Solange Berchemin spends 48 hours in Essex dispelling the Essex stereotype.
As a travel journalist, I’m always asked, “Where are you going next?”. Mid-March, a friend of mine inquired about my future whereabouts. I proudly answered, “Essex”, “Oh! Never mind,” came the immediate repartee.
Welcome to the most misunderstood county in England. This is a 48 hours in Essex tour.
Essex begins where London ends and ends where the sea begins. What I was about to discover during this short break is that there is more to this county than the much-ridiculed Essex man and the pejoratively stereotyped county girl.
Being so close to London makes Essex very easy to go to; a hop and a skip, and you could be donning your walking boots on the Wivenhoe trail before even checking in to your hotel. The 5 km trail along the river Colne from Wivenhoe to Colchester Castle Park is one of many rambling and cycling routes in the county. It’s a mixture of urban and riverside scenery.
Named after Wivenhoe, the picture-perfect small town with wonky medieval timber-framed houses, riverside pubs, quirky shops, and…… a murky past. I’m not referring to the look of the marshes, but to the times when the tranquil Colne River bustled with activity. The continuous traffic was not always all above board. In the 1700s into 1800s, gin smuggling was rife in the area. A way marker on the path contains original gin barrels to illustrate the information on the smuggling trade. A few miles away, there is another infamous spot where similar shenanigans were taking place, Brightlingsea.
Today, Brightlingsea is a much calmer place, offering very popular bird cruises. During our 48 hours in Essex, we were scheduled to take one of the sailing barge cruises. In spite of having binoculars and camera ready to capture Godwits and Lapwings, it was not to be.
Strong winds prevented the sailing. The same happened, a day later, with our visit to the remote Mersea Island, the setting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The sorcerer Prospero did a very good job at flooding the only road to this fossil hunting location, with the island not accessible there was no visit to the oyster and cockle sheds dotted around the island.
Before visiting Mersea Island, make sure you drop by the small and fascinating Natural History Museum in Colchester. Situated close to Colchester Castle, Europe’s largest Norman keep, now a museum and a park, both worth visiting too. The Natural History Museum is a hugely popular attraction with young families. It’s free of charge. Mammoths and hippos bones and teeth are on display. It’s hard to believe that these giants roamed the area along with dinosaurs. 300,000-year-old fossilised bones of dinosaur skeletons were excavated from the East Mersea cliffs.
In 1969, when Bill and Sheila Greenwood started their first planting of Reichensteiners on their rhubarb and broccoli farm, nobody could predict that the Crouch Valley would become prime English wine territory and New Hall Wine Estate production would reach well over a quarter of a million bottles a year. The valley’s climate makes it possible to grow very exciting and still little-known wine varieties such as Bacchus.
If English sparkling wine has become internationally renowned for its quality, Essex produces a whole range of excellent English wines. One of the keys to New Hall Wine Estate’s success results from a careful harvest. Grapes are picked just at the right time. The harvest is done by hand and also with the help of a state-of-the-art harvester. Tours and individual visits are organised by New Hall Wine.
Another company that was started by a family is Wilkin & Sons ltd – Tiptree. Wilkins/Tiptree has been making jam and other treats since 1885. They Grow their fruits sustainably and the harvest ranges from berries including their famous tiny ‘Little Scarlet’, a strawberry unique to them, to mulberry as well as fruits such as quince and medlar and many more. The factory is open every day, a chance to visit the museum, buy some delicious jars and enjoy their afternoon teas. Scone anyone?
48 hours anywhere is often too short, but it’s certainly not enough to explore a county as diverse as Essex. One last word about accommodations. In and around Colchester, there is a large range of options, from the luxurious Greyfriars Hotel to more modest rooms in pubs.
We stayed at the Flag Inn outside Wivenhoe. Hospitable and friendly, this newly refurbished pub offers modern and very clean and tidy rooms. The restaurant is excellent, its menu is inspired by local flavours. A place that you’d like to keep secret, so you’ll have it all for yourself, but its reputation since its recent re-opening spread like wildfire, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a table without a reservation.
48 hours in Essex? Not nearly enough. I’ll soon be taking quite a few more.
Tell me more about this 48 hours in Essex Tour
48 hours in Essex itinerary was organised by Visit Essex
First Site Gallery & Colchester Castle
The Natural History Museum
Brightlingsea, Topsail Charters & Mersea Island