The hidden secrets of England’s most underrated county
The Queen has agreed Southend in Essex will be granted city status, in honour of Sir David Amess, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced. The resort town on the Thames Estuary, with the longest pleasure pier in the world, is just one of many gems of my home county, which is so often (wrongly) overlooked by visitors, both domestic and international.
The recent reputation of Essex seems to be a construct of the media, most recently reality television, based on a parody of a small southern strip of the county. That strip, from Dagenham through Basildon to Southend, was formed far more by its proximity to London, especially the East End, than with rural East Anglia. This was especially true after whole new towns were built to house those Londoners rendered homeless by the Blitz.
However, before London even existed, Essex was the centre of Britain. Before Christ was born, the dominant Celtic tribe, the Trinovantes, had built their capital Camulodonum there, and after the Roman conquest there it remained.
It was razed to the ground in 60 AD by the neighbouring Queen of the Iceni, Boudicca, “avenging” – in her own words, according to the Roman historian Tacitus – “my lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters.” However, it was soon rebuilt and the impressive selection of ruins are spread throughout Britain’s oldest city, now named Colchester.
It wasn’t until over a century after the Romans had left, and 50 years after the last Roman Emperor had been deposed in 476 AD, that the area gained its name from its north German conquerors: the Kingdom of the East Saxons, or Ēastseaxe.
Saxon rule was famously replaced at Hastings in 1066. However, in Essex, the Danes took over 75 years before the Normans at Maldon. Which, being where, and when, my own Fiske ancestors arrived from Denmark, is where my tour of the county began.
Maldon is an interesting place to visit, but in terms of hospitality, I would recommend retracing the Viking longships’ journey ten miles back up the Blackwater River, to where it meets the North Sea, where you will find Mersea Island. The ubiquitous Maldon Sea Salt aside, this part of the world has been famous for one thing since Roman times: oysters. For the best of these, and other excellent seafood besides, I recommend foodie favourite: The Company Shed. The spartan furnishing and décor is perfectly summed up in the name, but on the upside it has the rare advantage of having a Bring Your Own Bottle license without charging corkage.
For something more refined, I would suggest heading inland to Dedham Vale, known as Constable Country for its association with the great rural landscape artist, on the Suffolk border. There you can enjoy the restaurant of the boutique hotel, Maison Talbooth, which has served the best fine dining in the county since my grandparents, who used to take me there, were alive. (I would note that the chef has changed.)
Of course, the real beauty of this temperate island lies in its rural villages, where you can find little gems that make this such a rewarding county to explore.
For example, the village of Copford, next to Marks Tey train station, is where you will find what the art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in his magisterial, The Buildings Of England, called “the most remarkable Norman parish church in the country”, covered from flagstone to roofbeam in stunning Byzantine wall paintings by Master Hugo of Bury St Edmonds in the early 12th century.
In rather gruesome contrast to these delicate beauties within, the door was once adorned with the flayed hide of a Viking caught pillaging the church. Fragments of the confirmed human skin remain.
(Pevsner’s entry on the village continues by describing the neighbouring manorial hall as “the beau idéal of what to the foreigner is an English landscape scene”. Copford Hall was home to a variety of both Fiskes and Harrisons and the village cricket club still plays its matches on the front lawn. The Alma pub next door is well worth a visit too.)
Another notable village, or rather grouping of villages, are the Layers, which get their fair mention in the Domesday Book.
The largest, Layer de la Haye, also has its ancient church and country pub, The Layer Fox, above the fireplace of which they exhibit a photo of the only test run for the famous RAF ‘Dam Busters’ raid that flooded the Ruhr Valley in Western Germany during the Second World War. It was performed on Abberton Reservoir just down the road, which is now 1,200 acres of the most important wildlife sanctuaries in Britain. Oddly, in the evenings you can also hear lions roaring, as Britain’s second zoo after London, Colchester, is barely three miles away.
From Layer de la Haye you can easily reach Layer Breton, with the excellent Hare & Hounds Pub on the large semi-wild village green, or carry on to Layer Marney, whose famous towers contain the grandest Tudor Gatehouse in Britain, which stood in for the haunted house in the recent film version of The Woman In Black.
Essex does grandeur as well as rustic: close by is Braxted Park, a rambling Queen Anne-style house set in 500 acres of sculpted parkland and lakes. Although the residence itself remains private, it opens itself up in various ways as a venue for hire, a shoot, a golf club, a cookery school, and, from the final weekend of this month, an outdoor ‘secret supper club’ with suitably tailored accommodation to match.
The house also has close links to the local polo club, England’s oldest, Silver Leys. Founded in 1894 in Bishop’s Stortford, just on the other bank of the border-river with Hertfordshire, it sits in the middle of 120 acres of the prettiest countryside in the East of England.
The club offers extensive polo facilities excelling at beginner level – for individuals and groups be they private or corporate – on its 200 horses, all under the management of Alec Banner-Eve. However, because of its scale, and the surrounding network of bridle paths through the landscape, it is as popular for country rides as it is the ‘King of Games’.
Finally, the crown of the county must go to one of the grandest and most opulent Jacobean stately homes in Britain. Audley End House is a few miles north of the polo club near Saffron Walden. Once a Benedictine Priory founded by the Earl of Essex, Henry VIII handed it to the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, from whom it passed to the Earls of Suffolk. Structurally it was polished in the 18th century by the finest in the trade: Robert Adam and Lancelot Brown.
It is while standing on any of its ornate bridges over the River Granta, and looking back over the Capability Brown-sculpted parkland to what is a palace in all but name, that one sees how undersold by its contemporary reputation Essex really is.