Travel

Why Essex should be your next UK holiday destination


Mersea Harbourside, one of Essex’s highlights (Picture: Laura Millar)

As TOWIE celebrates its 10th anniversary, Laura Millar looks beyond the fake tan and flashy bling to find a different side of Britain’s most notorious county

‘Yes, I’m a proud Essex girl!’ laughs Jane Mohan, who’s greeting me at her property in Coggeshall wearing an elegant green top, tailored trousers, and – what’s this? – a string of pearls.

Essex girl surely she is not; where are the bodycon dress, the stilettoes, the false eyelashes?! But despite being, as she tells me, ‘Essex born and bred’, Jane is resolutely unlike some of the people you might associate with the E-word.

For, on October 10, 2010, on ITV2, a whole new world was unveiled to an astounded nation.

Sure, we’ve always had Essex girl jokes, and Essex man stereotypes, but The Only Way Is Essex presented us with a running cast of affluent, clued-up entrepreneurs. Clad in designer duds, running their own beauty salon, nightclub, or clothing boutique, they had money to burn, relationships to wreck, sizzling gossip to spill, and unmentionables to vajazzle.

TOWIE gave popular culture such inimitable characters as Mark Wright, Joey Essex, the mighty Gemma Collins, and, er, Diags, who, for better or worse, emblazoned their crazy lifestyles – catfights, crooning sessions (mainly Arg, to be fair), and all – across our screens.

Gemma Collins was voted as the most iconic Towie character this week (Picture: Getty)

Ten years on, and Essex would like to make the rest of the country aware that there’s a lot more to it. Thanks to a new campaign, Visit Essex (yes, there’s a tourist board!) wants to transport us from the reem streets of Brentwood – where the show was largely focused – to some of the county’s more overlooked environs.

The wine scene in Essex

I’m meeting Jane, one of several ambassadors for Visit Essex, in her pretty vineyard on West Street (weststreetvineyard.co.uk), established ten years ago.

There are now around 38 wine producers in Essex, although we get a little forgotten in favour of areas like Sussex and Kent

Here, in the quieter, more rural surrounds of northeastern Essex, which in the soft, late-summer sunlight could double for anywhere from Tuscany to the Dordogne, eager locals come to sample her light, refreshing vintages and enjoy romantic dinners at tables set among the vines.

‘My only background in wine before this was drinking it,’ she laughs, immediately re-establishing her credentials, ‘but I know what I like, and I use Burgundian grapes, which pair well with food.

We’ve got a great climate here, with relatively little rainfall, and there are now around 38 wine producers in Essex, although we get a little forgotten in favour of areas like Sussex and Kent.’



Little known facts about Essex

Grayson favour

In 2015, artist Grayson Perry redesigned a humble holiday home in Wrabness, near the River Stour, as a mausoleum for a fictional woman called Julie. The striking architecture of House For Essex – think green and white ceramic tiles and a gold roof – can be enjoyed by those lucky enough to win a ballot to book a stay there. living-architecture.co.uk

A hiss-tory of serpents

A story in a 1669 pamphlet, Strange News Out Of Essex, or The Winged Serpent, about the strange sighting of a long, scaly beast near Henham village, inspired author Sarah Perry to write 2016’s award-winning The Essex Serpent. Now it’s set to be made into a film for Apple TV+ with Keira Knightley as the novel’s Victorian heroine, Cora Seaborne.

Bringing home the bacon

Essex is home to Britain’s oldest recorded competition, the Flitch Trials, dating back to 1104. It sees married couples competing to prove who is the most devoted to each other. Each couple has to convince the judges they haven’t regretted their marriage once in the past year and the winners get a flitch of bacon. dunmowflitchtrials.co.uk

After sampling her delicate, dry sparkling white and a plummy pinot noir, it’s off for a drive. Relax, I’m not behind the wheel; rather it’s another Essex ambassador, 27-year-old championship rally driver Nabila Tejpar.

We weave through picturesque villages, past endless green fields, through the dainty town of Tiptree (the one that produces all the jam) and over the River Blackwater towards Maldon, where sea salt has been collected since Roman times.

I don’t think a lot of people know what Essex is really like

‘I don’t think a lot of people know what Essex is really like,’ muses Nabila of her home county. ‘There’s so much beautiful countryside, and it’s so coastal; I love walking along the water by Burnham on Crouch, or strolling along Heybridge Basin.’

Essex boasts around 350 miles of coastline, to be exact – more than any other English county – and it’s also home to 35 islands. I’m heading to one of them, Mersea, to sample another Roman-era delicacy: oysters.

Out at sea in Essex (Picture: Lady Grace Boats)

Within minutes of meeting Tom Haward, part of an eighth-generation family of oyster producers, The Company Shed, I’m hopping aboard the Lady Grace and heading out to Salcot Creek to see where Mersea’s world-renowned rock and native oysters mature.

I meet oysterman, Owen, on his dredger, sorting through a haul to keep those good enough to be taken back to Tom and packed off to places like Borough Market, to be sold to posh London restaurants like Scotts and The Wolseley.

Then I get to scoff some at the West Mersea Oyster Bar; it’s no Sheesh – the showy, Sir-Alan-Sugar-owned, Chigwell-based eatery – but boy, does this simple seaside shack dish up some fresh, delicious seafood.

Metro paper Travel Editor Laura Millar visits West Mersea for Oyster Fishing trip

I end my stay in Colchester, another Roman gem; in fact, it’s known as ‘Britain’s first city’, as it was founded by them in AD49. It’s a handsome, elegant town, crammed with cobbled streets, half-timbered houses, pastel-washed buildings, a baroque town hall and well-preserved Norman castle.

GreyFrairs Hotel, Colchester

Strolling back to my Georgian hotel, the Greyfriars, from the city’s innovative modern art gallery, FirstSite, I walk past a beauty salon.

Spray tans and false eyelashes are alive and well here; it seems the only way is Essex, after all.

Rooms at Greyfriars Hotel in Colchester from £105pn. Trains to Colchester leave from Liverpool Street Station, thetrainline.com. For more info, go to visitessex.com.

The tenth anniversary series of TOWIE is currently airing on ITVBe.

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