Essex family days out to enjoy
PUBLISHED: 09:18 21 July 2015 | UPDATED: 09:18 21 July 2015
As the school holidays arrive, parents and grandparents across the county will be making plans to keep the family amused for six weeks. To help you make the most of all that time together, come rain or shine, Adam Jones from Visit Essex has a selection of ideas for you
Where better to start than at the beach. Southend is perfect for parents with young children or teenagers. The seafront is seven miles long with some of the cleanest beaches in the UK. Although it is a town that developed during the Victorian era, Southend has avoided the tag of ‘faded seaside glamour’ due to major investment from a number of sources, so even the most demanding visitor will be pleasantly surprised.
Adventure Island is the UK’s number one free admission fun park and a Mecca for thrill-seekers of all ages. The park is famous for its mind-boggling number of rides and attractions, including the famous Rage rollercoaster, Archelon and Dragons Claw rides. Far gentler experiences can be enjoyed on the traditional American Whip, the Big Wheel and Lighthouse Slip. Adventure Inside is a new, multi-million pound centre packed with brand new rides and attractions in a colourful, indoor centre. Next door is Southend’s iconic pier, which also plays host to a wide variety of events throughout the year.
On warmer days, wander a little further down Eastern Esplanade and let the kids cool off in the fountains set into the wide pavement. Once they’ve dried off, there’s even more watery wonder to be marvelled at in the Sea-Life Adventure Aquarium. From an incredibly rare albino lobster to walking with sharks, there are more than 40 fascinating displays to discover.
With more than 2,000 years of turmoil, intrigue and not a little bloodshed along the way, history buffs are spoilt for choice throughout Essex.
During the Roman occupation, Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe, became forever associated with Essex, after her forces attacked the city of Camulodunum, now Colchester, and what was then the Roman capital of Britain.
The successive Norman invasion also left an indelible mark on the town, in the shape of its castle. Using the foundations of the Romans’ Temple of Claudius, William the Conqueror’s men built the largest keep ever built in Britain and today the castle reveals many fascinating layers of its history to visitors.
The magnificent Norman keep that forms Hedingham castle was constructed in 1140 by Aubrey De Vere II, whose father had fought alongside William during the invasion of 1066.
Down the years, the De Vere’s were witnesses to some of the great moments in our island’s story and Robert De Vere was one of the barons who played a vital role in bringing King John to seal Magna Carta in 1215. Further scions of the family would be lauded for their exploits in the Crusades, at Agincourt, the War of the Roses, the Battle of the Spurs and for standing alongside Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
The castle also hosts a series of events and its formal gardens offer a peaceful respite from the excitement of jousting tournaments, medieval sieges or shows.
Over at Stansted, Mountfitchet Castle is a faithful recreation of a wooden Norman motte and bailey defensive structure. The castle grounds also feature a Norman village that vividly brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of the Middle Ages.
Some of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe during the Middle Ages have owned Hadleigh Castle. Not to mention English kings. The romantic ruins of the former hunting base of Edward I and royal retreat of Edward III had once been an impressive fortress built to repel French invaders during the 100 Years War. In a succession of handovers, the castle was variously passed among the nobility from 1299; including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Margaret and Isabella of France. During Henry VIII’s reign, Hadleigh was gifted to Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr. Ironically, it had also, at one time, been under the possession of Aubrey De Vere. The beautiful Hadleigh Country Park surrounds the castle and affords superb views across the nearby Thames estuary.
Further down the Thames, towards London, is one of the most famous sites of Tudor history — Tilbury Fort. Built by her father, Elizabeth I famously rallied her forces here in the face of the oncoming Armada. Tilbury Fort offers a great day out for history-lovers to explore the site, including its magazine houses used to store gunpowder, creating the feel for what it was like to live there as one of the soldiers responsible for defending London.
Less than an hour’s drive away are the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey. Bursting with more than 300 years of explosive history, this once top secret location retells the science and drama behind the former ballistics base.
Until he met his Waterloo, literally, in 1815, Napoleon had posed a very real threat to invade our shores. The Jaywick Martello Tower, near Clacton, is a fine example of the defences built to repel French forces but offers a much warmer welcome to visitors than it would have done back in 1809. Similarly, the Harwich Redoubt fort is a lasting testimony to how Britons regarded the radical politics and bloody, social upheaval created by the French Revolution (begun in 1789).
Stow Maries Aerodrome, near Maldon, is the last surviving World War I airfield and was originally conceived to counter bombing raids from German Zeppelins and Gotha planes. Many of the original buildings have been faithfully restored to their original wartime condition. The airfield still plays host to visiting aircraft from the WWI era and the museum gives a fascinating insight into this important and now unique aspect of our heritage.
Just minutes away from the A12 is one of the most beautiful and unchanged corners of the county. In fact, the landscape that John Constable immortalised in paintings such as The Mill Stream, Boat-Building and The White Horse would still be familiar to him today.
Flatford and Dedham form the centre of Constable Country and are where he lived and worked. Dedham was also home to another one of Britain’s great painters, Sir Alfred Munnings. A visit to Castle House (Munnings’ home) is a must, especially if you share Munnings’ passion for horses and rural life.
A fascinating balance between the beauty of the natural world and man-made art can be explored at the Gibberd Gardens in Harlow. The eponymous attraction was originally created by Sir Frederick Gibberd, the principal town planner of the then new town, as a haven for his grandchildren. Today it remains a magical place for younger visitors.
Horticulturalists will adore the formal terraces, lawns, pools and avenues, romantic woodland glades and the multitude of streams which characterise the shady lower areas of the garden. In turn, art aficionados will be drawn to the extensive collection of modern sculpture and architectural pieces that Sir Frederick and Lady Gibberd acquired over their lifetime. Works by celebrated artists including August Rodin, Dame Barbara Hepworth, Sir Henry Moore and Dame Elizabeth Frink can be seen, along with a growing number of pieces by young British artists.
Appropriately located in the heart of the county, you’ll find real animal magic at three terrific destinations; Marsh Farm, Tropical Wings and Hanningfield Reservoir.
Marsh Farm in South Woodham Ferrers promises acres of fun for all the family, by virtue of having a wide variety of activities available every day. From tractor rides to pony grooming, watching birds of prey demonstrations to having a pretend flutter on goat racing, and, of course, meeting all the amazing birds and animals themselves, this is a wonderful place to interact with nature. It is also the official home of the much-loved TV and film star, Shaun the Sheep.
A short drive away — still in South Woodham Ferrers — is Tropical Wings. Not only does this family-run zoo have one of the finest tropical houses in the UK, filled with butterflies, but it is also home to beautiful, exotic creatures such as ring-tailed lemurs, porcupines, capybaras and parrots. Tropical Wings offers a number of encounters and experiences, including the chance to be a keeper for the day.
Describing the school holidays as Six Weeks of Summer — Six Fun Themes, Barleylands Farm Park and Craft Village in Billericay has a jam-packed programme of wacky races, plus chances to meet amazing, scary and very deadly creatures, go on a treasure hunt and laugh at crazy entertainers.
For lovers of more traditional country pursuits, Hanningfield Reservoir is an ideal place to stretch your legs and go for a ramble with the dog or forget your cares with a spot of fishing. Whether you’re a seasoned angler or a complete beginner, the fishing lodge will welcome you and help you while away the hours on the banks or in a boat, enjoying some of the best trout fishing in England.
A short ferry-ride from picturesque Burnham on Crouch is the RSPB’s Wallasea Island reserve. This landmark conservation project — the largest of its kind ever undertaken in Britain and Europe — has painstakingly returned farmland into a mosaic of mudflats and saltmarsh, unseen for hundreds of years. In turn, this has created a true haven for wildlife and keen birders alike. Star species include spoonbills, redshanks, avocets, black-tailed godwits and increasingly large flocks of brent geese.
You can also test your bird-spotting and botany skills in the county’s many country parks. They’re perfect destinations for a relaxing walk, picnic with friends and family, or even an adrenaline-fuelled mountain bike ride.
Little monkeys often go wild at the prospect of a trip to Colchester Zoo! Rated as one of the top 20 zoos in the world, it is a sanctuary for a number of endangered and vulnerable species including leopards, tigers and lions, bears, komodo dragons, noble orangutans and stunningly cute red pandas.
For more animal magnetism, Redwings is the UK’s largest horse sanctuary and Redwings Ada Cole, near Harlow, is home to the charity’s smallest residents, such as miniature Shetland foal Tucker and cuddlesome Tinkerbell. The visitor centre also has many celebrity residents including the King himself — yes, Elvis the rock ‘n’ roll pony. And don’t miss the wheeling and dealing donkeys, Del Boy and Rodney! The centre offers a fantastic free family day out with guided tours and interactive demonstrations.
Keen gardeners can keep young minds occupied at RHS Hyde Hall. Get the whole family stuck into the Great Garden Quest activities, flying a kite, strolling around the woodland walk or climbing the Higgledy Hide play tower, there really is something for everyone.
Combining the Great British loves of shopping, eating and having fun, Blake House Craft Centre, near Braintree, has it all. In fact, it has more. During the summer, Blake House is hosting a Tractor and Country Show, spectacular lawn-mower racing, a celebration of all things VW and the return of its famous Maize Maze Challenge. After all that excitement, you’ll be able to catch your breath wandering around the rustic shops, offering an eclectic range of goods — from handmade jewellery to fresh farm produce — or the first-class cooking in Timbers Restaurant.
If you have a passion for fashion and are a devil for designer labels, then Freeport Braintree is the place to bag a bargain. This premier shopping outlet in Essex has more than 85 stores, offering up to 60% off recommended retail prices daily. Labels such as Austin Reed, Jaeger, Lacoste and Radley have boutiques inside the pleasant, village-like centre.