At a time when holidaying in the UK has never been more popular and obvious destinations are very busy therefore, it can be rewarding to think outside the box when considering location and where to visit. There are many hidden gems of areas that are relatively off the beaten track and provide a great opportunity to try somewhere new, somewhere away from the madding crowds. One such area is the very southern end of Suffolk and the northeast part of Essex, probably defined by Dedham Vale in the north and Maldon in the south. This small area includes the absolute best of quintessential rural and coastal delights, all within easy driving and largely overlooked by modern development.
We started our recent visit at the northern end, the small Market Town of Sudbury sits, companionably on the River Stour and like many of the surrounding small towns hereabouts, owes its past success to the wool and textile industries. The tranquil river is suitably atmospheric as it meanders through this quiet but interesting town.
Image: The Gentle River Stour At Sudbury.
This is an area of outstanding timeless, old-world charm and small towns such as Lavenham, Clare and Long Melford are prime examples of prosperous textile backgrounds. Lavenham, with its beautiful and elegant Church is, perhaps, the jewel in the crown. It is noted for its Guildhall, Little Hall, 15th-century church, half-timbered medieval cottages, and circular walks. In the medieval period, it was among the twenty wealthiest settlements in England. Today, it is a popular day-trip destination for people from across the country along with another historic wool town in the area, Long Melford. The Guildhall is well worth visiting (National Trust), but just strolling around Lavenham is to be transported to a bygone time. The Swan Hotel has long held a fine reputation and is a magnificently preserved example of local architecture and charm.
Image: The Historic Guildhall At Lavenham.
Just a little south and west from Lavenham is Dedham Vale, the small rural area forever immortalised by John Constable. Although the commercially developed part of the landscape (National Trust) is extremely popular, the natural, almost soporific, character remains unspoiled. Flatford Mill which featured in the famous Haywain painting. The Mill and nearby Will Lott’s Cottage are much as Constable painted them. The adjacent small town of East Bergholt, the birthplace of Constable in 1776, has charm and character.
Image: The Enchanting Dedham Vale, Just One Small Corner.
Dedham Vale, perhaps surprisingly, is only a few miles from the sea. The attractive small town of Manningtree. The name “Manningtree” is derived from “many trees” and lies along the River Stour estuary. But with sea salt in the air, it’s time to journey just a little further south. Beyond the historic town of Colchester lies a fascinating section of Essex coastline, a quite small area bounded by Mersea Island to the East and Maldon in the West.
This often desolate and mysterious section of coastline, The Blackwater Estuary, offers endless opportunities for exploration. It’s the type of country that I always associate with another part of our rich cultural heritage. In Dickens Great Expectations, the sinister Magwitch frequented just this kind of territory, though I am well aware that the novel is set in Kent rather than Essex, compelling but slightly eerie especially on a grey, misty day!!
Mersea Island is divided into East and West Mersea, and the whole is accessed by a tidal causeway which can become flooded at higher tides. To the East, there are numerous static caravan sites, but West Mersea has more appeal to the casual traveller. Extremely popular with sailors and fishermen, West Mersea is little more than a random collection of nautical buildings and artifacts. Commercial fishing still occurs here with a strong emphasis on shellfish including the native oysters. They have been harvesting oysters here for more than 1000 years. It’s rather a hotch-potch of a village but no one would deny its charm and there are some excellent eating opportunities.
Situated at the mouth of the River Colne, which flows through Colchester, is the attractive small town of Wivenhoe, the sea dominates here with a shoreline full of character with many old cottages. Wivenhoe itself is not well known, but on the other side of the river can be found the small but quite delightful village of Rowhedge, which is even less well known. There is a great traditional atmosphere here, the Anchor pub lies directly on the river at the centre of the village and serves very good food. The rhythm of Rowhedge is dictated by the ebb and flow of the River Colne, the twice-daily tides are almost hypnotic as the river bed fills and empties. Rowhedge is well worth finding, a hidden gem.
Image: The River Colne At Rowhedge.
Always, one of my favourite things to do on holiday is to take a boat trip, sea, river, canal. It really doesn’t matter as long as the water is involved. There was a treat in store therefore when we visited the delightful small town of Maldon which sits on the Blackwater Estuary. The quay at Maldon is the base for several genuine traditional Thames Barges. The Thames sailing barge is a type of commercial sailing boat once common on the East Coast of Britain. The flat-bottomed barges with a shallow draught and leeboards were perfectly adapted to the Thames Estuary, with its shallow waters and narrow tributary rivers, and The Blackwater Estuary.
Image: The Quayside At Maldon.
The larger estuary barges, such as those moored at Maldon, were seaworthy craft working the Kent and Essex coasts while coasters also traded much further afield, to the north of England, the South Coast, the Bristol Channel and to continental European ports, but from Maldon, the main work was to and from The Port of London. Cargoes varied enormously: bricks, cement, hay, rubbish, sand, coal, grain, and gunpowder. Timber, bricks and hay were stacked on the deck, while cement and grain were carried loose in the hold.
It was a thrill and a privilege to be able to take a trip on one of these goliaths of a bygone age, the skipper of the boat told us that a typical journey carrying goods into London would take 2 days, weather depended as it was all wind power, no engines in those days, really hard work for the meager crew of 2.
Maldon itself is well worth a visit, the long main street contains many interesting local shops, good pubs and some handsome classical older buildings, there is even a traditional East London pie and mash shop. Maldon is one of the oldest recorded towns in Essex and a walk up the High Street to the crest of the town reveals many buildings whose brick facades conceal medieval timber frames. Perhaps the most striking building is Moot Hall, built in the 15th century for the D’Arcy family and most recently used as the council chambers, magistrates court, and police station.
Maldon's Market Hill is lined with many timber-framed buildings including the old workhouse and leads steeply down to the Quay. This area was once a thriving port and Maldon's wharves were kept busy unloading ships laden with timber and other materials. It is also the home of the old Maldon railway station building which has survived despite the railway being closed in 1964.
This characterful, historic, and fascinating part of the country is well worth finding, a hidden gem and will amply repay time spent in this part of the country which is resonant of– A DIFFERENT ERA IN TIME.