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As the 11th largest county in England, Essex is well-known for many things, including plenty of history, culture, and landmarks. Covering over 1,400 sq. miles, much of Essex is made up of rural countryside, with beautiful old villages and stunning landscapes alongside buzzing towns and one big city. And together with over 500 miles of coastline, there are plenty of things to do, making this county ideal for exploring and discovering its hidden gems.

Days out in Essex

Essex is packed with outstanding indoor and outdoor activities, attractions, and plenty of fun things to do for kids and families. With one city, the county town of Chelmsford, and the towns of Colchester, Harlow, Brentwood, and Basildon, you’ll find plenty to do on any family day out. And with its historic villages including Thaxted, Tillingham, Writtle, and Dedham, you’ll get to discover all of Essex’s history and heritage.

Among the most popular places to visit in the city of Chelmsford are the artefacts and displays from across the ages at the Chelmsford City Museum, as well as the architecture of the 15th-century Cathedral – one of the youngest in England.

But Essex’s towns play a big part in offering excellent activities, attractions and days out too. Colchester Zoo is a famed attraction with over 270 species in 60-acres of open parkland and the Castle Park Museum is a beautiful building that’s just as historic as the displays and artefacts inside. And don’t miss the Roman Circus and the wonderfully preserved Roman walls to discover more of Colchester’s Roman history.

Brentwood’s Thorndon Park has a staggering 500-acres of woodland, parkland, and wildlife to discover, as well as a Gruffalo Trail for the kids. And nearby Old Macdonald’s Farm and Fun Park will give everyone a full day of activities and things to do.

The town of Harlow features over 100 public sculptures, including works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Auguste Rodin. Try the longer sculpture cycling trail and find them all.

And don’t forget visits to two of the most famous seaside resorts in the country – Southend-on-Sea and Clacton-on-Sea – for traditional seaside fun and family attractions. Southend-on-Sea is home to the famous 1.3-mile pier, the Adventure Island theme park, and the Sealife Adventure aquarium.

Clacton-On-Sea sits on the Essex Sunshine Coast with stunning beaches and the largest pleasure pier in the UK.

Topography, geology, and climate

With over 70% of Essex consisting of open countryside and farmland, the county is firmly in the rural category, particularly in the north. These features, together with the expanse of coastline, and hillier ground in the south give Essex a diverse landscape with different land qualities and soil fertilities.

The north and west of the county have predominantly lime-rich soils ranging from heavier clay with some loam to mainly loam, all with medium to high fertility. The east, particularly around Colchester, features mildly acid heavy clay and loam soils. The south of the county, below Chelmsford, is mainly slowly permeable, base-rich loam and clay soils with coastal flats of loam and clay soils around the eastern sea peninsulas.

The Essex climate is warm and temperate – with summer high temperatures averaging around 22ºC (71ºF) and winter lows averaging around 7ºC (44ºF) – similar to surrounding home counties.

Annual rainfall across the county can vary, averaging around 620mm (25”), though this could be more over the higher ground to the south of the county, but is generally one of the driest English counties.

Essex’s parks and gardens

Among the wonderful countryside on display, Essex has an admirable collection of formal and informal gardens, parkland, and arboreta to enjoy. Whether they’re part of larger estate grounds by notable garden designers or just beautifully curated, tranquil spaces, each provides a relaxed and inspiring day out for keen gardeners and families alike.

North Essex

Bridge End Gardens in Saffron Walden, are a beautiful collection of Grade II listed formal gardens featuring a number of ‘rooms’. While the Walled garden, the wisteria-laden Long Border, and the formal rose garden, which provides bursts of colour and scent in the early summer, are incredibly popular. Don’t miss the sunken Dutch garden, which was famously replanted to a design sketched by Gertrude Jekyll when she visited in 1912.

Also in Saffron Walden, you’ll find Audley End House and Gardens. This 17th-century English Heritage property is surrounded by idyllic gardens designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and shows many trademark features including sweeping parkland, panoramic views and bold, natural plantings of trees and shrubs. Formal gardens, a pond garden and the organic kitchen garden also feature.

Marks Hall Gardens and Arboretum, in Coggeshall, near Braintree, is a 2,350-acre estate that includes wonderful lakeside gardens. but the famous Marks Hall 200-acre arboretum is the real highlight - featuring geographic zones with plants from all around the world, as well as two ancient, Heritage oak trees. There are three circular walks across the estate and surrounding woodland.

Near Colchester, the Beth Chatto Garden covers 7.5-acres, created by award-winning gardener, Beth Chatto. Once a barren landscape, the site has been transformed into a beautiful collection of garden rooms – from the Gravel garden and Mediterranean Scree garden to the Water, Woodland, and Resovoir gardens – all with spectacular plantings for colour and texture in every season.

South Essex

In southern Essex, there are two key destinations that should be at the top of your visiting list. Both within 10 miles of Chelmsford, they’re among the most popular and most visited attractions in Essex, offering a great day out for families and horticulturalists alike.

Not just an exceptional wedding venue, Hylands Estate offers over 570-acres of restored, open parkland – which has hosted the county’s famous V and Rize festivals in recent years – with lakes, woodland, and grasslands to explore. But it’s also home to the manicured and landscaped Pleasure gardens. Full of formal beds and borders, there’s an impressive display of seasonal plantings and a collection of roses. The neighbouring One World garden features include beautiful acers and magnolias among plenty of others.

Perhaps the jewel in the garden crown is the Hyde Hall RHS gardens. Covering over 365-acres, with views over the surrounding Essex hills and countryside, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Featuring a wide range of stunning gardens and styles, herbaceous borders, woodland, and meadows, as with any RHS garden, Hyde Hall is not to be missed, whatever the time of year.