PUBLISHED: 11:10 26 May 2015 | UPDATED: 11:10 26 May 2015
Rum coves, salty old sea dogs and enough blue to make a sailor's trousers. Adam Jones goes on a journey along the county's 350 miles of coastal delights
With two airports at either end of the county, there’s every reason to nip over to Europe for a cheeky weekend city-break or a week in the continental countryside. But then, like toast and baked beans or water and spaniels, nothing goes better with us Brits than a day beside the seaside.
Whether you’re a lover of wild places or busy beaches with amenities galore, Essex is the perfect place for a trip to the coast. You’ll be spoilt for choice too, as the county boasts one of the largest coastlines in Britain. At over 580kms long, there’s plenty to see and do, from Harwich in the north to Leigh on Sea in the south.
Ironically, it was the buttoned-up Victorians who were the first to truly embrace the idea of heading out to the beach for a spot of fun and relaxation, and their legacy survives in the form of towns like Clacton, Frinton and Walton on the Naze. Indeed, the ‘Sunshine Coast’ boasts two of the finest beaches in the country. West Beach at Clacton is every inch a traditional sandy beach with a pier. It is perfect for families with young children, as it has gently shelving sand that runs down to the water’s edge. Nearby, is the Pavilion Fun Park and an excellent choice of bars, cafes and restaurants. Parents will also be assured by the town’s child-safety wristband scheme for those who get lost on the beach.
A little further up the coast road sits Jaywick Sands and its Martello Tower. Built as a defence during the Napoleonic Wars, the tower is now an arts and crafts gallery and overlooks a large, crescent-shaped beach.
Walton enjoys some three miles of sandy beaches and the Naze itself, red sandstone cliffs formed in the Ice Age, is a fossil-hunters paradise. The iconic Naze Tower was built in the 1720s as a navigational aid for passing ships, but today it is an art gallery and café. According to Trip Advisor, Walton’s beach ranks as excellent. With the pier (Britain’s second-longest) and the pretty beach huts adding to the ambience.
It has been said that if Clacton was our equivalent to France’s Nice, Frinton would be Monaco. The esplanade is bare, save for a fine, sandy beach and Victorian-style beach huts. This is the legacy of Sir Richard Powell Cooper who, 100 years ago, oversaw Frinton’s development. His vision starkly contrasted with those of the burghers of neighbouring towns and to this day, Frinton offers a far more serene seaside experience. Couples also enjoy the town’s High Street, which is jam-packed with delightful boutiques, delis and cafes. Famously there is just the one pub which, in keeping with the rest of the town, is delightful.
Harwich, famous for its port, may not immediately spring to mind when considering a day in the dunes. However, this charming, historic town really does reward the more intrepid day-tripper.
Harwich itself has some fascinating places to visit, from The Mayflower Project’s ongoing recreation of the famous ship that took the Pilgrim Fathers to America, to the Ha’Penny Pier Museum, Electric Palace Cinema and Redoubt Fort. Nearby, the Pier Hotel is a fabulous hotel and restaurant.
Nearby, Dovercourt Beach is one of the best in all Essex. Awarded Blue-Flag status, it possesses two beautiful, cast iron lighthouses.
For those who like their coastal escapes to be a little more (whisper it) secret, then Wrabness is a must. This sleepy village, west of Harwich, is a haven for artists, nature lovers and sailors. The beach is a mixture of sand and shingle with a collection of quirky — and in some cases, very large — beach huts standing sentry over it. This is an ideal destination for a romantic picnic with a loved one or a tranquil place to take a stroll with the dog. The celebrated artist Grayson Perry controversially built the House for Essex at Wrabness. The chapel-inspired design has a fairytale quality and is reminiscent of Dali and Gaudi’s architecture in Spain. Unsurprisingly then, it has become a tourist attraction in its own right, although this has upset some of the locals. It overlooks the beach and Stour estuary and can even be hired as a holiday home by the night.
Another charming riverside location with a touch of the seaside about it is the appropriately-named Brightlingsea. Don’t be fooled by its riverside location, though. Although the town sits on the mouth of the River Colne, Brightlingsea has excellent sandy beaches, colourful beach huts and plenty of opportunities for a family day out.
On warmer days, a dip in the art-deco lido will be a memorable treat. Originally built in 1933, Brightlingsea’s open-air swimming pool is one of the few remaining lidos still in use in the UK. The pool comprises a 15m children’s pool and a 50m main swimming pool, with a 2m diving pit located in the deep end.
There are also a number of charming walks along the seawalls, offering ramblers and birdwatchers the opportunity to enjoy the diverse flora and fauna that abound around this beautiful corner of the Essex Sunshine Coast.
Fans of history and the macabre will be enchanted by Mistley and Manningtree. Both are synonymous with the infamous Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. His reign of terror flourished during the English Civil War and was centred in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.
A plan to turn the bustling port into a spa town during the Georgian era ultimately failed, but still left an indelible impression on the village. The haunting Mistley Towers are all that remains of a church designed by Robert Adam and the Mistley Thorn is a superb restaurant with rooms. Overlooking the waterfront, the kitchen serves a mouth-watering choice of dishes using locally-sourced meat, fish and ingredients from the surrounding sea to one side and land to the other.
What they lack in beaches, both Mistley and Manningtree more than make up for with plenty to see and do. Even if that means simply sitting down with a glass of something tasty, a plate of nibbley-gorgeousness and admiring the view.
In contrast, Mersea Island has beaches that will delight everyone. West Mersea’s beach is a mixture of sand and pebbles that is popular with both day-trippers and locals. The water quality is excellent — just ask seventh-generation oyster fisherman Richard Haward, who’s family also own and run the Company Shed restaurant on the island — and there are other facilities to make this a great destination for a brilliant day out.
The beaches of East Mersea are open, sandy and beautiful. Surprisingly, they aren’t as populous on high days and holidays as their westerly counterparts, making them ideal for those who prefer a quieter time beside the sea. Cudmore Grove is a vast grassy area, which is ideal for walking in or throwing out a big tartan rug and plotting up for a picnic.
Of course, no guide to the county’s coastline is complete without mention of Canvey Island, Leigh on Sea and Southend on Sea. The southernmost beaches in the county offer what one American visitor recently described as the most ‘full on’ seaside experience.
Canvey’s two principal beaches are Thorney Bay and Concord. Thorney Bay is small, sheltered and sandy. Behind it is a large, grassed area with a play park, which some parents will find is welcome relief once the charm of making sandcastles has lost its lustre. Although the sand quality does ensure excellent mini fortresses!
The larger Concord beach features a tidal pool for younger children to paddle in and is close to the island’s seafront shops, cafes and promenade. It is worth making the trip alone for the Labworth Restaurant. A stunning 1930s building, designed by Ove Arup, who went on to help create the Sydney Opera House, the Labworth enjoys panoramic views over the Thames Estuary, with a menu reflecting its closeness to the sea.
Upmarket Leigh on Sea’s Bell Wharf beach is located by its characterful old town. The cobbled main street, traditional weather-boarded houses and cockle sheds all add to Old Leigh’s charm. It also has some great pubs and restaurants, plus a gallery and up the steep, winding lanes of the cliffs, Leigh itself is a bustling, cosmopolitan town.
Though small, Bell Wharf beach is clean with golden, soft sand. You can enjoy a lazy day here, watching the little fishing boats come and go, or the super ships gliding by on the estuary.
Southend on Sea possesses a staggering six miles of beaches. The closest one to Southend’s iconic pier is Three Shells Beach. Compact but kept scrupulously clean and well-presented, it is a magnet to holidaymakers during the summer. It has a tidal pool and is close to all the delights this famous seaside town has to offer including Adventure Island, the legendary pier (the world’s longest pleasure pier), the High Street and cafes, shops and amusements. It’s the perfect spot for anyone who wants to swim or paddle. Three Shells Beach is cleaned daily and family amenities include a shower and play equipment.
A Southend ritual, especially on fine, sunny days, is ‘having a Rossi’ or brunch in one of the cafes overlooking the seafront in Westcliff. The former is the name of the local ice cream producer which gives its name to an almost unchanged 1950s ice cream parlour-cum-coffee bar nestling below the Cliffs Pavilion theatre. The terrace of cafes, collectively known as The Arches, tempts customers in with a wide range of classic, British soul food. The Water’s Edge is renowned for its homemade salt beef and lattes, while Coastal Bite offers everything from a high-quality full English breakfast, to steaks and fresh, locally-caught fish. Over the road, Westcliff’s beaches are clean and expansive and the water is so clean that oysters have returned.
If you head down the Eastern esplanade, you’ll have the choice of the superb beaches in Thorpe bay and Shoeburyness. The latter is a Blue Flag-winning beach consisting of sand, shingle and mud. The promenade is lined with colourful beach huts behind and there are large grassed areas that can be used for a picnic or to walk your pooch. Famous for its water sports, this area is very popular for sailing, jet skiing, windsurfing and kitesurfing.
In Shoebury you’ll find East Beach. A combination of a huge expanse of grass, complete with barbecue stations and a sandy beach. The area is perfect for those who want to spread out and enjoy a sense of space around them and adrenaline junkies, as East Beach is also home to the Essex Kitesurf School.
Wherever you choose to go, the warm welcome you will receive is second to none. The county is also among the warmest and driest in the UK and, as my grandmother would say, ‘If there’s enough blue to make a sailor’s trousers, it won’t rain’. And even if it does, you’ll return home with a sunny disposition.