Colchester streescape Flickr atomicpuppy68Many see Essex as nothing but backwater, with everything going for it usurped by its more well-known neighbors and replaced by cringe-worthy developments.  But look beyond the tacky beach resorts and any stereotype you might associate with this county and you will see how much natural beauty it has.  Much of the scenery has not changed, and is in fact protected by the Metropolitan Green Belt. 

Here, too, is evidence of how far back England’s history reaches, with Colchester, the oldest town in the country.  While the garish resorts do exist in Essex, once you stroll down Essex’s medieval villages and rolling hills, you will find how easy it is to be continuously surprised with this part of the country.




Colchester landscape  Flickr atomicpuppy68Colchester (pop. 104,400) claims to be the oldest town ever recorded in England, and there certainly are evidences pointing to such a claim.  Nowadays, it’s among Britain’s fastest growing towns, with more and more Londoners escaping to town for a quieter settlement.  History has Colchester as a strategic place for the Romans and Normans, though.  When the Romans conquered Britain in 43 AD, they set up the capital in the area that is now Colchester, naming it Camulodunum.  Years later, the Normans built one of their strongest castles in town, and its ruins remain the town’s biggest asset. 

The town’s most serviceable train station is the North Station, which is directly connected to Ipswich and London.  From the train station, go ahead through North Station Road, to North Hill, then it’s a few minutes’ walk to High Street, which is at the west end of North Hill. 

Colchester CastleA few years after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror ordered the building of
Colchester Castle (High St., +44 1206 282939, £5.70) on the foundations of a former Roman temple, the Temple of Claudius. Its ruins are considered the biggest of the Norman keeps that still exist in England today, and are set on parkland that is vast, nowadays alive with regular cricket matches and music festivals, overlooking the River Colne. 

The museum inside the castle is pretty advanced and interactive, while a section of the Roman walls the surround part of the castle can be explored.  If you reach the western end of High St., you will find Balkerne Gate, which used to be the entrance to the castle and was established in 50 AD.  It is now one of the biggest Roman gates that still exist.

For a glimpse into local Colchester culture, you can peek into the nearby
Hollytrees Museum (High Street, +44 1206 282940, free), which is set in what used to be a private residence built in 1718.  It gets its name from the two Holly trees that flank it.  It is a pretty quirky museum that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but deserves a short visit nonetheless.  It’s pretty and free, after all.

Tymperley Clock Museum (Trinity St, +44 1206 282939, free).  Set in a fifteenth century half-timber house which was the former residence of the scientist William Gilbert, the clock museum houses one of the biggest clock collections in the country, the Bernard Mason collection.  The clocks in the museum are Colchester-made, from the 17th to 19th century. 

Firstsite (4-6 Shorty Wyre St., +44 1206 577367, free) used to be a small movement supporting young artists, housed in a space inside the Minories Art Gallery.  By 2006, the group planned to move out of the gallery, and its new home is planned to reflect the town’s Roman heritage in a cutting-edge design by Rafael Viñoly.  It is expected to be one of the biggest contemporary arts center in the country, but as of 2010, it is still under construction.

Housed in a former hardware shop built in the 15th century, Charlie Brown’s Bed and Breakfast (60 East St., +44 1206 517541, £55) has been restored to make room for a boutique B&B, which is considered one of the best in Colchester in terms of facilities and location.  There are only three rooms, which are furnished in a modern way, blending perfectly with the exposed roof beams that give them a unique atmosphere.  Because of the age of the building, the ceilings are low, but the size of the rooms more than make up for it.

The Old Manse (15 Roman Road, +44 1206 545154, £68) is a huge Victorian house that’s brilliantly located both for exploring the town’s best sights, and for a good night’s sleep.  The three well-appointed rooms area all spacious, with a great bay-window areas.

Trinity Townhouse
(6 Trinity St., +44 (0) 1206 575955, £75).  This Grade II-listed Tudor townhouse was a former home to a famous madrigal composer, and he would probably be singing praises to this B&B had he seen his house’s reincarnation.  The five rooms are all distinctly decorated, with big baths and great window views. 
The North Hill Hotel (50-51 North Hill, +44 1206 574001, £75) may be on the small side, but its thirteen rooms are all well-furnished with big cozy beds and spotless and modern bathrooms.  There are no lifts, so it is not recommended for those who will be staying for a longer period of time (who will most likely have huge luggage).  The staff are very helpful and accommodating, though.

Lovingly restored by the new owners, Prested Hall (Prested Chase, +44 1376 573300, £115) has a long and rich history, which you will hear about in detail from the family who now owns it and who took great pains in discovering it.  The country house hotel not only houses many interesting stories from its years of existence but also houses one of the most luxurious hotels in Colchester.

River Stour Flickr MarilynJane Dedham Vale will forever be called Constable Country—immortalized by painter John Constable who was once a student in this part of the county, which forms the border between Essex and Suffolk.  It is also considered an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty—which only proves that it does not need to be rendered in oil and canvas to be considered beautiful.  The River Stour around which this village is built makes the landscape even lovelier, as well as makes a great habitat for varied species. Another village landmark made famous by Constable is the St. Mary’s Church, which features in many of his paintings.

An oddity in this town is the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum (Castle House, +44 1206 322127, £5).  Sir Alfred Munnings is not quite a household name like Constable, but he was a local, and was quite famous for his time. 

Chelmsford cathedral Chelmsford is the county town of Essex, and has been since 1200s.  It is a steadily growing town, with more and more commuters choosing it as their home base.  Home to many industries, Chelmsford may not warrant a full day’s stop, but it has a few noteworthy sights to check out, on your way to other more prominent and eventful Essex towns.

One such interesting figure here is second smallest cathedral in England, the Chelmsford Cathedral (New St., + 44 1245 294489, free), the size of which betrays its impressive interiors.

You can also spend a few tranquil hours in the pretty gardens of the Hylands House (Old London Road, + 44 1245 605500), which was salvaged from ruin in 1966 by the Borough Council and restored.



Southend beach hutsForever saddled with a crass reputation as a tacky seaside resort, Southend-on-Sea (pop. 106,300) or Southend may just be bypassed by people who don’t think it deserves a second look.  But for those who believe in looking deeper at a place instead of judging it based on its flashy establishments will be in for quite a surprise.  Southend has been a seaside resort since the Georgian era, and Londoners hoping for a quick getaway have flocked to its beach ever since, but it also has a thriving music and arts scene that begs to be discovered.

Southend is home to the longest pier in the world, at more than two-thousand meters.  The Southend Pier (Marine Parade, +44 1702 611214, £1) was built in 1830 and has encountered many destructions, after which it has been reconstructed repeatedly, so it may not have retained its original look.  It stretches out into the Thames Estuary, and basically defines Southend.  The museum offers a good look into what the pier looked like in the past.

Get away from the seaside resort and head west of the beach to find Old Leigh, an old suburb with cobblestoned streets, arts and crafts shops, and a blossoming art gallery scene.  Check here for schedules on lively festivals and a regatta.

You must also give in a little to Southend’s tacky tradition in Adventure Island (Western Esplanade, +44 1702 443400). The admission is free, after all, and it’s also good for a laugh.

A Victorian guest house that’s a few steps away from the shore, the
Pebbles Guest House (190 Eastern Esplanade, Thorpe Bay, +44 1702 582329, £65) has funky furnishings that are both comfortable and tasteful.  The prices for double rooms also vary, depending on the view.

Awarded by the local tourism board as the best B&B in Essex,
Pier View (Royale Terrace, +44 1702 437900, £85) has that—a great view of the pier—and so much more.  Beds are furnished with luxurious Egyptian linen, LCD TV screens and free Wi-Fi for those who can’t get by with technology, even with such a great view outside.