A county with a questionable reputation, Essex has remained popular because of its proximity to London. But what many people forget is that in parts it is extremely picturesque and its climate is the best in Britain.
Parts of Essex are ‘shockingly expensive’, according to Jeremy Smallman from Jackson-Stops and Staff. The south of the county is just a stone’s throw from London and bankers and traders will spend quite literally a fortune on large period properties with land. Transport links to the capital are excellent – particularly the fast rail link to Liverpool Street and the M11 motorway, ensuring your bed is less than an hour away from your desk.
But Essex is at its heart a rural county – the flat, prarie-like central region is full of large farms and house prices are generally cheaper than in the south. ‘It has proper countryside,’ Mr Smallman confirms, ‘and farms of over 12,000 acres.’ North Essex, or ‘forgotten Essex’ is Constable country and prices are higher than in the centre. ‘There are plenty of nice houses but you have to route them out’ Mr Smallman warns.
Essex is also fringed by 350 miles of coastline – the longest in Britain and the county enjoys the highest summer temperatures and lowest rainfall. There are no less than nine spectacular country parks, from Cudmore Grove at the eastern end of Mersea Island, to Weald Country Park, once a deer park used by Abbots for hunting.
However, towns closer to London, such as Basildon, Brentwood and Chelmsford and their surrounding areas are now highly urbanised and the sprawling housing estates gives Essex a bad name.
This is perhaps why, by Home Counties standards, prices in the county are relatively low. But as Mr Smallman is keen to point out, the stigma associated with living there is largely underserved.
The current market is extremely price sensitive, according to Mr Smallman, with realistic price tags ensuring swift sales. A new dual-carriageway section on the A120 road which cuts across the county between Colchester and the M11 motorway to the east has made the commute easier for people working either in the City or in Canary Wharf and boosted prices across the county: ‘People who work in the City or Docklands would be mad to go anywhere else,’ said Mr Smallman. Paddy Pritchard-Gordon from Knight Frank agrees: ‘If they are city people who need to commute, Essex is ideal’.
This new road, which was completed summer 2004, has opened up areas such as Great Dunmow and Felsted, where buyers were previously put off by the lack of transport links. Prices were comparatively low in this area, towards the middle of the county around the A120, but are growing quickly.
Other sought after areas include ‘Constable country’, towards the north of the county near the Suffolk borders, with its beautiful rolling countryside, as well as unspoilt areas closer to London, such as Epping/Brentwood environs. The Dedham Vale, located to the north east of Colchester, is also very much in demand: ‘It has to be the most popular area in the county,’ said Mr Smallman. ‘It has good restaurants and excellent state and private schools.’
Areas along the M11 corridor are also popular. However the East of England Plan, which could see 478,000 new homes along the M11 corridor by 2021, and the planned expansion of Stansted Airport, which is located near Bishop’s Stortford just to the east of the M11, could have an adverse effect on rural property values.
Venturing further east towards the coast could also have its rewards. While there are several sailing centres along the coast, properties are not as expensive as they are inland because of the extra distance to the capital, and because the coastline is not considered as beautiful or dramatic as other areas. However, areas such as Mersea Island and Frinton-on-Sea are quiet and popular for buyers looking for second homes. Maldon possibly represents the ‘best of both worlds’, as it is a picturesque coastal town, and yet is within commutable distance from the capital.
‘There is alot of demand for property in Essex at present, because there is a short supply of good country houses in the area,’ said Mr Pritchard-Gordon, ‘Also the city bonuses have been excellent in 2006, ensuring London prices have risen sharply and people have decided to capitalise and move to the country’.
History and Culture
Although Chelmsford is now the county town, Colchester was a busy metropolis in Roman times, and was England’s first capital city and first recorded town. Remnants of this distinctive past remain within the walls of Colchester Castle, the largest Norman Castle Keep in Europe, and the Roman town wall.
Hidden away throughout the rest of the county are many quiet English villages whose ancient buildings also speak of the past, from Copford Church with its Byzantine frescoes to Layer Marney tower, the tallest Tudor gatehouse in England.
Essex’s magnificent countryside has inspired generations of Britain’s greatest artists and poets, from Constable and Tennyson to John Betjamin. Today you can still see the landscapes they painted and enjoy their work in local galleries such as the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, Sir Alfred Munnings Museum in Dedham and the Beecroft Art Gallery in Southend.
From the world’s longest pier at Southend-on-Sea to the cockle boats at Leigh-on-Sea, the Essex coast is traditionally British, but not as dramatic as other coastlines. However, the coastal towns, such as the Victorian seaside resort of Walton on the Naze and the quiet town of Frinton-on-Sea, are quiet and picturesque.
As befits the county with Britain’s longest coastline, seafood has a dominant presence on Essex’s menus. Oysters are a local delicacy, especially on Mersea Island, where there is also a vineyard.
From spectacular gardens in the grounds of large estates such as Hyland House, designed by the likes of Humphry Repton, Capability Brown, Beth Chatto and Sir Frederick Gibberd, to the myriad picturesque villages and open rolling countryside to the north, the Essex countryside is simply breathtaking.
Farmers’ markets occur regularly throughout the county, in towns such as Dedham, Colchester and Leigh-on-Sea, where visitors can sample the best local produce.
Chelmsford, Colchester, Saffron Walden, Basildon,Harlow, Frinton, Clacton-on-Sea, Southend-on-Sea, Brentwood, Braintree.
Train: Liverpool Street to Chelmsford 30min; Colchester, 50min; Audley End (Saffron Walden) 1 hr.
Car: Chelmsford is 33 miles from central London and Colchester 57 miles, via the A12; Saffron Walden is 40 miles, via the M11.
Brentwood School +44 (0)1277 243243, Co-educational, age range 7-18, day and boarding. www.brentwoodschool.co.uk
Felsted School +44 (0)1371 822 600. Co-educational, age range 4-18, day and boarding. www.felsted.org
New Hall School, Chelmsford +44(0)1245 467588. Co-educational, age range 4-18, day and boarding. www.newhallschool.co.uk
Essex has also retained its historic grammar schools, including:
Chelmsford County High School for Girls +44(0)1245 352592. Girls only, age range 11-18, day. www.cchs.co.uk
Colchester County High School for Girls +44(0)1206 576973. Girls only, age range 11-18, day. www.colchestergirls.essex.sch.uk
Colchester Royal Grammar School +44 0)1206 509100. Boys only (co-educational sixth form), age range 11-18, day and boarding. www.crgs.co.uk
King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford +44(0)1245 353510. Boys only (girls admitted in sixth-form), age range 11-18, day. www.kegswebsite.org.uk
Hunts: the Essex; the Essex Farmers’ and Union.
Yachting clubs: Colne Yacht Club; Royal Burnham Yacht Club; Royal Corinthian Yacht Club.
Fishing: rivers Blackwater, Colne and Lea; Hanningfield Reservoir.