Forget all you think you know about Essex! With far more credentials than TOWIE and fake tan, Essex is home to some of Europe’s most fascinating historical attractions. The Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans all crossed the North Sea to make their mark on the East Anglian county. As a result, Essex has so much history to offer, and we’ve whittled the list down to an impressive Top 5.
Colchester Castle is the jewel of Colchester’s crown. Officially the largest Norman keep in Europe, the castle was constructed on the foundations of the Temple of Claudius, built when Colchester (Camulodunon) was the first Roman capital of Britain. The Castle Museum contains a wealth of stunning artefacts from the fortification’s 2000-year history including some of the UK’s most detailed documentation of Roman life in Britain. Their interactive exhibits tackle Norman architecture, Roman medicine, witch finders and chariot racing – all of which took place in and around the castle. There are also expert led tours around the castle’s Roman vaults and the castle roof, which offers spectacular panoramic views of Colchester.
Think the Gatsby mansion of the Jacobean era and you come up with Audley End House and Gardens. This opulent stately home was considered the ‘prodigy house’ of the era. Located in Saffron Walden, Audley End is open to the public to wander the decadent great hall, state apartments, art collections, libraries and 18th century chapel. Additionally, children will particularly enjoy the authentic Victorian service wing and nursery adorned with Victorian toys. After exploring the house you can meet the resident horses in the stables and take a leisurely stroll around the 18th century gardens. Top things off with a traditional afternoon tea in the Servants Hall Tea Room. Audley End House is for those seeking the true period drama experience!
Norman architecture makes another prominent appearance on our list in the form of Hedingham Castle. The beautiful, 900-year-old Norman keep is situated in 160 acres of Georgian landscaped gardens and woodland. Owned by the Lindsay family, descendants of the original owners, Hedingham Castle remains steeped in historical tradition. Medieval siege re-enactments, jousting competitions and fairs are regularly held on site for those interested in experiencing some live history! Visitors are allowed access to all four floors of the castle with the opportunity to visit the sumptuous tapestry room and minstrels’ gallery famously used by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The castle and gardens are open from 2 April to 29 October.
Layer Marney Tower is the tallest Tudor gatehouse in England and an exquisite example of the lavish structures that sprung up in the early reign of Henry VIII. Along with its additional buildings and gardens, Layer Marney comes into the class of a Tudor palace. Built by the Marney Family, who have lived on site since 1166, the tower is 99 steps high and leads to stunning views of the Constable-esque Essex countryside. Despite its stature, the tower is technically unfinished and its conception and construction (and near collapse in the Great English Earthquake of 1884!) is discussed at length on guided tours around the tower.
A less conventional choice, the final attraction on our list is a real historical treasure tucked away in the Essex countryside. The chapel of St Peters is an Anglo-Celtic heirloom and believed to be the oldest intact Christian chapel in Britain and the 19th oldest building in the country. Built upon the ruins of the Roman forum of Othona in 645 AD, the chapel is a perfect example of humble early Christian architecture. Located in Bradwell-on-Sea this is not a heritage site per se, but perfect for those looking for something interesting to stop at whilst on a walk of the Essex countryside. Open to visitors all year round, the Chapel is fully active, holding weekly services and festivals in the summer.