Misunderstood, misrepresented and often simply missed, London's eastern neighbour, says Zoe Kamen, is a pleasantly pastoral surprise.
As Lady Essex III drifted closer, tufted heads peered warily above the grasses, eyes widened in alarm and nostrils flared. A young pup slithered into the muddy waters seeking a safer vantage point and the hushed watchers became the watched.
Forget getting vajazzlled, go for the seals
London traffic took far longer to navigate than the 40 miles or so of A roads to the quay in Burnham-on-Crouch where we joined the seal excursion. Running late we had a choice between going back to the car for hastily forgotten raincoats and missing the boat, or braving the estuarine drizzle and hoping the sky would be kind. It was, and soon we were floating on the incoming tide, staring at the seals: we’d come a world away in hours.
Several hundred (not so) common seals haul up on the meandering shoreline of Essex where they are marked for life by the iron-rich London clay. When they lie around – and they do this a lot, apparently – their slick coats are dyed an improbably gaudy ginger. TV had prepared me for orange-hued pelts to be a feature of our Essex jaunt but I hadn’t quite expected it of its aquatic inhabitants too. Friends and co-workers had jokingly asked if I’d booked an appointment with a sunbed or a vajazzling for the trip. I hadn’t. Ignoring their smirks, I was trusting in the (admittedly) few who waxed lyrical about the joys of the Essex countryside and who had actually been there themselves. The people who had visited, I noted, seemed to make a point of going back.
The closest beaches to London
Londoners flood out of the city every weekend in search of rural idylls. The vast majority snub the neighbouring counties (especially Essex), speeding past towards further-flung destinations with reputations of more romance/ elegance/glamour and less bling. But Essex offers some of the closest beaches to London along a coast that vies with Cornwall’s for length.
If it lacks the craggy drama of the Cornish cliffs, it offers instead a sublime landscape of sea walls and expansive tidal flats, tamed with sea groynes and painted beach huts. Dubbed the ‘Discovery Coast’, there has been a concerted push in recent years to conserve and regenerate natural wetlands and create reserves where visitors can witness the vast annual migrations of wading and aquatic birds. The RSPB’s most ambitious project on Wallasea Island encompasses an area two-and-a-half times the size of London. It opened to the public earlier this year and the development will continue until 2019.
Mersea, the easternmost inhabited island in Britain, is separated from the mainland by a thin causeway called the Strood. During high tides the road floods and would-be visitors have to check the tide tables or consult a webcam (www.stroodcam.co.uk) before setting off. Once on the island the road splits. We took the left fork, stopped off at a picking farm (the car still smells of wet garlic) and circled touring parks of East Mersea before following our noses back west towards a lunch I’d been anticipating for some time.
Seafood platters and dressed crab
Our destination was the Company Shed, a small shack on the seafront that serves up seafood-laden platters to a crowd that brings in its own bread and booze. I’d been happily contemplating the sharp crack of crab claws and slurp of Colchester natives, plucked from their watery homes within sight, until we rounded the last bend and spotted the queue. Walking inside to read the chalked-up menu angered the bread-bearing early birds and we retreated to the unwelcoming bark of ‘If your name isn’t on the board, then you’re not eating’.
If you have the temerity to turn up to eat at lunchtime, bear in mind the West Mersea Oyster Bar down the road has fish just as local, takes bookings, and offers starch as well. We filled up with less mess at the nearby Eat Art Café, on dressed crab with lime-and-ginger mayo with chunks of brown bread, followed by clichéd tea and scones.
The land of listed buildings
Mindful of turning tides and incoming clouds, we sought shelter at Layer Marney Tower, 20 minutes’ drive back toward Colchester. The tower is an ornate red-brick Tudor gatehouse originally intended to mimic Hampton Court. The ambitious plans didn’t work out and only the first section was ever realised but exploring the maze of rooms that open off the precariously spiralling staircases can easily absorb a few rainy hours.
Layer Marney is one of more than 14,000 listed buildings in Essex. As well as the many McMansions hidden behind electric gates, there’s a heap of heritage properties open to the public. Their ornate turrets and finials spike wide-open skies right across the county and offer sweeping vantage points from which to absorb the overwhelming pastoral landscape.
Bedding down in a Romany caravan
‘Simpsons’-style clouds were skimming past the sun as we arrived at Bouncers Farm, and a gaggle of geese waddled over to inspect us. Alerted by the fowl, an Irish wolfhound loped out of the orchards, closely followed by proprietor Ann Bishop who directed us to wheelbarrows so we could trundle our belongings across the campsite to our accommodation.
Bishop has painstakingly restored four Romany caravans. Three are the archetypal brightly painted rounded wooden dwellings and the fourth – ours for the night – was from the outside, a nondescript ’50s touring van. Inside, however, was a different story.
The interior was tricked out in Gypsy bling: cream Formica, edged with chrome in wavy curlicues, cut-crystal lights and bevelled mirrors. Even a wood-burning stove and lace curtains. From there it all became a little Enid Blyton. Ann had laid on the firewood, the kindling, a torch, lashings of bread and butter, home-laid eggs and delicious wild yellow Mirabelle plum jam. We spent the evening huddled round a pail fire toasting bread and gazing at the stars.
Gorgeous gardens and a protected tower
The next day brought more sunshine and a wander through Beth Chatto’s Gardens. Originally planted in 1960, green lawns surround pathways between the almost tropical lakeside plantings where alium heads waft their oniony scent. An entire section is unwatered and dedicated to arid-adapted plants that showcase quite how stunning nature in conjunction with green fingers can be.
Two more buildings loomed on my horizon. One jutted out atop the Naze – a nose-like promontory at the seaside resort of Walton-on-the-Naze. The Naze Tower is a beacon tower – a precursor to electric lighthouses – that was built in 1720 a quarter-mile inland. It now stands less than 165 feet from a precipitous and crumbling cliff edge. The hard work and dedication of local campaigner Michelle Nye-Browne, raised awareness and secured funding to shore up the cliff face and prevent the tower from succumbing to the sea. A wrought-iron spiral staircase – with 111 steps – leads past art displays and up the narrow steps to the expansive view from the top. Nye-Browne’s café at the bottom provides sustenance for the climb in the form of baked potatoes (especially good topped with her mum’s chilli), cakes and ice creams.
The second was a good deal more modern. Opened in December last year, the Lifehouse is a sparklingly new residential spa set in the formal gardens of a 130-acre estate. Couples and hen parties pad through upscale corridors in white slippers and dressing gowns, on their way to the pool, massages or the bar. The robes were even present at dinner, in the smart restaurant overlooking the grounds. Our meal was a skillfully executed three-course affair, with as many intriguing textures present on the food menu as in the spa treatments (pomegranate caviar, mojito foam, chocolate soil). After all the exploration of the previous days, it was wonderfully relaxing to slip on a robe and slow to a slippered shuffle.
For Londoners, Essex may not be the only way to go but it certainly is an easy way – especially for those with an E at the start of their postcode. A weekend trip winding along the back roads doesn’t involve a whole load of mileage but offers a charm not often displayed by the county’s brasher ambassadors. So, next time you are thinking about a weekend in Suffolk or Norfolk, consider London’s closer neighbour and a holiday nearer home.
Take the train to Colchester. From there the 67 bus takes 40 minutes to Mersea.
Bouncers Farm has four caravans and a campsite. A Gypsy caravan sleeps four from £190 for two nights. Tent pitches are £12.
A Lifehouse spa package costs from £175 includes one night’s full board, a massage and use of the facilities.