Take a cultural tour of Essex? No, it's not a joke

Put aside your prejudices, says Sarah Barrell, and explore the rural heart of this much maligned county

It may be news to those in Gants Hill or Billericay but Essex has gone posh. And we don't mean "posh" as a prefix to Spice. We mean the kind of posh associated with muddy green wellies, chic converted heritage hotels and conservation-protected countryside. If you're looking for a bit of English quaint within dashing distance of the capital, forget the holy trinity of Home County boltholes - Sussex, Surrey or Kent - head to Essex. Or, at least, "Real Essex".

It may be news to those in Gants Hill or Billericay but Essex has gone posh. And we don't mean "posh" as a prefix to Spice. We mean the kind of posh associated with muddy green wellies, chic converted heritage hotels and conservation-protected countryside. If you're looking for a bit of English quaint within dashing distance of the capital, forget the holy trinity of Home County boltholes - Sussex, Surrey or Kent - head to Essex. Or, at least, "Real Essex".

"We needed to raise our profile," admits Essex councillor Peter Martin. "Essex has a high profile but perhaps not the one we want to promote." Out of such diplomatic understatements Real Essex was born - a savvy marketing campaign launched last year giving the county the kind of PR makeover that determinedly eschewed false nails, Outspan foundation and the mere mention of white leather. Despite the campaign being met with a certain amount of snorting derision from the press, one year on, with re-branding established and the general approval of the tourism industry, it seems that Essex is not, as stereotypes would have you believe, taking it lying down.

At an Essex Tourism press conference earlier this summer the talk was of conservation, property prices and favourable commuting times from London. Men in modestly smart suits and ladies with silk scarves clinked glasses and admired the setting: Grange Barn, the oldest surviving timber-framed barn in Europe, located at the edge of a postcard-perfect hamlet in the heart of the county. Outside, a noisy farm vehicle negotiated the access road on to a narrow street, a candy-coloured parade of wood-beamed houses, besides which runs a little river; the sign at its ford reads "watch out for ducks around the bend". Birds of a Feather these were not.

Teaming up with the National Trust, this year, Essex Tourism launched an itinerary aimed at pointing visitors towards the best of the county's heritage sites, Grange Barn among them. In an effort to lure sceptical weekenders out of the capital, the suggested route through Essex begins at Sutton House, on Homerton High Street in east London, a Tudor mansion built by Henry VIII' s courtier, Sir Ralph Sadleir. Heading north-east out of the capital, you quickly bypass Tudorbethan suburban mansions and stiletto-pockmarked pavements to arrive swiftly in what feels damn close to the heart of the English countryside. Travel the equivalent distance south out of London and you'd be stuck somewhere in Croydon's one-way system.

Follow the route to its conclusion at Sutton Hoo, an Anglo-Saxon burial ground and one of the most important archaeological sites in the UK, and you have to admit that London's most maligned Home County has a lot more to offer tourists than cheap designer outlet malls and even cheaper escape routes via Stansted airport. OK, so strictly speaking the first port of call is in east London and the last is just across the border into Suffolk but there's plenty in between.

Top of the list for those seeking rural solace within screaming distance of the city is Coggeshall, in Essex's Tudor heartland. A good base for weekending in Essex, Coggeshall is replete with antique shops (formerly patronised by the Lovejoy TV crew) and late medieval houses whose lavishly timbered façades date back to the Golden Fleece age of wool-trade wealth for which East Anglia was famed. The best remaining example of the wealth accumulated here in the Middle Ages is Paycocke's House, one of the National Trust' s few residential properties with a live-in custodian, Joanna Compton-Dando. Looking like Honor Blackman's demure daughter, Compton-Dando points out the family crests carved on the beams of this richly wood-panelled merchant's house, explaining the building's 15th-century heritage with cut-glass vowel sounds that are more It Girl than Essex Girl.

For a meal fit for a merchant, head for Coggeshall's Baumann's Brasserie, founded by the late Peter Langan and stellar chef Mark Baumann. Aside from the notoriously rude service he used to dish out, little has changed since Langan's days. Baumann has kept the menu to simple modern British dishes with a few exotic forays. (The cajun crayfish tails are a must-try.) Today's clientele is a mixed bunch but weekend nights still offer a little flash of Langan-style glam. Pack away your walking boots and get out your Maharishi trouser suit - the only way to compete with the gallery of garish oil paintings is to dress with a bit of Essex glitz.

Before following the National Trust trail further east out of Coggeshall, don't miss The Food Company, in nearby Marks Tey. The Essex equivalent of Selfridges food hall, this is a stylish repository of the best of regional Essex specialities, plus a smart selection of international delicacies. Look out for hand-made Tiptree jams, Carter's Colchester wine and Linden Lady chocolates.

Dedham Vale on the Suffolk-Essex border is by far the county's best rural base with a couple of superb restaurants and Essex's smartest boutique-style hotel, all under the same local-family umbrella. Walking and biking trails are the best way to explore this part of Constable country. At Flatford Mill on the county border you'll find Old Essex so easy to match up with numerous Constable paintings it seems that the slow-running Stour river, meadows and wooden farmhouses have altered little in 200 years. This may be quintessential English countryside, but like much of Essex it is refreshingly free of souvenir shops or tourist coaches.

A tour of maritime Essex is a great way to make a southwesterly loop back to the capital. First stop should be Mersea Island for top-notch oysters and uniquely wild, deserted coastlines. South along the coast, Bradwell-on-Sea offers further wild, marshy coastal walks with a Roman road leading to the isolated St Peter's Saxon chapel, still leaning bravely into the wind from its perch on the sea wall. Finish at the old yachting village of Burnham-on-Crouch for quayside walks, minus the kitsch-me-quick. You may be little more than paddling distance from Southend-on-Sea but, as with much of Real Essex, you couldn't be farther away.

A connoisseur's guide to the east

Where to stay

The White Hart Hotel, Coggeshall (01376 561654; www.oldenglish.co.uk) is a traditional English inn. Doubles from £85.

Milsoms, Dedham (01206 322795; www.talbooth.com) is the chicest of the Milsom family's clutch of hotels and restaurants. Doubles from £90 and dinner from £25.

Where to eat

Baumanms, Coggleshall (01376 561453, www.baumannsbrasserie.co.uk) offers three courses from £28.

The Food Company, Marks Tey (01206 214000, www.thefoodcompany.co.uk) offers lunch for less than £10.

The Company Shed, Mersea Island (01206 382700) is a fabulous little BYO oyster shed. Shellfish platter for two, £15.

The Bell Inn, Horndon-on-the-Hill (01375 642463; www.bell-inn.co.uk) is a 15th-century inn offering prizewinning gastro-pub fodder, with Sunday lunches from £13.95.

Where to find out more

For copies of Real Essex brochures and rural itineraries, contact Essex Tourism (0845 600 7373, www.realessex.co.uk) or Essex Country Parks (01245 437763). For more information on Sutton House and Sutton Hoo, contact the National Trust (0870 609 5388, www.nationaltrust.org.uk).

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