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Muddy’s insider guide to Essex

Summer holidays, incoming! Read our curated guide to vaycaying in Essex, with luxe SPF brand Saltee, and start planning your staycation (PLUS, enter our sexy £2,888 summer giveaway!) now

From gold-fringed beaches and blue-ribbon rivers, to wild-weather salt marshes and meandering mudflats, the Essex coast and countryside offers up a picturesque patchwork for sun-drenched staycations. Whether you hit a waterfront bolthole for a spot of paddle boarding, or head to a boutique hotel for Champagne and cityscapes, you won’t be disappointed with an escape to the county this summer. 

Essex holiday

WHERE TO STAY

Once the bucket (and spade) list location for affluent Londoners seeking a beachside break, the ‘Essex riviera’ – which stretches from Southend to Harwich – is still a holiday hotspot awash with stylish hospitality offerings. Not sure where to head for a guaranteed vaycay win? We’ve got the inside track on the coolest glampsite go-tos, chic hotel stays, and unique self-catering pads you’ll never want to (de)part from.

Stylish self-catering solutions

The Trap Coleman's Farm Essex

The Trap

Nestled in the rural swathes of Coleman’s Farm, deep in Epping Forest District, this cosy clear-roof cabin is perfect for stargazers seeking a romantic getaway. A sunken bathtub on the spacious deck outside and luxurious king-sized bed come with panoramic views across surrounding farmland and the mother of all barbecue set-ups to raise your outdoor feasting game. Make the 15-minute stroll to Toot Hill’s The Green Man for a refreshing ale in the afternoon sun, then explore the ancient Epping Forest woodland trails by bike or foot. Either way, this off-the-beaten-track hideaway seems custom-made for sundowners on the deck after a soul-enriching tramp through the Ongar countryside.

Creeksea Place Barns

Creeksea Place Barns

Perched on the coastal fringe of south-east Essex river town, Burnham-on-Crouch, Creeksea’s luxury series of contemporary barn accommodation delivers the perfect rustic retreat for all-size parties. Seeking a quiet trip for two? No problem: choose between the beautifully appointed Hen House or Fisherman’s Lodge and try your hand at sailing. Looking for country quarters for a family of five? Say hello to the light-flooded River View, Hay Loft and Swift Barns, and explore the labyrinth of doorstep coastal walks. Hunting down a party pad for eight? Hit The Granary, which boasts an eclectic mix of antique furniture, high-beam ceilings and a stylish dining space perfect for entertaining (request a chef if you prefer to be served). You can also hire the entire suite for big-group breaks. Booked collectively, the barns can sleep up to 30 people and you’ll have exclusive use of the grounds, courtyard, barbecue, picnic and play areas. Oh, and did we mention the farm animals and on-site gym and spa? Bubbles a-go-go, ladies.

The Tower Burnham-on-Crouch

The Tower

Sticking with south-east Essex, why not head to nearby Latchingdon for a staycation elevation? This award-winning converted water tower sleeps six and offers unforgettable vistas out to the River Crouch and North Downs beyond. Built in 1934, The Tower has been expertly modernised and now features a chic, open-plan living space on the top storey, plus a huge free-standing tub, large cocktail-ready terrace and underfloor heating throughout. Enjoy an alfresco breakfast on the terrace before checking out the area’s two local vineyards, Crouch Ridge and Clayhill, for tours and tastings. Be warned, though: there’s a total of 45 stairs to navigate when you get back so go steady on the vino. Or, better yet, buy a bottle (or three) to enjoy back on the deck as the sun dips.

Osea Island Essex

Osea Island

Fancy swanning off to your own private island this summer? That can be arranged. Staycationers, allow me to introduce you to Osea – a 400-acre coastal gem in the Blackwater Estuary that’s hosted everyone from Poppy Delevingne and Sienna Miller, to Rihanna and Daniel Radcliffe (the fictional ‘nine lives’ causeway in Woman In Black was filmed here). Dubbed the Essex Necker Island/British Hamptons thanks to its popularity with A-listers, this slice of wild beachside paradise is owned by Nigel Frieda (music producer for The Rolling Stones and Sugababes; brother to hair maestro, John), who lived on the island in 80s and 90s with a bohemian set (think painter Luke Elwes and renegade ex-spy David Shayler) before buying it up for himself and building an exclusive rehab facility (Amy Winehouse and Mark Owens are previous patients). Now though, this colonial-style retreat is dedicated solely to self-catering holidaymakers and you can choose from luxury lodgings in the waterfront Manor and Captain’s House (sleeps up to 22 for exclusive hire), or quirky cool cottages in the Village. Days here are spent cycling, fishing, swimming and sailing, and it’s a popular haunt for yogis too, so be sure to bring your downward-dog A game.

Hip hotels

The Pier Harwich

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. There are 14 Scandi-style bedrooms in total, but book The Mayflower Suite for super-king luxury, a power shower with Aromatherapy Associates, and in-room telescope for a spot of stargazing before bed. 

Milsoms Dedham

Milsoms

The quintessential country house hotel, this 15-bedroom beauty in the heart of Dedham is as chic as it gets. Cue contemporary, spacious rooms, gorgeous Constable Country grounds and slick menu options in the brasserie-style restaurant and bar. Keen to explore/work off those calories? Concierge can organise canoe and bicycle hire on arrival, so you can hit the ground running, so to speak…

Seven boutique hotel Southend

Seven

Adding a dash of style to Southend seafront, this slick boutique bolthole is slap bang above the town’s ubiquitous pier and fairground attractions – and its sea-facing rooms are pure holiday. Throw in Seven’s penchant for bespoke furniture and its trendy restaurant and bar (Aurum has a strong local-food focus and plates include Colchester oysters and ‘Essex burrata’), and you can see why the DFL set (yes, we’re talking the ‘down from London’ lot) have already booked up key summer dates in their iCals.

Wivenhoe House hotel Essex

Wivenhoe House

Set in the private parklands of north-east Essex, with elegant lounges overlooking a restored sunken lawn, Wivenhoe House is pure Grade II-listed luxury. Period features and a garden-wing brasserie serving strong British fare have been cleverly fused with modern design details. The result? A country house retreat with superior staycay style. Book for floor-to-ceiling windows, calming views over Wivenhoe Park, and leisurely strolls along the yacht-dotted River Colne. 

GreyFriars Hotel Colchester

GreyFriars

Officially the hotel jewel in Colchester’s historic quarter, GreyFriars is a Michelin-recommended, five-star venue for culture vultures wanting a swish weekend away. Located a short hop from Colchester Castle – the largest Norman keep in Europe – as well as the town’s Natural History Museum, enormous FirstSite art gallery, and English Heritage site St Botolph’s 12th Century Priory, there’s plenty to get out of bed for here – not that you’ll necessarily want to. Bedrooms, like every other inch of this handsome hotel, are luxuriously appointed and all 26 rooms and grand signature suites feature marble bathrooms, handcrafted furniture and Indian silks. We love sinking into an opulent freestanding tub and soaking up the L’Occitane toiletries before fine-dining in the hotel’s 20th-century, Art-Deco-style Cloisters restaurant. 

Go-to glampsites

Teybrook Orchard

Teybrook Orchard

Tucked between the fruitful folds of ancient apple trees and 20 acres of dense Colchester woodland, Browning Bros-owned Tebrook Orchard is the ideal spot for lounging in a magical Mongolian yurt – or, indeed, luxuriating in a beautiful bell tent. Whatever your pitching preference, the goal here is to get away from it all without scrimping on some basic mod-cons: step forward an on-site kitchen with everything you need for alfresco feasting; barbecues and fire bowls for each dwelling; plus three hot showers (and three flushing toilets) for the au-naturel-adverse. There’s even an under-cover games area complete with football table for when the predictably unpredictable British summer turns.

Kelvedon Hatch Safari Tent

Kelvedon Hatch Camping and Caravanning Site

With its outdoor decking, cowhide-draped double beds and khaki wash of Safari Tents, all that’s missing from this Brentwood-based site is a rhino- and zebra-dotted savannah. This is glamping, Kenya-style, and families will love the bunk-bed add-ons (tents can sleep up to six) and large living areas with a sofa and kitchen. Also good: the venue is in striking distance of the once-secret Kelvedon Hatch nuclear bunker, which is now a museum and must-visit activity centre for adrenaline junkies. Try your hand at archery, quad biking, shooting, and ‘rope runners’ before retiring to your tent for a festoon-lit feast. 

Gemini Camp Stansted

Gemini Camp

Fancy going off-grid? This single, super-spacious bell tent in a private nature reserve might just be what you’re looking for. Standing alone in six acres of swaying grassland, Stansted’s recently rewilded Gemini Camp is the ultimate getaway for eco campers seeking solitude. Stylishly set up for two, the six-metre wide tent features a king-sized bed, sofa, bedding and towels, while a separate tent-side cabin offers cooking and washing facilities, warmed by a charming log burner. Wile the days away spotting roaming roe, muntjac deer and hovering buzzards as you share the meandering meadows. Conservation is key here – and nature is king – so no dogs or kids, please. This is one for the puritans seeking peace in the pasture.

WHERE TO WINE AND DINE

The great British escape begins in a proper boozer with a warm glass of something flat and a thick carpet of leaden cloud on the horizon, right? Wrong: whether you’re dreaming of a waterfront Aperol spritz to wash your fish and chips down with, or quintessential village views for a crisp chablis and steak, we’ve got you and your tastebuds covered. 

Date-night wins

Pivaz restaurant Brentwood

Pivaz

With swanky restaurants in Epping and Brentwood, a contemporary Turkish menu, and swathe of emerald booth seating, Pivaz is a dining destination made for summertime sojourns. Serving lunch, dinner and cocktails, snag a stylish table and hit the martini cocktail list before loading up on the best baba ganoush your tastebuds can take. Also recommended: potted plant inspo – we don’t know who their florist is, but we’re all over the Insta-worthy interiors.

Food by John Lawson restaurant Leigh-on-Sea
Photo: Luke Ayling

Food by John Lawson

Slap bang in the heart of Leigh-on-Sea’s buzzy cafe culture, Food by John Lawson is every healthy holidaymaker’s dream. Think locally sourced organic dishes, a sleek aesthetic, and damn fine flavours to boot. Lawson’s tangible focus on sustainability is as refreshing as his seasonal tasting menus, which centre around nutritious fare free from gluten, dairy and refined sugars. Vegan? You’re in safe hands. This place is all about serving honest food that works in harmony with the environment and your body. Oh, and the Sunday lunch is paired with free-flowing organic cava too. We love.

Alec's oysters Ongar

Alec’s Restaurant Bar & Grill

A quintessentially British establishment nestled in the Navestock countryside, everything about Alec’s screams holiday treat. From the roaring log fires and elegant table service, to the premium wine list and softly-lit interiors, this Brentwood bar and grill is perfect for diners eager for a dose of gastronomic class. Fine dining comes as standard here and you’ll have a tough job choosing between plates. My tip? Cromer dressed crab to start; monkfish and scallops for main. But then again, I am a water baby…

Smiths of Ongar restaurant

Smith’s

Famed for serving fresh sustainable seafood, Smith’s of Ongar will feel like a warm, welcoming summertime hug. Tucked up in the parish folds of Epping Forest District, this elegant eatery is all exposed brickwork, roaring log fires and attentive staff. The cocktails aren’t exactly shabby either, with award-winning mixologist Alex Turner shaking up a storm in the upstairs bar. Food wise, Smith’s offers up a wealth of winning gastro plates, but its signature line-caught sea bass is first class and perfect for staycay celebrations. 

Gastro-fare favourites

The Hoop pub Stock

The Hoop

Constructed in 1640 from the timber of warships at Tilbury Docks, this charming Stock-based stalwart near Billericay is big on heritage, hearty dishes and outdoor dining. A secluded stretch of lawn greets locals round the back, while villagers often spill out onto the green for languid rounds of 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 pub classic out on the patio. And, yes, festoon lighting comes as standard.

Galvin Green Man

Galvin Green Man

Set in the picturesque countryside of Great Waltham, Chelmsford, this beautifully refurbished building dates back to 1341 and serves up an enormous pub garden with panoramic views. Kids will love the huge dedicated play area and, with plenty of space to dine alongside, mums and dads will too. Menu-wise, it’s run by the Galvin brothers – award-winning Essex-born chefs who have turned this little corner of the countryside into a foodie favourite. With its Bib Gourmand credentials and a super stylish bistro to boot, the Galvin Green Man is ticking a lot of pub-garden-shaped boxes for stress-free summer supping right now.

The Lion Inn

Offering up stylish courtyard dining for light bites and a chilled bottle of something fruity, this gorgeous gastro pub in the rolling hills of Boreham is just the ticket for a long lunch with friends. The bar is pure French theatre, with an eclectic mix of antiques and salvaged finds dominating the stylish interiors. Outside, diners prefer to drink in piazza-style views while they peruse the menu, which delivers fresh plates of quality pub classics.

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 a summertime staple for locals. Famed for serving up the freshest fish dishes in Leigh-on-Sea since 1695, head down early to bag a prime spot on 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 Folly Bistro pub garden

The Folly Bistro

What started life as a village butchery in East Hanningfield, 1642, is now a cosy inglenook gastro jaunt complete with an always-blooming alfresco dining space. Inside, The Folly Bistro is all log burners, polished glassware and fabulous fixtures and fittings. Outside, you’ll find an immaculately dressed pub garden and terrace to decant to, both kitted out in swish-looking parasols and want-to-take-home dining sets. Oh, and don’t forget about the food: mouthwatering moules, sautéed wild mushrooms, pie of the day and chumps of lamb are all local favourites, best washed down with a Pucks Folly ale from the Brentwood Brewery. Don’t mind if we do.

Sun Inn Dedham

The Sun Inn

This attractive-looking watering hole in the heart of historic Dedham also happens to have a handsome pub garden tucked behind its warm exterior. Think a peaceful, plant-filled patio that leads out on to a sprawling sun-dappled lawn. Shady trees to wile away the afternoon under? Check. Local craft brews to taste test? Check. A slice of summer in a charming Essex village? Bells on (providing the weather plays ball, of course).

Cafes for catch-ups, and farm shops for foodies

Stop The World Cafe

With chic marble tables lining the walkway and rustic antiques waiting inside, it’s not hard to see why the stylish set love Leigh-on-Sea’s Stop The World Cafe. Specialising in hearty brunches, healthy lunches and a scrumptious patisserie selection, it’s the perfect seaside spot for a holiday treat (or three).

Sip & Tuck Colchester

Sip & Tuck

Set in the heart of Colchester’s cultural quarter and opposite the town’s historic Castle Park gates, this trendy independent cafe bistro serves up artisan coffees and teas for long leisurely lunches, as well as craft beers, wine and cocktails for special Supper Club soirees. Soak up the sun in the courtyard garden with a signature House salad or, if the weather turns, cosy up next to the log burner with a hot toddy – either way, you’re in safe hands. 

Jon Gold Farm Shop

With a focus on free-range beef and poultry, this high-end Farm Shop and butchery in Rayleigh boasts award-winning pies, home-cured bacons, and tender quality cuts sourced from the greenest pockets of Essex and Suffolk. Jon Gold’s ‘barbeque’ selections of peppered steaks, minted lamb burgers, and pork and apple sausages are particularly popular on a sultry summer afternoon, while the cheeses, eggs, and fruit-packed preserves are regular weekly shop wins. 

Pause Farm Shop Chelmsford

The Farm Shop Cafe

Sick of having to drive out to the sticks to find a decent stash of local greens? Head into Chelmsford town centre where, slap bang in the middle of Moulsham Street, is a great example of a modern farm-shop makeover. Having served up the usual crates of onions and beets alongside hand-roasted coffee to Essex townies for years, The Farm Shop expanded in 2018 to include a chic cafe for brunchers, lunchers and afternoon tea sets. The result? A stylish independent with a focus on fresh, seasonal farm food, and some damn fine bistro chairs to boot.

LET’S GO OUTSIDE: WHERE TO VENTURE

With miles of coastline and countryside to explore; a healthy hit of heritage houses for your annual nosy round; plus activities a go-go come rain or shine, you won’t get bored in eclectic Essex this summer.

The family friendly fail-safes

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. 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 who missed out on a safari this year 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 price. Just don’t take the laughing hyenas to heart…

Curve Water Sports

Hugging Mill Dam Lake in St Osyth, this all-action aqua park is now open for wakeboarding, paddleboarding and kayaking sessions, with its giant inflatable obstacle course also set to bounce back again soon. Book lessons, hire a board, or just come down to watch the adrenaline junkies make it look easy from the safety of Curve’s alfresco cafe – as long as the sun’s shining, we’re there.

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 fave. 

Barleylands Farm Park and Craft Village

Billericay’s own little slice of homespun heaven is back for (socially distanced) days out, and the farm’s gaggle of geese and goats and sheep can’t wait to see you. As you’d expect it won’t all be ‘business as usual’ with some of the potters’ and painters’ studios still affected by government restrictions, but plenty of wildlife walks await, and the lionhead bunnies are positively leaping at the prospect of an adoring public again.

Windbreak-worthy beaches (minus the crowds)

best places to live Frinton-on-Sea

Frinton-on-Sea

With its butterscotch sands, sweeping esplanade and wash of pastel beach huts, this pretty coastal resort offers up a slice of quintessential charm. Hugging the north Essex coastline, it first became a popular haunt for vay-caying Londoners in the 1920s, when its high street was affectionately dubbed the ‘Bond Street of East Anglia’. These days you can expect to find a small hub of independent boutiques, bistros and bars a short stroll from the shoreline, plus a thriving arts and culture scene.

Dovercourt Bay

Set against an industrial backdrop of Harwich harbour, Dovercourt’s swathe of toffee-coloured sand and shingle beaches are often overlooked for busier seaside resorts to the south, but there’s something to be said for this quiet, historic pocket of coastal Essex – not least, it’s lack of crowds.   Head for the far end of the beach for views up to Cornwallis Battery and Beacon Hill Fort, or trek out to the two Victorian lighthouses at low tide. Oh, and there’s always the resident seals of nearby Hamford Water National nature reserve to say hello to.

Bradwell-on-Sea

Bathed in a cream crush of cockle shells, Bradwell’s small stretch of beach marks the point where River Blackwater meets the North Sea and it’s an atmospheric find. Overlooked by monasteries and chapels, oyster sheds and layers of salty grey mist, consider this your new go-to hideaway when the weather won’t play ball and you decide to embrace the drizzle anyway and walk the tides in peace. 

Brightlingsea

Freshwater lido? Check. Pastel wash of pretty beach huts along the prom? Check. Splash-friendly bay the little ones will love while you masterfully launch the stand-up paddle board? Jackpot! This hidden gem of a beach town may be just 10 miles south of Colchester town centre, but it’s a far cry from the overrun beaches of Clacton and often proves more popular with dinghy sailors than day trippers. Follow the curve of the bay round to the Brightlingsea Marsh nature reserve for the quietest coves and hidden sun traps.

Wrabness

Home to Grayson Perry’s Turner-prize-winning ‘House for Essex’, Wrabness is a humble little corner in the north that deserves more coastal consideration. Set against the rolling hills of Manningtree, its generous slice of sandy coves hug a pretty stretch of the Stour Estuary and, dotted with rustic beach huts and a smattering of chalets on stilts, it’s not uncommon for passing dinghies to pull up on the sheltered shoreline for an impromptu picnic, adding a certain whiff of nostalgia to the sea breeze. Kids (and history buffs) might also want to give fossil foraging a go here: shark’s teeth and whale bones are common, prized finds. 

Shoeburyness

East beach serves up a prime golden-sand stretch for Southend Pier swervers. Think gentle lapping waves for paddling pooches (restrictions apply), buckets and spades galore, and a smattering of ice-cream vendors for that 11am gelato fix. In fact, you can get two out of three (no pooches, sadly) at Shoeburyness institution, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Fancy burning off that Cornetto afterwards? The beach also has a thriving community of kite surfers, so strap yourself in and fly like the wind. 

The Naze

A peaceful stretch of powdery sand, The Naze beach backs onto a crumbling set of cliffs that jut dramatically out into the sea and offer unrivalled views of the Essex coast. Often overlooked for neighbouring Walton-on-the-Naze, it’s a uniquely positioned spot for beach-goers keen to swap crowds for the Big Blue and boasts an eight-storey 18th century tower complete with art gallery, museum and tea room. Just be sure to bring a head for heights.

West Mersea

Wedged between the weathered house boats of Mersea’s mudflats and the marshland causeway, ‘Monkey’ is a cracker of a beach that offers up myriad creeks to meander through as you unearth sun-bleached oyster shells from the caramel sands. Little ones will love the ample crabbing spots too, so bring a net, then head for nearby Company Shed or Oyster Bar for West Mersea’s signature dish: fresh, salty oysters served up with a hit of lemon and lashings of dry white wine. 

Winning waterside strolls

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. 

Tollesbury Wick

Always a crowd pleaser with the sailing set, this route launches at Tollesbury Marina and hugs the seawall for unrivalled views of the Blackwater Estuary’s lattice of salt-marsh and mud creeks. Oystercatchers, terns and little ringed plovers may thread their way with you to Shinglehead point, where ribbons of green signal Rolls Farm. Follow the natural footpath here to loop back round to Church Street and sink a well-deserved wine at The Harbour View Bistro & Bar.

Burnham-on-Crouch marina

Fambridge to Burnham-on-Crouch

This calming riverside ramble begins at Fambridge Yacht Haven marina and peruses the rolling hills of Althorne before bouncing gently along the river’s blue grey tides to bunting-festooned Burnham-on-Crouch. The sea wall path ends here at the town’s harbour, where an orchestra of yacht masts chime in the wind and a rug of wild flowers carpet the quay. Ice-cream stop, obligatory. 

Beeleigh Falls, Maldon

Set against a backdrop of old butterscotch quarries and leaden gravel pits, this stretch of the River Chelmer is arguably one of the most memorable and weaves its merry way from Langford Museum of Power down to Beeleigh Lock. If you follow its curves to the Mill and Beeleigh Grange Farm, be sure to keep the old gravel pits to your right and cut up towards Utling Wick, where you’ll discover the waterway’s hidden gem: Beeleigh Falls. This intricate series of platforms and locks merges the tide with fresh water, attracting the most beautiful waders and waterfowl. 

Palace Walk, Danbury

Surging past the village’s grand Tudor Gothic Palace, this ancient network of canal locks meanders leisurely through Danbury Country Park and Old Hare Wood before picking up pace at Cuton Lock, Stonhams Lock, Little Baddow Lock, Blake’s Wood nature reserve and on past Danbury Church. A solid five-mile wander, be sure to seek out the crumbling war shelter at Cuton Lock and say hello to friendly Kingfishers, who streak the sky blue as they dip and dance for minnows at dusk.

Bourne Mill, Colchester

A wetland full of countryside nooks and historical landmarks, this three-mile circular walk is easy going on the calves and perfect for little ones with little legs. Beginning at Bourne Mill – which once powered the industries of Colchester – the River Colne slopes off towards Bourne Valley, the Cannock Mill and Almhouses of Winsley Square. You’ll scoot past 19th century pubs, spy duck-filled Distillery Ponds and paddle alongside flocks of regal resident swans. Our tip? Do your research with the National Trust before you set off: yes, it’s Insta-worthy, but you’ll get more out of it if you absorb this waterway’s glittering past. 

Whetmead Nature Reserve, Witham

Following the River Brain for four miles, this meadow-rich route is teeming with wildlife and often throws up sightings of muntjac deer, cruising purple crests of Mandarin ducks, and playful otters floating their way downstream. Beginning at Chipping Hill Bridge, drop down onto the river trail and head south, where you’ll cross a small bridge before reaching the tranquil duck pond. Rest here under a fringe of weeping willows, then make the final leg to Whetmead nature reserve, where perfect sunset vistas of the River Blackwater await.

Historic homes and heritage gardens

Audley End Gardens

Hit Saffron Walden to take a ramble round this English Heritage site’s glorious gardens (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 summer season. 

Highlands House Estate Chelmsford

Hylands Estate

For a stately picnic affair, head to Chelmsford’s Hylands Estate – an elegant grade II*-listed public estate complete with an elegant Neo-Classical villa and 574 acres of historic park and woodlands. Take a whimsical walk round the House and gardens for the full Pride and Prejudice experience.

Layer Marney Tower Essex

Layer Marney Tower

The tallest Tudor gatehouse in England, this popular wedding venue set on the rural fringes 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.

The Beth Chatto Gardens Essex

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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