The Essex Way is a long-distance walk that winds through ancient woodland, gentle farmland, wildlife-rich marshland, and along meandering rivers to finish on the coast.
Starting from the market town of Epping, the Way cuts right through the heart of Essex, from southwest to northeast, to finish in the port town of Harwich, where the River Stour meets the North Sea. The official route is 82 miles (132 km) long. However, with a few short detours to some worthy sites, this Collection is 87.2 miles (140.3 km) in total.
If you think the Essex Way sounds akin to a certain well-known reality TV programme, think again. The Way crosses this pretty, peaceful, and three-quarters rural county on picturesque footpaths and green lanes for the most part, taking you through spellbinding scenery and many charming villages.
Wildlife is abundant on the route. Many species of bird thrive in the marshland along the Stour estuary and rare plants can be observed in the ancient pockets of woodland. Historical sites are plentiful too. With castle ruins, many beautiful Tudor buildings, Roman-style lighthouses, and countless Grade I-listed churches, all many hundreds of years old, this hike is brimming with culture and tradition.
This trail also takes you through the profoundly-picturesque Dedham Vale, fondly known as ‘Constable Country’. Hailed as one of England’s most beautiful lowland landscapes, John Constable immortalised the latter scenery along the Essex Way in his iconic 18th and 19th century Romantic paintings.
Highlights along the Way include: St Andrew's, said to be the oldest wooden church in the world; Coggeshall Grange Barn, one of the oldest timber-framed buildings in Europe; Paycockes House, a beautiful Tudor merchant house; Coggeshall village, which boasts nearly 200 listed buildings; the view of Constable’s ‘the Hay Wain’, where you can actually step into the scene of his most famous painting; Manningtree, which claims to be England's smallest town; and Dovercourt Lighthouses, built in the 17th century as an example of Roman lighthouses.
In this Collection, I split the route into seven stages, each averaging 12.5 miles (20.1 km). No stage is longer than 15 miles (24.1 km), though, and the walking is level and leisurely throughout. Of course, you can divide each stage into as many days as you are comfortable with. You can also walk any single stage, or a couple of stages. The route can be walked in either direction.
As the landscape is quite rural, accommodation can sometimes be patchy. However, there is advice on every stage where places to stay are limited . Public transport links are generally good, making it easy to tailor the route. As such, this is a good choice for seasoned walkers and those finding their long-distance feet.
Getting to the start and finish of the hike is really easy. The Way starts just outside Epping Underground Station, which has direct links into central London. Harwich Town train station is a two-minute walk from the end of the trail and has connecting services around the UK, typically via Manningtree.
The first stage visits the oldest wooden church in the world and explores an ancient woodland with rare marsh plants. With 11.1 miles (17.9 km) of distance, 400 feet (122 m) of uphill, and 425 feet (130 m) of downhill, this is a moderate hike that should ease you into the overall challenge nicely.Starting, very conveniently, just outside Epping Underground Station, the trail heads southeast out of town. When you reach the road, the trail runs northeast through farmland and rises gradually to Gernon Bushes Nature Reserve, a pocket of ancient woodland that is home to many rare marsh plants and flowers. You cross over the M11 and follow footpaths east through pleasant countryside to Greensted village. Here, you find what is said to be the oldest wooden church in the world, St Andrew's. According to Historic England, parts of the church have been dated to 845 AD.The trail continues east and reaches Chipping Ongar a short time later. With interesting architecture and a rich history, as well as plenty of food and drink opportunities, this pretty market town is perfectly-placed for a pit-stop.For the last few miles you hike northeast through fields, pass through Clark's Spring woodland, and continue to Willingale Road, on the outskirts of Fyfield. Here, simply head left into the village centre, where you find some accommodation and two pubs that serve food.
Stage 2 explores the remains of a 12th-century castle and makes a whistlestop at a Grade II-listed pub that was once owned by the ‘Firestarter’ and legendary Essex resident, the late Keith Flint, from the band Prodigy.Dialling-up the intensity a notch, this stage is 12.8 miles (20.6 km) long with 325 feet (99 m) of uphill and 400 feet (122 m) of downhill.From Fyfield, you follow quiet lanes and footpaths to Willingale, a small village with two Grade II-listed churches that are both many hundreds of years old. The trail then heads northeast through empty farmland to Farmbridge End, crosses the tiny River Can, and continues through pleasant countryside past Good Easter and Stagden Cross.A short step later, you reach the village of Pleshey, which is well-worth exploring. Here, you find the remains of Pleshey Castle, a 12th-century motte and bailey, and the Church of Holy Trinity, which has parts that date to 1394.If you fancy some food and drink in the village, be sure to check-out the Leather Bottle, a Grade II-listed pub that was once owned by the late Keith Flint. .The last stretch takes you alongside Walthambury Brook, past the reservoir, to finish in Great Waltham. Although you find a pub in the village, accommodation is limited. There is self-catering accommodation in Little Waltham, 1.6 miles (2.6 km) away, and Channels Lodge Hotel is 3.1 miles (5 km) away. Alternatively, if you walk 2.2 miles (3.5 km) south to Bloomfield Hospital, you can catch the 42/42A/42B bus service (cartogold.co.uk/essexpt/pdf/FE_42.pdf) or the 70 bus service (bustimes.org/services/70-chelmsford-great-leighs-braintree-coggeshall-co) which both run regularly into Chelmsford city centre, which has a great choice of accommodation, places to eat and drink, and shops.
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Expect peaceful countryside interspersed with sleepy villages and traditional country pubs that afford a real flavour of rural Essex on this hike. Leisurely from start to finish, this stage is 11.5 miles (18.5 km) long with 275 feet (84 m) of uphill and 300 feet (91 m) of downhill.From Great Waltham, you head through Deer Park (don’t expect to see herds, though — the last one recorded here was in the 19th century), cross the River Chelmer, and continue northeast through pretty countryside, crossing the occasional road.At Little Leighs, you pass St John the Evangelist church, which has 12th-century origins. Here, you make a near-u-turn and loosely follow the course of the River Ter to Fuller Street, where you find the Square and Compasses, a traditional country pub that is perfect for a pit-stop.The trail then heads south, crosses over the River Ter, skirts around Sandy Wood, and takes you along the lane through Gambles Green, Flack’s Green, and Terling, where you cross the Ter once again and continue north through farmland.On the outskirts of Fairstead village, you find St Mary’s, a beautiful Grade I-listed church that dates to the 11th century. Inside, you can observe wall paintings above the chancel that survive from the 13th century.You follow lanes for the next couple of miles before taking a footpath through fields, across the ford bridge, and alongside the River Brain into White Notley. As there is no accommodation in the village, continue along Station Road to White Notley station, which has trains every few minutes into Braintree town, which has places to stay, eat, and drink. For train times, visit:thetrainline.com/stations/white-notley.
History is abundant on this route, which visits one of Europe’s oldest timber-framed buildings, a stunning Tudor merchant house, the remains of an old abbey, and many historic churches.With 14.9 miles (24 km) of distance, 325 feet (99 m) of uphill and 375 feet (114 m) of downhill, this is a fairly challenging route. From White Notley, you hike through fields, cross under the railway line, and continue northeast to Cressing village. Here, you find All Saints Church, which is Grade I-listed and dates to the 12th century.The trail then winds through empty countryside to Coggeshall, a pretty town that boasts almost 200 listed buildings, including many beautiful timber-framed Tudor houses.If you have time, it is worth spending some time here to check-out the National Trust-owned Grange Barn, one of Europe's oldest timber-framed buildings, and Paycockes House, a grand Tudor merchant house. The ‘wool church’, St Peter ad Vincula, is also magnificent and there are a couple of decent pubs in the town.The Way then cuts northeast through farmland and small woodlands to Great Tey village, where you find the Grade I-listed Saint Barnabas Church. You follow lanes out of the village, cross the railway line, and then follow the course of the River Colne to finish in Fordstreet.Accommodation is not abundant at the finish. However, the Holiday Inn Colchester is 1.6 miles (2.6 km) away. You can also walk 1.3 miles (2.1 km) to Eight Ash Green and catch the 88 bus service (firstgroup.com/uploads/news-attach/Service%2088%20Colchester.pdf) into Colchester town centre, which has a good choice of accommodation, places to eat and drink, shops, and more.
This stage explores Grade I-listed churches in spellbinding scenery and takes you to one of England's most beautiful lowland landscapes.Pushing-up the intensity slightly from the previous stage, this hike is 15 miles (24.1 km) long with 400 feet (122 m) of uphill and 425 feet (130 m) of downhill.From Fordstreet, you follow the course of the River Colne to Cook’s Hall. Here, you take the lane to Old St Mary's Church, a Grade I-listed parish that has parts dating to the year 1000. You then head into the large village of West Bergholt, where you have 1 mile (1.6 km) of urban walking before cutting across fields to Horkesley Heath. The trail continues northeast to Boxted, where you find another pretty Grade I-listed church, St Peter’s, which dates to the 11th century. The Way takes you along quiet country lanes and footpaths through pleasant countryside to Langham, home to another treasured 14th-century church, St Mary’s. A while later, you cross over the A12 and briefly come to the banks of the River Stour — a stretch of water you will be seeing a lot more of — before veering away to Dedham, where this stage finishes.A little way out of the village, you find the Boathouse, a much-celebrated restaurant in picturesque scenery on the banks of the Stour. In fact, the scenery around here has been hailed as one of England's most beautiful lowland landscapes. In Dedham, you find a few places to stay, some other options for food and drink, a pub, cafe, and shops.
You are, quite literally, transported into a Constable painting on this stage, which takes you to the 'smallest town in England'.To make the overall itinerary work, this stage is a short-and-sweet 7.5 miles (12.1 km) long with 300 feet (91 m) of uphill and 325 feet (99 m) of downhill. If you fancy heading a little further, though, read on for a worthy extension.You start by heading south out of Dedham and, after a short time on Castle Hill Road, cut southeast through a patchwork of fields and small woodlands. A little while after crossing the railway line, the footpath winds round to meet Mill Lane. Here, it is well worth following the extension shown to see the view that John Constable captured in his iconic 1821 painting, ‘the Hay Wain’. Simply head left past Dedham Vale and over Dedham Old River for the view. The there-and-back extension adds 2.5 miles (4 km).If you fancy taking the extension further, continue to Flatford Bridge and follow the Stour Valley Path along the north side of the river to Cattawade. Then, take the footpath south next to the A137 and hike back along the other side of the river until you meet the St Edmund Way. This leads south to a lane, which links to the Essex Way. There is lots of wildlife and great views on the extension, which brings the hike total to 10.2 miles (16.4 km). From Mill Lane, take the footpath east through fields, cross Dedham Road, and skirt around the small woodland. A short-step later, you find St Mary’s, a pretty Grade I-listed church in peaceful surroundings.The trail then heads through pleasant countryside, crosses the A137 and winds into the centre of Manningtree, which claims to be England’s smallest town with 700 residents within 20 hectares. You find some accommodation in the town, plenty of places for food and drink, shops, and, of course, fine views over the River Stour.
The final stage takes you along the Stour Estuary and the Essex coastline, where you experience glorious salt marshes, serene woodlands, farmland, and sleepy villages all the way to Harwich.With 14.4 miles (23.2 km) of distance and an equal 425 feet (130 m) of uphill and downhill, the final stage is challenging but should feel leisurely enough.To begin, you follow the road out of Manningtree and soon pass Mistley Towers, two porticoed classical towers that were built in 1776 to stand at each end of the now-demolished Church of St Mary the Virgin.A short-step later, you take the footpath to the right, cross under the railway line and emerge into fields. The trail then heads east through Furze Hills woodland and winds through farmland back to the estuary.Here, you find Wrabness Nature Reserve, which boasts fine views over the Stour and stunning wildlife displays at all times of the year.The trail stays in sight of the water until Copperas Wood Nature Reserve, at which point it heads south through Ramsey and around Little Oakley to the Essex coastline. Along this stretch of coast, you pass the Dovercourt Lighthouses, which are scheduled monuments as they have guided ships since Roman times.For the last few miles, you follow the coastal path to Harwich and make an epic finish by High Lighthouse, which was built in 1818. You find a good choice of accommodation in Harwich, plenty of places to eat and drink, as well as shops and other attractions.