Mention Essex and the first thing that comes to mind wouldn’t be hiking. Sure there are no mountains, and it’s mainly flat, yet it’s one of the most unspoilt counties in England. The route can be done in either direction, taking around ten days, but I’m hoping to do it in six, walking from West to East.
Day 1 Epping to Salt’s Green 16 miles
I take the tube to the Epping, at the end of the Central line, and set out into the countryside. It’s raining heavily and this makes the path muddy and treacherous. I’m soon in vast fields of wheat, something I’ll see a lot of in the next few days, as well as beans, onions and apples.
Just before Ongar, Greensted has the oldest wooden church in the world, dating from 645 AD. This is the land of remarkable churches and later, in Willingale, there are two in the same churchyard, apparently catering for different parishes.
Day 2 Salt’s Green to Great Leighs 12.5 miles
Essex has a labyrinth of green lanes, dating from Saxon times, tunnelling through woodland, and I follow one to the historic village of Pleshey.
The castle here gets a mention in Shakespeare’s Richard II, but it’s long gone, just the mound and moat remain. Great Leighs has the world’s largest producer of cricket bats, fashioned from Willow plantations growing on Essex’s many riverbanks.
Day 3 Great Leighs to Coggleshall 15 miles
More fields of wheat lead to Terling where the windmill has had its sails trimmed. It’s now a fine house owned by a member of The Prodigy.
In the 18th century, there were around 285 working windmills but now only a handful remain. In Cressing, just off the route, two remarkable barns built by the Knights Templar in the 13th century have been restored, along with the Tudor walled garden. Coggeshall has its own version, 40m long, built for the monks of the abbey.
Day 4 Coggleshall to Great Horkesley 11.5 miles
Coggleshall marks the halfway point with an engraved stone, next to the remains of the abbey, now just the small chapel of St Nicolas and the Abbot’s lodging.
I press on to the Colne valley and discover a line of WW2 pillboxes built after Dunkirk to protect against German invasion. The path follows the pretty River Colne, at 36 miles the longest in Essex, to West Bergholt and then to Great Horkesley. The fields are full of poppies, the official symbol of Essex.
Day 5 Great Horkesley to Mistley 14 miles
After days of level walking, I begin to encounter some ups and downs. Passing Dedham Vale vineyard, which produces remarkably good wines, I’m soon into Constable Country.
On the banks of the River Stour the combination of light, water and dappled greenery are real live versions of his great works. The painter was born in Dedham and, predictably is a magnet for tourists. Still, it’s a good place to stop for a pint before I wind my way through Manningtree to the banks of the wide Stour estuary and Mistley.
Day 6 Mistley to Harwich 12 miles
The day begins with the distinctive aroma of malt. Mistley has been malting barley since the 17th century and now has the largest facility in the country. The path leads through the factory yard, then across farmland, to tiny Bradfield.
Soon it’s back on the estuary banks before heading south, past Ramsey with its windmill, to the saltmarshes by the sea. Dovercourt has a long line of beach huts and two distinctive iron lighthouses built in 1863. The huge cranes at Felixstowe loom on the horizon and I pass bathers before arriving at Harwich. A sign on the lighthouse tells me I’ve reached my final destination.
After six days of walking, I’ve had most of the path to myself, apart from the occasional dog walker and certainly no other hikers. That’s a shame as the route gives a glimpse of an unknown rural Essex, almost a snapshot of lost times, with its churches, ancient barns, abbeys, castles and windmills. Of course it’s mainly flat but that makes for wonderfully wide skies, the clouds billowing up from the horizon. Best of all are the myriad country pubs, always beckoning you in for refreshment.
NOTE: Although the route is reasonably well signed it makes sense to carry a guidebook and download a GPS track. Accommodation is on short supply on the route proper but Chelmsford, Braintree and Colchester are all easily accessible by bus or taxi.
Walking in Essex, published by Cicerone is an indispensable guide.
MORE INFO: Visit Essex has information about the county.
GET THERE: Greater Anglia has frequent train services to Harwich, Braintree and Colchester.
STAY: The County Hotel makes a comfortable base in Chelmsford with good food.
Panfield House is a fully serviced cottage in Braintree Centre.
For a touch of luxury, the Greyfriars Hotel is right in the centre of Colchester.
The Mistley Thorn in Mistley is directly on the route, has great rooms and an excellent restaurant.