Essex is a county in England just northeast of London. It’s a vibrant area containing affluent sections of London’s commuter belt. It’s not all modern conurbations, though: there are over 14,000 listed buildings in the county – from the Saxon church of St Peter-on-the-Wall to the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club.
The county town is Chelmsford – Essex’s only city – while Colchester is Britain's oldest recorded town. Essex borders Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Kent across the estuary of the River Thames, and London (Epping Forest acts as a barrier to the capital’s further outward spread). It also has 35 islands, more than any other English county. Most are uninhabited by humans but provide havens for wildlife.
The name Essex originated in the Anglo-Saxon period of the Early Middle Ages. After the Norman Conquest, Essex became a county. During the medieval period, much of the area was designated Royal Forest. As well as rural areas, Essex also features the new towns of Basildon and Harlow, originally developed to resettle Londoners during World War II.
The Essex dialect, an accent related to that of Suffolk, was formerly prevalent in the county – but ‘Estuary English’ is now the norm. The county's coat of arms comprises three Saxon seax knives on a red background; a device also used as the logo of Essex County Council.
Road: The M25 and M11 motorways cross the county – enabling regular commuting to/from Kent, Hertfordshire and Cambridge. The A127 and A13 trunk roads help connect London to Essex. The A12 runs across the county. The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge spans the River Thames from West Thurrock to Kent.
Rail: Abellio Greater Anglia is the county’s main railway operator, providing commuter services into London Liverpool Street and regional services throughout the East of England. The Sunshine Coast Line links Colchester to the seaside resorts of Clacton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze.
Air: The county’s main hub is London Stansted Airport, which serves destinations in Europe, North Africa and Asia. London Southend Airport offers flights to Ireland, the Channel Islands and Europe. Essex’s smaller airfields, some of which were once military bases, offer pleasure flights or flying lessons – including Clacton Airfield, Earls Colne Airfield, and Stapleford Aerodrome.
Water: East of the Dartford Road Crossing over the Thames Estuary, a ferry to Gravesend in Kent operates from The Port of Tilbury, one of Britain's three major ports. The port of Harwich links the county to Holland and Denmark. Ferries also operate on some of Essex's rivers and estuaries during spring and summer.
The county hosts many small towns, villages and hamlets predominately built in timber and brick with clay tile or thatched roofs. The borough of Thurrock has seen an influx of Londoners looking for cheaper property – in towns such as Grays, Tilbury and Purfleet. The southeast of the county, already home to Basildon, Southend and Thurrock, has been designated for further development.
Country Life reported that the county’s good trains into Liverpool Street mean Essex has five spots on the magazine’s list of the best villages and towns close to London. It highlighted Earls Colne as good choice for those who want to be on the Essex/Suffolk border. Stock, particularly The Old Rectory, was identified as “serious stockbroker territory… It looks idyllic, with narrow streets, but is very expensive.” Terling is “a seriously well-kept village”; a Chelmsford-based estate agent told the magazine: “It’s gorgeous and seemingly lost in time…”
Meanwhile, The Daily Mail recently reported that Leigh-on Sea, next to Southend, has been named as the happiest place in Britain to live. The town gained the accolade after scoring highly on standout features – such as community spirit and a strong sense of belonging. Residents said there is plenty to do, “with the town topping the list for good access to sports and arts activities, as well as opportunities to develop skills”.
Essex is bright, bold and well dressed. In Buckhurst Hill, Zap sells Italian labels like Prada and Gucci to footballers, soap-stars and businessmen. Upstairs there’s a selection of wallets, handbags and shoes and some leopard-print (although it’s by Dolce & Gabbana). The local love of bling extends to interior design: Essex stores appear in the top ten for sales of Bang & Olufsen outlets in the UK. The Mercedes showroom near Loughton offers gleaming new black automotives fresh from the factory.
Of all Essex’s shopping streets, Queen’s Road embodies the young, rich and proud set. Many retail outlets here are hairdressers, barbers and beauty salons. Loughton high street has a stretch of all the shops you’ll ever need – plus some independents. Epping is more like an old-fashioned village with a butcher called Church’s (est. 1888) that still makes famous Epping sausage.
The borough of Grays is home to Intu Lakeside, which is not only one of the UK’s biggest shopping destinations – it’s also one of Europe’s largest retail areas. The main centre contains over 250 shops, cafes and restaurants – and there’s an IKEA in the retail park. The Boardwalk on the lake has 12 restaurants and there's a state-of-the-art Vue Cinema to complete your perfect day out.
Sport: Essex’s 46 football clubs include local rivals Colchester Town and Colchester United and Southend Manor versus Southend United. Other teams include Enfield and Epping Town. England’s cricket captain Alastair Cook plays for Essex County Cricket Club at the County Cricket Ground in Chelmsford and Lower Castle Park in Colchester. Chelmsford rugby union team play at Coronation Park.
Family: Lee Valley Regional Park has Lee Valley Park Farms, the navigable rapids at Lee Valley White Water Centre, and open picnic spaces. Lee Valley Caravan Park is well placed to explore the local offerings. Colchester Zoo is among the top 20 in the world according to TripAdvisor. The Discovery Coast – including the seaside resorts of Walton, Clacton and Frinton – hosts kids’ amusements. Essex Outdoors in Harlow is an oasis of urban adventure offering more activities and adventure.
Cultural: Colchester Castle Museum – an important heritage site – is the largest Norman Keep in Europe. Firstsite in Colchester presents a varied programme of exhibitions, commissions, residencies and screenings. The Munnings Art Collection contains Sir Alfred Munnings’ art collection. Harlow Sculpture Trail places carvings throughout the locality’s pleasant green suburbs. Audley End House and Gardens are also unmissable.
Events: Chelmsford’s spectacular events programme showcases the V Festival – one of the UK’s biggest annual summer music fests. CITYdiversions and the award-winning 3foot People Festival both offer unique experiences. The Essex Summer of Art and ENAS, an annual visual festival, showcases artists from across the county from May to October.