ favourite thing to do there. Tip: the playground’s brilliant but gets packed at lunch and the gift shop is almost impossible to walk through without buying something (the cuddly snakes are irresistible), so little ones might want to put some pocket money aside. 

Mountfitchet Castle

Mountfitchet Castle near Stansted is a totally unique day out for all the family, where you can roam a Norman village and medieval castle but also get spooked in a haunted manor, have a life-sized dinosaur encounter and get nostalgic in a toy museum – though I’d question whether toys from the 90s should be in a museum, wasn’t that only a few years ago *cough*?

Curve Water Sports

Kids can kayak, wakeboard, paddleboard or just throw themselves around on the inflatable aqua park at Curve Water Sports in St Osyth, which has a sun-trap lakeside cafe too. 

IT’S GREAT OUTDOORS 

Beaches 

Did you know Essex has more than 350 miles of coastline? Well you do now and I’ll point you towards the best bits! 

Clackers pier

Let’s start with the traditional. If you’re after a kiss-me-quick, traditional seaside scene then you can’t go wrong with Clacton Pier. Clackers might not have the hipster vibe of Leigh-on-Sea, but if it’s golden sand, a pier with a surprisingly large amount of fun things to do and sea you can easily swim in (even kids), then mark it down for a day trip (just maybe avoid August weekends as it does get packed). Similarly, Southend-on-Sea has popular Blue Flag-rated Thorpe Bay and Three Shells plus lays claim to the world’s longest pleasure pier, stretching more than a mile out to sea with cafes, a museum and even its own railway! 

Credit: Visit Essex

Frinton-on-Sea is one of my favourite beaches in Essex – such a huge expanse of flat, pebble-free sand and usually a calm sea with very gentle waves. Go to 50s-style Pop-Pins for ice cream, browse the brilliant indie bookshop then wander along the prom past rows of beautiful beach huts – you can even rent one! Along the coast is Walton-on-the-Naze, and quieter cliff-backed beach the Naze which is THE place on the coast to hunt for fossilised sharks teeth.

Lesser-known Point Clear is becoming a popular spot for in-the-know kitesurfers and windsurfers (when it’s windy, shock) and kayakers and paddleboarders when it’s calmer. It’s a nature reserve with amazing birdlife, a protective sandbar, narrow tributaries to explore and seems to always have jaw-dropping sunsets — just remember to check the tide times though or you’ll be left high and dry in the mud! Beachcombers will love the mix of shingle and sand at Shoeburyness. 

Secret islands 

Little Beach Hut Company Mersea

It’s easy to forget Essex is home to dozens of little islands (30 to be precise!), more than any other county in England. Muddy’s favourite is Mersea, reachable in a car (though check the tides because the road linking it to the mainland can get cut off!) and home to a vineyard, glamping, great seafood restaurants (see above), Cudmore Grove Country Park (has a great playground kids), pastel beach huts, famous oyster beds, gold sand beaches and pretty houses that will inspire you to search Rightmove once you’re home. 

Celeb magnet Osea Island

Osea Island in the River Blackwater near Heybridge is a celebrity magnet. This is the one where legendary parties have occurred without a paparazzi in sight (think Poppy Delevigne, Alexa Chung and Nick Grimshaw weekend-breaking), but mere mortals can stay there too renting out the main house or various cottages. Oh and there are a couple of recording studios (Jessie J, Tinie Tempah, Charli XCX and George Ezra have recorded here) if you fancy indulging your inner Mariah on hols (which we do actually). 

Two Tree Island is connected by a bridge to the mainland at Leigh-on-Sea. A nature reserve and refuge for a huge variety of birds and other wildlife, you can’t stay but it’s great for a wander. And according to the National Trust, Northey Island is the closest thing you’ll get to true wilderness in Essex; there’s a circular walk, cafes and saltmarshes on this remote spot near Maldon. 

Walking & cycling 

Hanningfield Reservoir is part of the Essex Wildlife Trust and spans 870 acres of woodlands and meadows, with a labyrinth of foot trails to explore. Epping Forest is a given as a top place to hike, covering thousands of acres from west Essex crossing into east London. Try one of nine waymarked trails, all circular and signposted.

Tackle the Thames Estuary path at Leigh-on-Sea, ok it’s 29 miles but you’re going to see a lot of dramatic landscapes, from mud flats to cockle-shed bays.

Wivenhoe countryside. Credit: Conor Hennessy

Wivenhoe is one of our favourite town’s in the county and its official trail kicks off at the quay leading you along the banks of the River Colne to Colchester (download a free map from the website). Dedham’s Stour Valley walk is possibly the most scenic in the Essex, taking in Flatford Mill, Manningtree’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the countryside made famous by painter John Constable. 

Beautiful houses & castles

Hedingham Castle

Want a knight out? Privately-owned Hedingham Castle is impressive, not just the medieval castle but also its spectacular gardens and lake – Muddy took the mini muddies here once and they LOVED it (check website for events). Colchester Castle,  the largest Norman Keep in Europe, is worth a visit and great for families (see above).

Hylands Estate

When is comes to grand houses the Hylands Estate near Chelmsford is a stunner, though it’s only open to the public (for free) on the third Sunday very month (check website for events). Layer Marney Tower is a show-stopping Tudor building with the tallest gatehouse in Britain, which you can climb before descending and exploring the gardens and inhaling cakes in the cafe.

THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX 

Brightlingsea Lido

Ok here’s some fun, quirky, normal-for-Essex info you might want to know before you go. Brightlingsea Lido is where locals (me) sometimes take their kids to splash around when temperatures soar. While you’re there, the town’s jetty is one of the top crabbing spots in the county (you can buy crabbing lines and buckets in the high street), plus sitting with a glass of wine overlooking the marina full of posh yachts at No1 Harbour Square is a tiny bit like being in the South of France (after a bottle of wine and if you squint). 

Essex Festival of Food & Drink (18-19 June) always draws some top chefs like Rosemary Shrager, and is a big deal for local producers, while at the Colchester Roman Festival (30-31 July) and Colchester Medieval Festival & Oyster Fayre (4-5 June) you’ll get immersed in the county’s amazing history (and quite possibly more wine). 

Tiptree is famous for its preserves (if you’ve had breakfast in a posh UK hotel in the last few years the jam is most likely from this Essex town!), and you can visit the jam factory and tea room, which has a lovely secret garden at the back with wisteria and roses – order an afternoon tea which comes with Tiptree strawberry conserve, home-made scones and fresh cream. 

Essex is famous for its witches – this is where Witch Finder General Matthew Hopkins hung around to persecute and hang women in the 1600s (nice). Discover more in Manningtree and Mistley (there are even ghost walks you can join), and before you go there snap up some of-the-moment WitchLit such as best-selling The Manningtree Witches by A.K Blakemore from indie bookstore Red Lion Bookshop.

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