Everyone is familiar with the TV series The Only Way is Essex. Regardless of whether you’re a TOWIE fan, there’s no disputing the role the programme has had in shaping public opinion of the county. I’m pleased to say my experience of Essex is very different from the TV portrayal and, should you have an opportunity to visit, I hope yours will be too.
More than anything, I fell in love with the diversity of the county. There is so much more to Essex than beauty salons and nightclubs – although I’m not averse to the odd spa treatment or late night boogie! For me, what sealed it was the stunning countryside, the quaint towns and villages and the vast coastline.
Winter is looming, Christmas is just around the corner and half-term is already upon us. Now is the perfect time to book a break and gain some respite from the pressures of school and work. Here are my top tips for getting the most out this beautiful county by trying ‘Our Way Into Essex’.
Get the adrenaline pumping
Outdoor adventure is a great way to come together as a family, strengthen bonds and have a good laugh into the bargain.
Rope Runners are based at Kelvedon Hatch near to Ongar and Brentwood. They’re an all-weather adventure activity centre who offer a wealth of outdoor pastimes. Whether it’s a team building corporate day or a family excursion, you’re guaranteed to find an adrenaline-fuelled adventure to suit.
Although much more than a high ropes course, the centre does boast its share of high-wire thrills: six different courses are laid out over three different levels, complete with an exhilarating zip wire, fan descender and climbing wall.
Rope Runners also offers air rifle target shooting, archery, water zorbing, a tunnel adventure in a purpose-built tunnel system and orienteering. There’s also a paintball alley where you can get a taster of what paintballing is all about without the pain of being hit by those pesky pellets, an assault course, skate-barn and even an artificial ice rink.
For those who take their adrenaline fixes seriously, Kelvedon Hatch is home to one of Essex’s oldest obstacle and adventure courses. There is a selection of races you can choose to take part in, varying in distance and difficulty. One thing that’s guaranteed for all is a wet, muddy and challenging adventure.
Oh, and you can also take a tour of the nuclear bunker that can be found on the site.
Can’t decide which of these activities you want to partake in? Then book a multi-activity day or wristband session and prepare to get that adrenaline pumping!Stay in Ongar
A world of steam
For something a little more sedate but still sure to appeal to all ages, Epping Ongar Railway will take you on an unforgettable journey. This is the longest heritage railway in Essex and the closest one to London. In keeping with the era, start your journey in a vintage bus that will pick you up outside Epping underground station and stop at period railway stations along the line. From there, steam and diesel-hauled heritage trains wait to take you on a journey of discovery.
You can explore your surroundings from the stations. Ongar’s gift shop is a mine of information – the walks booklet is a must for those who want to discover the local area on foot. There are several short walks including one written by the local history society, which provides fascinating facts on the venerable buildings which make up the beautiful market town of Chipping Ongar, along with a walk to the oldest wooden church in the world, Greenstead Church.
This half-term there will be a distinctly spooky feel to the trains and stations. Dare you ride the Ghost Train? Hugely popular last year and back by demand, this event will take place on the 30th and 31st October. Visitors will be encouraged to dress up in their best Halloween gear,and will be treated to displays by Epping Forest Hawk and Owl Sanctuary, apple-bobbing, face-painting and more. There will be themed goody bags and prizes for the best dressed on each train. If you’re planning to attend, book tickets as soon as possible.
December brings festive fun to the town; Santa rides start at North Weald where adults can enjoy mulled wine whilst youngsters sup a soft drink and seasonal mince pie. Sit back and enjoy the leisurely trip along the line. Santa will chat with all of the children and of course he’ll be bearing gifts.
Whether you’re visiting to attend a special event or are planning your own itinerary, Epping Ongar Railway will not disappoint.Stay in Epping
A day on the farm
From historic trains and pretty villages to farm animals and crafty shops: Barleylands Farm Park and Craft Village is on the outskirts of Billericay and is an all-weather attraction that will appeal to visitors of all ages.
The Farm Park is an animal sanctuary where you can get up close with the creatures via special hands-on sessions in their enclosures. There’s loads to see and take part in with an animal village, red squirrel enclosure, imperial birds of prey academy, tractor rides, indoor and outdoor play areas and a hands-on discovery centre. You’ll leave bursting with newfound knowledge and buzzing from a thoroughly enjoyable day out.
Over the coming months there are several special events: Half-term brings Pumpkin Fest, spooky fun and a free pumpkin to take home. It runs from 27th – 31st October.
Following on nicely is Spooky Nights, two evenings full of Halloween family fun. Fearful frights await those who enter Boo Barn where there is a Haze Maze (rated 12a), trick and treating, disco dancing and mini fairground rides along with slippery snakes and creepy crawly encounters. It promises to be an unearthly extravaganza of epic proportions. 30th and 31st October.
Christmas time promises an equally magical theme but without the all the frights. Santa will be setting up his grotto from the 29th of November – make sure you remember your wish list.
The craft village is replete with over 60 different crafts; browse the different studios and watch the craftsmen at work. Whether you’re looking to buy or simply browse, it’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two.
I’ve been speaking to some other Essex experts: Visit Essex are great at letting visitors know exactly what they can expect during their trip and are a trove of information. They’ve provided me with plenty more ideas for family days out.
The Time Machine at the Leisurezone Harlow supplies a fusion of science and history. Kids and adults alike will be captivated by the interactive galleries; explore the human body, challenge your brain with puzzles and investigate the world of inventions, physics and forces. The highlight is The Pit, with shows awash with scientific chaos. This is the stuff that kids’ dreams are made of; expect loud explosions and some very excitable children.
For more explosive fun, check out the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey. The history of gunpowder and rocket propellants is told through interactive displays, film and exhibitions that will take you on a journey spanning 300 years.
Visit the Armoury where there are over 200 historic firearms, while the Rocket Vault showcases some of the secret rockets that were developed in Waltham Abbey. You can also take part in hair-raising experiments in Professor Nitrates’ Mad Lab. Tours are available either by military vehicle or land train, taking you past a series explosive and intriguing locations.
I think that’s enough to be going on with for now – and not a spray-tan salon or night club in sight! Enjoy your visit to Essex; while you’re there, perhaps you can draw up your very own TOWIE list crammed with unmissable attractions.
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Half-term, Halloween and Christmas fun in EssexClick here
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