The best of Essex

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London's easterly neighbour has long been tainted by its associations with Burberry caps, XR3is and white stilettos. It's time to change all that. So here's out inspiring guide to the greenery, culture, history and nightlife that make this county great.

  • The best of Essex

    The idyllic village of Thaxted (complete with windmill) on the road from Chipping Ongar to Saffron Walden


  • Greenery | Culture | History | Nightlife

    Greenery

    Gardens of Easton Lodge

    Designed in 1902 for society figurehead the Countess of Warwick (King Edward VII’s ‘Darling Daisy’) but abandoned in 1950, the present owners have spent more than 30 years painstakingly restoring this lovely 23-acre garden and reconstructing its fascinating history. It’s a tranquil place for a stroll, followed by tea in the cobblestoned courtyard, though the occasional engine roar betrays its proximity to Stansted. Airport expansion plans leave its future uncertain: the current proposal for a second runway would see planes taking off just 700 yards away. The village is well worth a wander: its Norman church includes memorials to the Countess of Warwick’s family and Dame Ellen Terry.Gardens of Easton Lodge, Little Easton, near Great Dunmow (01371 876 979/www.eastonlodge.co.uk).


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    Thaxted's fields
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    Thaxted windmill
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    Deer at Mole Hill
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    Statues in Bridge End Gardens

    Matching Green

    Turn off the M11 at the Harlow junction, head east and virtually any road will take you through tiny, unspoiled villages with many houses covered in the characteristic Essex style of plasterwork known as ‘pargetting’. Pick of the bunch is Matching Green, which boasts one of the largest village greens in the county on which cricket is played every summer weekend. The green is surrounded by cottages and houses dating back to the fourteenth century, 28 of which are listed; two duckponds, into which cricket balls frequently fly; and a cracking gastropub, The Chequers.The Chequers, Matching Green, near Harlow (01279 731 276/ www.thechequersmatchinggreen.co.uk).

    Epping Forest

    The forest is east London’s ‘green lung’, its 6,000 acres of pollarded woodlands, grassland and reed-fringed ponds stretching 12 miles from Manor Park to beyond Epping. Entrusted to the care of the City of London by an Act of Parliament in 1878, this protected status has helped to limit development in the towns and villages along its fringes. Named by the Civic Trust as a Green Heritage site, it offers great walking, cycling and horse riding, a smattering of pubs and tea huts and plenty of the distant wooded vistas that attracted so many Victorian visitors when the railway reached Chingford. A good starting point is the visitor centre in High Beach, where you can buy maps and guides.Epping Forest Visitor Centre, High Beach, near Loughton (020 8508 0028/ wwwcityoflondon.gov.uk).

    Finchingfield

    Eight miles north of Great Dunmow, this picturesque settlement has been described as ‘the most photographed village in England’. Views of its green, pond, cottages, church, tea shop and eighteenth century windmill (open on the third Sunday afternoon of each month) can be found on innumerable calendars, chocolate boxes, tea towels and jigsaws. It’s also, sadly, a popular destination for bikers and boy racers so a summer weekend probably isn’t the best time to visit. Local artist Roger Beckwith has put together an informative website at www.btinternet.com/~roger.beckwith.

    Hyde Hall

    This is one of four Royal Horticultural Society gardens and is located in the least wet part of Britain with an average annual rainfall of just 600mm or 24in (the Lakes get over 2,000mm). The Dry Garden is a particular feature even in this dismal summer, showing the diverse range and visual appeal of plants that can thrive without need for regular watering. The 360-acre estate includes a wide range of horticultural styles, from formal clipped hedges to naturalistic drifts of planting, plus sapling woodlands, meadows and a garden for wildlife. You don’t need green fingers to find lots to enjoy here.RHS Garden Hyde Hall, Rettendon, Chelmsford (01245 400 256/www.rhs.org.uk).

    B184

    This road from Chipping Ongar to Saffron Walden is a cyclist's dream: flat, comparatively quiet and with regular stop-off points for a drink or ice-cream. It passes through or near eight ancient hamlets that comprise the Rodings (Abbess, Aythorpe, Beauchamp, Berners, High, Leaden, Margaret and White), as well as historic Great Dunmow and Thaxted, all the while surrounded by fertile farmland and big skies. Windmill fans can stop off at Aythorpe Roding and Thaxted to see fully restored mills in action. At Saffron Walden you’ll find the beautiful grade III listed Bridge End Gardens.Aythorpe Roding Mill (0788 766 2177); John Webb’s Windmill, Thaxted (01371 830 285/ www.thaxted.co.uk). Bridge End Gardens (01799 510 510/www.uttlesford.gov.uk).

    Marks Hall

    When Thomas Phillips Price left his beloved 100-acre garden to the nation in 1966, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew viewed his bequest with some misgivings. The house had gone, the grounds were a jungle of weeds, self-sown trees and bushes, the lakes were choked with mud and much of the adjoining land had been leased for commercial forestry. However, a trust was set up to manage the estate and, 40 years on, the landscaped woodland pathways, with views across the lakes to the eighteenth-century walled garden, plus a developing arboretum, are a delight at any time of the year. A fifteenth-century barn, dismantled from a nearby farm and relocated, serves as an excellent visitor centre and café.Marks Hall, near Coggeshall (01376 563796/ www.markshall.org.uk).

    Beth Chatto Gardens

    Chatto is one of the grandes dames of English gardening. As well as writing numerous classic books on the subject, since 1960 she and her husband have transformed an overgrown wasteland with poor gravel soil and boggy hollows into an informal garden that harmonises perfectly with the surrounding countryside. Faced with all kinds of difficult conditions, they set out to find homes for many of the plants they wanted to grow. With dry and damp soil in both sun and shade, they were able put into practice the underlying principles of what is now referred to as ‘ecological gardening’. Coach parties love this place, so don’t expect it to yourself.Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, Colchester (01206 822 007/www.bethchatto.co.uk).

    Hanningfield Reservoir

    Hanningfield Reservoir was built in the 1950s to supply water to the growing population of south Essex. When full, it holds 27 billion litres. It’s now a nature reserve and ideal for bird watching (it’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its population of coot, pochard and tufted duck), fishing or a quiet walk. The excellent visitor centre and reserve are run by the Essex Wildlife Trust.Hanningfield Reservoir Visitor Centre, Hawkswood Rd, Downham, Billericay (01268 711 001/www.essexwt.org.uk).
    HIDDEN GEM

    The Flitch Way

    The 15-mile Bishop’s Stortford to Braintree railway line, known as the Flitch Line because it went through Dunmow (home of the ‘Dunmow Flitch’, a bizarre ancient ceremony), was originally built in the 1860s to transport barley to market, beet to the British Sugar Corporation Factory at Felsted, and boys to and from the public schools which dot this corner of the Essex countryside. Services ended in 1952 and the route has since become the Flitch Way. It’s a straight walk alternating between cuttings and embankments with lots of interesting plants and wildlife to spot. There’s a visitor centre at Rayne station, while Felsted is an alternative starting point with the Swan a good refuelling stop. A map of the route is available by calling 01245 437 714 or for download at www.essexcc.gov.uk/countryparks.The Swan at Felsted, Station Rd, Felsted, near Great Dunmow (01371 820 245).

    Greenery | Culture | History | Nightlife

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Turn off the M11 at the Harlow junction, head east and virtually any road will take you through tiny, unspoiled villages with many houses covered in the characteristic Essex style of plasterwork known as ‘pargetting’. Pick of the bunch is Matching Green, which boasts one of the largest village greens in the county on which cricket is played every summer weekend. The green is surrounded by cottages and houses dating back to the fourteenth century, 28 of which are listed; two duckponds, into which cricket balls frequently fly; and a cracking gastropub, The Chequers.The forest is east London’s ‘green lung’, its 6,000 acres of pollarded woodlands, grassland and reed-fringed ponds stretching 12 miles from Manor Park to beyond Epping. Entrusted to the care of the City of London by an Act of Parliament in 1878, this protected status has helped to limit development in the towns and villages along its fringes. Named by the Civic Trust as a Green Heritage site, it offers great walking, cycling and horse riding, a smattering of pubs and tea huts and plenty of the distant wooded vistas that attracted so many Victorian visitors when the railway reached Chingford. A good starting point is the visitor centre in High Beach, where you can buy maps and guides.Eight miles north of Great Dunmow, this picturesque settlement has been described as ‘the most photographed village in England’. Views of its green, pond, cottages, church, tea shop and eighteenth century windmill (open on the third Sunday afternoon of each month) can be found on innumerable calendars, chocolate boxes, tea towels and jigsaws. It’s also, sadly, a popular destination for bikers and boy racers so a summer weekend probably isn’t the best time to visit. Local artist Roger Beckwith has put together an informative website at www.btinternet.com/~roger.beckwith.This is one of four Royal Horticultural Society gardens and is located in the least wet part of Britain with an average annual rainfall of just 600mm or 24in (the Lakes get over 2,000mm). The Dry Garden is a particular feature even in this dismal summer, showing the diverse range and visual appeal of plants that can thrive without need for regular watering. The 360-acre estate includes a wide range of horticultural styles, from formal clipped hedges to naturalistic drifts of planting, plus sapling woodlands, meadows and a garden for wildlife. You don’t need green fingers to find lots to enjoy here.This road from Chipping Ongar to Saffron Walden is a cyclist's dream: flat, comparatively quiet and with regular stop-off points for a drink or ice-cream. It passes through or near eight ancient hamlets that comprise the Rodings (Abbess, Aythorpe, Beauchamp, Berners, High, Leaden, Margaret and White), as well as historic Great Dunmow and Thaxted, all the while surrounded by fertile farmland and big skies. Windmill fans can stop off at Aythorpe Roding and Thaxted to see fully restored mills in action. At Saffron Walden you’ll find the beautiful grade III listed Bridge End Gardens.When Thomas Phillips Price left his beloved 100-acre garden to the nation in 1966, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew viewed his bequest with some misgivings. The house had gone, the grounds were a jungle of weeds, self-sown trees and bushes, the lakes were choked with mud and much of the adjoining land had been leased for commercial forestry. However, a trust was set up to manage the estate and, 40 years on, the landscaped woodland pathways, with views across the lakes to the eighteenth-century walled garden, plus a developing arboretum, are a delight at any time of the year. A fifteenth-century barn, dismantled from a nearby farm and relocated, serves as an excellent visitor centre and café.Chatto is one of the of English gardening. As well as writing numerous classic books on the subject, since 1960 she and her husband have transformed an overgrown wasteland with poor gravel soil and boggy hollows into an informal garden that harmonises perfectly with the surrounding countryside. Faced with all kinds of difficult conditions, they set out to find homes for many of the plants they wanted to grow. With dry and damp soil in both sun and shade, they were able put into practice the underlying principles of what is now referred to as ‘ecological gardening’. Coach parties love this place, so don’t expect it to yourself.Hanningfield Reservoir was built in the 1950s to supply water to the growing population of south Essex. When full, it holds 27 billion litres. It’s now a nature reserve and ideal for bird watching (it’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its population of coot, pochard and tufted duck), fishing or a quiet walk. The excellent visitor centre and reserve are run by the Essex Wildlife Trust.The 15-mile Bishop’s Stortford to Braintree railway line, known as the Flitch Line because it went through Dunmow (home of the ‘Dunmow Flitch’, a bizarre ancient ceremony), was originally built in the 1860s to transport barley to market, beet to the British Sugar Corporation Factory at Felsted, and boys to and from the public schools which dot this corner of the Essex countryside. Services ended in 1952 and the route has since become the Flitch Way. It’s a straight walk alternating between cuttings and embankments with lots of interesting plants and wildlife to spot. There’s a visitor centre at Rayne station, while Felsted is an alternative starting point with the Swan a good refuelling stop. A map of the route is available by calling 01245 437 714 or for download at www.essexcc.gov.uk/countryparks.Greenery | Culture | History | Nightlife

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