River trip to Flatford Mill — Photo courtesy of Karen Roe
One of the most quintessential English painters is John Constable, he of the bucolic hay bales, the rolling fields, and neat hedgerows. Much of England no longer looks exactly like a Constable painting, but parts of Essex still do. It's always been a beautiful place, but for many people in the South East and London, it lost out in the trendiness stakes to the 'posher' counties to the South of London like Kent, Surrey and Sussex.
The kinds of people who made a mass exodus to Essex after the second World War were London's bombed out poor, most of them from the East End. In fact, boroughs like Newham border what is now Greater London, but used to be Essex, like Barking, Ilford, Redbridge and Dagenham.
The county became known as a place for cockney wideboys who wanted to better themselves by living in a mock tudor house in the countryside and driving their fast souped up cars straight in to London to work during the day. There's even a reality show entitled The Only Way is Essex or TOWIE for short, which stands for much of the excesses, and tackiness that Essex has become famous for. Fake tans, short skirts, and an eighties money culture.
Mud Flats on the River Stour — Photo courtesy of Maik Kschischo
But in the last few years, Essex has also been 'discovered' by those people who have already grown tired of Kent or Sussex. Oyster bars have opened up along the wide river esturaries on the east coast, beautiful lifestyle shops have mushroomed, and London's glitterarti have been queuing up to buy 'beach huts' or even caravans on this coast, to bag themselves a little bit of paradise just a short hop from London.
Fast trains from Stratford station in London take you to Manningtree, Wrabness, Mistley and Harwich in just over an hour. Buses also head to Harwich, a big port quite regularly from London, and then you could also cycle through Epping Forest to the East of London and onwards on country lanes and cycle paths to the coast.
There are old wooden clapperboard houses, tudor dwellings, and lovely thatched cottages to stay in or admire. Converted barns here are lovingly restored. Fresh fish, straight from the quayside is great in this part of the world, and the lush soil has always been great for agriculture and food. Garden centres abound here and even when London can be under cloud, this part of the country is often cloaked in blazing sun.
For a part of the South East (the most populated part of the UK), Essex is relatively unspoilt; you can meander along rivers on old thames barges or rowing boats or small sailing boats and yachts. Stay and eat at the Mistley Thorn on Mistley quay, home to a famous witchfinder general back in the day, and discover the history and heritage of this part of the world.
Dusk at the Caravan Site, Wrabness, Essex — Photo courtesy of Maik KschischoSalty fish and chips in Harwich is great, and even in the winter, a bracing walk along the sea front to look at the big ships, in from Holland, provides plenty to see and do. An old converted cinema, 'The Electric Cinema,' in Harwich shows classics and newer films in its own independent programme. The signs outside still show two different entrances for people depending on the price of their seats.
In Wrabness, on the Harwich - Manningtree branch line, the last pub went a few years ago, but there's a great converted barn to stay in, a friendly and well-stocked community shop run by the villagers and, if you're lucky enough to be acquaintances with someone in the know, there's a great fixed caravan site and some very expensive and cooly done beach huts along the banks of the river Stour.
Actor Clive Owen lives down here, as does Griff Rhys Jones, a famous UK TV presenter and actor. Newspaper moguls and editors also own beach huts here, and in the summer, fires on the beach and sing-alongs with a guitar are par for the course.
Swans at Mistley, Essex — Photo courtesy of john antoniTake a walk from Wrabness to Mistley along the river, the nature reserve and the fields, or hop on the train and then follow the paths to Flatford Mill and a Constable infused weekend. Great cakes, cream teas with scones and jam and fresh oysters and fish are not to be missed.