Icons of Essex

PUBLISHED: 17:31 07 August 2009 | UPDATED: 16:10 20 February 2013

Audley End House

Audley End House

Have you ever tried to put your finger on what exactly makes Essex so special? Here Essex Life brings together just ten highlights from the county and asks, is this what makes our county unique?

Country Houses
Grand country houses are littered across the county as a testimony to the popularity of Essex as a place for the great and the good to hold court though the centuries. Perhaps the most well-known of these stately homes in Essex is Audley End House near Saffron Walden. After King Henry VIII gave Walden Abbey to Sir Thomas Audley it was slowly transformed into a great mansion and even today it remains as one of England's most distinguished country homes with more than 30 lavishly decorated rooms to enjoy and explore. Since it was built in 1730, Chelmsford's Hylands House has had 12 different owners but was
most recently completely restored under the ownership of Chelmsford Borough Council.

Constable Country spans the Stour Valley and is world-renowned as the birthplace and artistic playground of painter John Constable. What is most striking about this area of remarkable natural beauty is how little it has changed since it was committed to canvas in many of Constable's most dramatic landscape pieces. Ancient Epping Forest is a reminder of how the county was once covered by woodland. Now described as the lungs of London, it offers respite on the edge of the City and a refuge of peaceful tranquillity. These idyllic destinations are easily forgotten by those that don't consider Essex as a picturesque county, but for those in the know, they are just a small selection from the spectacular
scenery in Essex.

Colchester Castle is one of the country's most significant historical sites. As the capital of Roman Britain, the town of Colchester has experienced devastation by Boudica, invasion by the Normans and siege during the English Civil War. Famously the largest keep ever built by the Normans, Colchester Castle was constructed on the Roman temple of Claudius and is now a museum dedicated to the unique history of Colchester and the rest of the county.
Hedingham Castle's Norman keep was built in the 12th century by Aubrey de Vere. Visited by King Henry VII, King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, the castle features a magnificent banqueting hall which is spanned by a 28-foot arch, one of the largest Norman arches in England. Today the castle is owned by descendents of the original de Vere family and hosts numerous family fun days, jousting
tournaments and even weddings.

The Essex coast
Our glorious coastline is surely one of the county's most striking features. The fabulous seascapes available along the 360 miles of coastline within the Essex borders have offered inspiration to artists and authors as well as walkers, cyclists or anyone who enjoys the great outdoors. Accommodating some of the UK's most celebrated seaside resorts, numerous key sailing centres and a variety of internationally-important habitats for wildlife, the Essex coast genuinely offers something for everyone. Unsurprisingly, this maritime heritage has played a key role in shaping the destiny of our county and the people who live there, while its striking beauty provides an attractive backdrop to life in Essex.

Harnessing the power of the wind through the operation of windmills dates back as far as the 12th century and yet these iconic buildings still provide romanticism in the countryside of Essex even today. Upminster, Bocking, Raleigh and Ayethorpe mills all offer a view back through time in their picturesque surroundings. More than 40 windmills remain across Essex, one of the most charming being Mountnessing Windmill. Built in 1807, records show that a windmill has existed on that site since 1477. After a brief spell of inactivity, it was repaired in 1937 as a memorial to King George VI, whose coronation was in that year.

In addition to its varied collection of beautiful church architecture, Essex is also home to some of the country's most historically-important churches. The church of St Peter-in-the-wall at Bradwell on Sea, built in 654AD, was the first church to be built by St Cedd of Lindisfarne as part of his mission to bring Christianity to the East Saxons (Essex). Today the church still stands as the oldest remaining church in regular use in England and is still a sight of pilgrimage. Greensted Church, in Greensted near Chipping Ongar, is the oldest wooden church in the world, and probably the oldest wooden building in Europe still standing, albeit only in part. Archaeological evidence suggests that, before there was a permanent structure, there may well have been a church, or holy place, on the site dating back perhaps as far as the 4th century.
A church has existed on the site of Chelmsford Cathedral for the past 800 years, but it wasn't until 1914 that it became a cathedral when the Diocese of Chelmsford was created to meet the needs of the growing population across Essex and east of London.

With its unusual climate, Essex has been a home to innovative horticulturists for many years. From the distinguished Saffron Walden botanist George Stacey Gibson to the inspired plantswoman Beth Chatto, Essex people have led the way with their green fingers. Beth Chatto began creating her famous garden in Elmstead Market near Colchester in 1960 when the site was just an overgrown wasteland. Particularly impressive is the drought-resistant gravel garden which has never been artificially watered since its creation during 1991. Beth Chatto's experiment to show how plants can thrive despite the region's very low average rainfall has been a ground-breaking success. Other horticultural highlights in Essex include the Victorian Kitchen Garden at Audley End House, Sir Gibberd's Garden in Harlow and RHS Hyde Hall in Rettendon near Chelmsford.

Essex Smacks
The cutter-rigged fishing vessel known as the Essex smack is an iconic image from the county's rich sailing heritage. Sailing smacks evolved through many centuries, being built, owned and fished from small ports along the rivers Colne, Blackwater, Crouch and Roach, as well as from Harwich and Leigh on Sea. The sails were usually red ochre in colour, which made them a picturesque sight in large numbers. Mersea sailor Reuben Frost is the proud owner of, Boadicea, a 30foot, 12-and-a-half ton Essex oyster smack which was built in Maldon in 1808. Boadicea has been in his family for the last 70 years and is thought to be the oldest boat in the world that is still regularly sailed.

Adding to the drama of its famous coastline, Essex also has no less than 30 islands incorporated within its borders - boasting more than any other English county. Off shore outposts of Essex include Bridgemarsh, Canvey, Cindery, Cobmarsh, Foulness, Great Cob, Havengore, Horsey, Lower Horse, Mersea, Rushley, Skippers, Two Tree and Wallasea. Foulness Island is the fourth largest island by area off the coast of England, while Canvey Island is the fourth most highly populated island in English waters. Mersea Island also has a claim to fame as the most easterly permanently inhabited island off the English coast.

SEASIDE piers are synonymous with British coastal resorts and Essex boosts some of the most unique, not only in the UK, but in the world. Built in 1830, Southend Pier is the longest pier in the world stretching out to sea more than 1.3 miles. This classic landmark has a long-standing legacy, having survived two world wars, numerous fires and the impact of the boat MV Kingsabbey crashing in to it severing the pier head from the rest of the pier and creating a 70-foot gap. A rebuilt pier at Walton on the Naze was the second-longest in the UK when it was opened in 1895. Even today Southend's and Walton's piers, as well as Clacton Pier, remain a central part of any day beside the seaside in these Essex resorts.

Latest from the Essex Life