There’s so much more to Essex than TOWIE. This gorgeous corner of South East England offers an abundance of picturesque Constable countryside to explore and a wealth of attractions and activities to keep you entertained. It’s also a county with a deep and rich history – as befits the home of England’s original capital city, Colchester, and one of its newest cities, Chelmsford.
You’ll find historic wonders from every era in Essex, from Norman keeps to Jacobean mansions and Victorian forts. Join us on a tour of the county’s finest historic sites.
1. Hedingham Castle
Standing 110 feet tall and comprising five largely intact storeys, Hedingham Castle is still an impressively imposing structure 900 years after it was built by the influential de Vere family. Indeed, the Norman keep that forms the centrepiece of this sprawling estate in rural Essex is considered to be one of the best preserved in England and has outlasted a variety of Tudor updates, all of which have all been lost, apart from the red-brick bridge that connects the inner and outer bailey.
There’s plenty to admire at Hedingham but our architectural highlight is the spectacular arch that supports the banqueting hall’s lofty ceiling. Standing 28 feet tall – making it one of the largest Norman arches in England – it’s an audacious feat of medieval architecture.
2. Audley End House
Surveying the majesty of Audley End House today, it might be surprising to learn that its current form is a significantly reduced version of the spectacularly grandiose country house that Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk and Lord High Treasurer of England, built in the early 17th Century. No expense was spared when Howard ordered the demolition of the original Audley End House and commissioned the construction of an extraordinarily opulent new property.
Unfortunately, it transpired that the £200,000 Howard and his wife spent on the house – an astonishing amount in the early 17th Century – was largely embezzled. The couple were convicted and imprisoned in the Tower of London before eventually being freed with a token fine of £7,000.
The Suffolks ownership of Audley End was interrupted by a 33-year spell when it lived up to its grand pretentions and became a Royal Palace. Charles II bought the property for use as a home when attending the races at Newmarket but spent increasingly little time there and it was returned to the 5th Earl of Suffolk in 1701 in a state of neglect. Several sections of the unsustainably vast palace were demolished over the course of the 18th Century and long overdue restoration work was eventually carried out by Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth and then her heir Sir John Griffin.
Built on the foundations of a vast Roman temple by William I – son of William the Conqueror – as a royal fort at the end of the 11th Century, Colchester Castle was the first of the great keeps built by the Normans in Europe. As such, it was a powerful statement on an impressive scale. Indeed, Colchester remains the largest Norman keep in Europe.
Colchester Castle was designed to present an impregnable front to invading forces but its first moment of historical note came in 1199, when King John’s powerful barons rebelled against the crown and took the castle. 16 years later, not long before John’s death. the crown reclaimed Colchester in the first Baron’s War and it remained a royal stronghold for the next four centuries.
4. Hylands House
The story of Hylands House is one of shifting ownership and ever-escalating ambitions. Built by a wealthy lawyer, Sir John Comyns in 1726 as an extravagant showpiece to display his status and wealth, Hylands House began its life as an elegant two-storey red brick building in Queen Anne style architecture. It then passed through the Comyns family until Cornelius Kortright purchased the estate in 1797 and commissioned the respected landscape architect Humphry Repton to redesign the gardens. But Kortright moved on in 1814, before fully realising his ambitious plans for the house.
Next up was, Pierre Cesar Labouchere, a Dutch born merchant banker, who completely redesigned the Queen Anne house, creating a symmetrical building encased in stucco, fronted by a huge neo-classical portico. His dramatic transformation also incorporated a pleasure garden, stable block and the installation of numerous classical statues throughout the interior.
The estate was further expanded in 1839 when the ironworks entrepreneur and MP for Harwich, John Attwood assumed ownership and decided that it wasn’t quite grand enough to reflect his status. He enlarged the house yet again and expanded the grounds, purchasing over 3,500 acres of additional land and privatising the road from Writtle to Margaretting that ran through the estate. Hylands continued to pass through a succession of ambitious owners until it final owner died in 1962 and the estate was purchased by the Chelmsford Borough Council, who restored the house and grounds and opened both to the public.
5. Clacton Pier
As every self-respecting English seaside resort must, Clacton-on-Sea is furnished with a fine Victorian pier. In fact, Clacton Pier is one of the finest examples you’ll find. And you don’t have to take our word for it – Clacton won Pier of the Year in 2020!
The pier’s history is inextricably linked to Clacton’s development as a popular seaside town in the 1870s. In fact, on 27 July 1871 it became the first building erected in the newly established resort of Clacton-on-Sea. In many ways Clacton’s pier is the foundational structure around which this much-loved Essex seaside town was built.
Inevitably, Clacton Pier has evolved to accommodate the shifting demands of Britain’s seaside day-trippers and now plays host to an array of noisy rides and attractions, but a distant echo of its original Victorian character remains.
6. Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge
Situated in Epping Forest, Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge is a wooden framed hunting grandstand that was built for Henry VIII in 1543. The building, which was known as Great Standing, was designed to provide a spot from which to observe the deer chase in Chingford. It’s a uniquely well-kept and extensively restored example of a Tudor hunting lodge that’s worth visiting for the building alone – and the splendid views across Epping – but the Lodge also offers fun and immersive Tudor-themed events and exhibitions throughout the year. You can even try on some Tudor costumes.
7. Naze Tower
Situated on an attractive stretch of Essex coastline, the Naze Tower stands proudly on the cliffs overlooking the sea. Originally known as Hanoverian Tower, it was built in 1720–21 by Trinity House (the official authority for lighthouses in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar), and was intended to work in conjunction with Walton Hall Tower to guide vessels through the Goldmer Gap.
Over the years the tower has had a variety of uses – in the eighteenth century it was a tea house, operated by the actress and aristocrats’ mistress, Martha Ray and it has served as lookout during various conflicts. These days Naze Tower is home to an art gallery and a small museum that explores the history of the area. There’s also a tea room and a viewing platform on the roof offering glorious panoramic views.
8. Hadleigh Castle
Sat atop a hillside overlooking the Thames estuary, the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, dominated by two striking drum towers, still project a powerful presence and it’s not hard to see why its location made it strategically important fortification during the Hundred Years War, when Edward III sought to defend the Thames estuary against French attacks. Indeed, Hadleight was one of Edward’s favourite residences and he oversaw significant extension work, including the erection of the twin drum towers that remain today alongside a barbican gate. His successors were less enthused and the castle gradually fell into disuse before being dismantled by Lord Riche in the 1550s.
9. Greensted Church, Ongar
Situated deep in the Essex countryside, Greensted Church is an ancient place of worship which has the distinction of being the oldest wooden church in the world and the oldest wooden building in Europe. Not much remains of the original Saxon building, which was built between 998 and 1063, except for the split oak tree trunks that form the nave.
Later additions include the chancel, constructed around 1500, and the tower which was added in the Stuart period. More extensive rebuilding was carried out in the 19th Century, when brickwork was added to the structure and the interior was embellished with ornate Victorian carvings, motifs and woodwork.
10. Harwich Redoubt Fort
Built in the 1800’s to defend Harwich and Essex from a Napoleonic invasion, Harwich Redoubt is a 180ft (60m) diameter circular fort that commands sweeping views across the harbour and estuary. The fort’s defensive credential are impressive: it mounted ten 24-pounder long guns and housed a regiment of 300 soldiers with sufficient food and stores to endure a lengthy siege. Over the years Harwich Redoubt was extensively remodelled to accommodate increasingly powerful weaponry including a, which was installed in the 1860s, and three enormous 12-ton RML (rifled muzzle loading) guns a decade later.
Part of the fort is now used as a military museum and battle re-enactments and other events are held during the summer months.