Resorts like Southend-on-Sea have helped to give Essex a kiss-me-quick image, but away from the kitsch Alison Thomas finds a county full of wildlife, fantastic food and history
Remember, remember the 5th of November.” We certainly will. Last year we spent the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ treachery on holiday at Layer Marney, near Colchester in Essex, and by chance Land Rover chose the same date and venue for the launch of the latest Discovery, culminating in an impressive fireworks display. Standing by the French windows of our self-catering cottage we enjoyed our own private viewing of rockets, fountains, candles and wheels against the backdrop of the floodlit silhouette of Layer Marney Tower, the tallest Tudor gatehouse in England.
If our evening treat was a lucky coincidence, the views we enjoyed by day from our self-catering cottage had been carefully planned. Situated at the foot of a grassy avenue leading down from the tower, the Tea House at Layer Marney combines Edwardian elegance with contemporary chic and facilities to match, but almost a century ago it was a garden pavilion, created by Walter De Zoete, who bought the estate in 1910. “In his day, the field was landscaped and the butler used to wheel a trolley down through the terraced beds from the house,” explained current owners, Nick and Sheila Charrington. “The family took tea by the window and admired their historic home.”
There is rather a lot to admire. When Henry, first Lord Marney, was designing his family seat, near Colchester, he wanted to create something that would reflect his importance as Lord Privy Seal to Henry VIII. Inspired by the Italian Renaissance, he came up with a majestic palace adorned with elaborate brickwork and intricate terracotta moulding. The lofty eight-storey towers were intended to lead into an equally grand courtyard, but he died before he could realise his dream. In death as in life, he didn’t believe in half measures. On his tomb in the church next door, his effigy in black Cornish granite lies beneath an exquisitely-ornate terracotta canopy.
The gatehouse, farm and gardens at Layer Marney are open to the public from spring until autumn, but guests staying in the Tea House are free to wander at any time of year. A mediaeval timber-framed barn houses rare-breed livestock, while cattle, sheep and deer graze the surrounding parkland. There is a pond, a children’s playground and a wildlife trail through the estate and the Charringtons have restored ancient hedgerows, woodland and meadows. The Wildlife Trust has recorded 47 species of bird on the land.
Layer Marney Tower is just one of many attractions Essex has to offer; contrary to popular opinion, there is much more to the county than concrete sprawl and kiss-me-quick kitsch. Just a few miles away we pottered in the quiet streets of Coggeshall amidst splendid half-timbered houses built on the proceeds of the lucrative wool trade. Closer still, at Tiptree, we took tea and scones at the famous Wilkin & Sons jam factory and toured the museum, where a quirky collection of memorabilia charts the trials and triumphs of the celebrated family firm. Just beyond Colchester we were tempted by Beth Chatto’s garden masterpiece, once derelict wasteland, now a harmonious blend of colourful gravel beds, dramatic water features and enchanting woodland.
Colchester was the first Roman capital of Britain and a military stronghold in Norman times, and both eras collide in the 11th century castle, built on the vaults of a Roman temple with materials plundered from Roman ruins nearby. Today, its mighty keep houses an award-winning museum, where we enjoyed an action-packed tour of the city’s past from prehistoric times to the English Civil War.
Re-emerging into the spacious Victorian park that stretches down to the River Colne, we continued our journey through time. First we followed the Roman wall, re-entering the city by the Balkerne Gate. Then we strolled past Jumbo, a colossal Victorian water tower, before venturing into the Dutch Quarter, where we found a candy-coloured assortment of 16th century houses built by Flemish weavers fleeing religious persecution at home.
On a lighter note, this part of town later became home to the Taylor sisters, authors of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This is not Colchester's only connection with nursery folklore. Did you know that Old King Cole was the legendary founder of the city? Or that Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon, blasted from its perch on St Mary's Church spire by the Parliamentarians during the siege of 1648? Apparently no one could restore it, not even ‘all the King's horses and all the King's men' – or so the locals would have you believe.