Five Essex towns and cities to visit by rail, from Leigh-on-Sea to Chelmsford

Gone are the days when the mention of Essex meant a dismissive titter or eyeroll. The home county’s star is rising as it embraces its history and makes waves with exciting arts and food scenes. Investment is sprucing up faded, or previously overlooked, towns and cities – and tourists are taking note. Here are five well worth a visit this year, each of which has a railway station nearby.

Chelmsford

Interior de la Catedral de Chelmsford.
Chelmsford Cathedral is among the attractions (Photo: Javier Diez Porras/Getty)

Dubbed the “birthplace of radio” for its connections to Guglielmo Marconi, who opened the world’s first wireless factory here in 1899, Chelmsford really started to get its groove back when it gained city status in 2012. Scratch the surface and there’s loads to keep you for the day.

A cash injection has tarted up the high street, with the newish Bond Street bringing in smart shops and businesses, among them the Whitewall gallery (showing street, pop and contemporary art), and a gallery-style Tiptree tea room, where you can nip in for a cream tea with a dollop of Essex jam and stock up on fruity preserves and gin liqueurs. Going strong since the 11th century, the indoor market (Tuesday to Saturday), has fruit and veg, fresh fish and street food.

The city on the River Chelmer may have a modern veneer, but pockets of history remain. Look out for the handsome Grade II-listed Georgian Shire Hall, which you may recognise from the recent ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, and the Norman-rooted cathedral (hear it filled with song at Friday lunchtime concerts). After a mooch, book dinner at Taste of Italy, an independent Italian-run pizza bar that has been ranked as one of the country’s best.

More time? Visit the Hylands Estate for fresh air among ancient trees, well-tended Victorian gardens and a ramble to Hylands House, a neoclassical villa, which starred in Netflix smash The Crown. The Deli here makes a lovely stop-off for lunch or a coffee, and children can let off steam at the adventure castle playground and Go Ape.

Chelmsford railway station is served by Greater Anglia

Harwich

Battered by North Sea storms and waving across to Felixstowe, Harwich once had a reputation as a down-and-out port town at the butt end of Essex. But the winds of change are blowing, especially now Harwich Dovercourt is the focus of a multimillion-pound regeneration programme, set to re-energise the UK’s second-busiest passenger ferry port.

Go beyond the port and you’ll be hooked by the seaside town’s fascinating past: Harwich was home to Christopher Jones, captain of the mighty Mayflower, on which the Pilgrims travelled to the New World in 1620. Here, history run as deep as the briny blue, as you’ll discover on the Maritime Heritage Trail, which dives deep into nautical heritage, taking in the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum, the Lifeboat Museum, the 17th-century Treadwheel Crane, the imposing Redoubt Fort, erected to repel Napoleonic invasion, and the Barge Murals, where Thames barges were built up to 1930. The lanes of Old Harwich are prettier than you’d think, and it’s here you’ll find the Electric Palace, one of Britain’s oldest purpose-built cinemas.

For a breather, wander sand-and-shingle Dovercourt Bay and continue to the mudflats and marshes of Hamford Water National Nature Reserve, where you can spot dark-bellied brent geese in winter, and common and grey seals in spring and summer. Afterwards, you’ll be grateful for a seafood platter or plate of Colchester Rock Oysters at harbourside The Pier, built to resemble a Venetian palazzo in 1864. Stay the night in one of its sea-view rooms.

Harwich Town, Dovercourt and Harwich International railway stations are served by Greater Anglia

Colchester

Old houses on the banks of the waterway in Colchester, England.
Take a stroll along the waterways in Chelmsford (Photo: Getty)

Once known for rowdy squaddies and being a bit rough around the edges, Colchester city centre is set to get a major makeover thanks to a £40m investment. And rightly so: Colchester is special. This is both one of England’s oldest cities – Camulodunum became the first capital of Roman Britain in 4AD  – and also one of its newest (securing city status in 2022).

Stray beyond the station and you’ll find plenty to love, including a knockout castle that was the blueprint for the Tower of London. Centrepiece of the lovely Grade II-listed Castle Park, with its boating lake, Victorian bandstand and River Colne walks, the castle was built in 1076 on the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius. It’s home to Europe’s biggest intact Norman keep. A historic wander around town might take you along a circular walk skimming the Roman walls and medieval gates and to the Dutch Quarter, with its pretty line-up of pastel-painted, timber-framed houses. Look out for darker paving on Maidenburgh Street denoting the remains of a Roman theatre. For more insight, join a guided tour or get the ancient Colchester app.

For a bite to eat, go for a cream tea beneath Tudor beams at Tymperleys, former home of William Gilberd, physician to Elizabeth I. Otherwise, try the Church Street Tavern, a delightfully chilled, artsy brasserie lodged in an 18th-century house on narrow Church Street. The ingredient-led menu plays up local sourcing in dishes like Mersey native oysters with lemon and tabasco, and duck breast with leg-meat ravioli and salt-baked beetroot.

Colchester and Colchester town railway stations are served by Greater Anglia

Leigh-on-Sea

Essex folk can become a bit misty-eyed at the mention of Leigh-on-Sea; Southend-on-Sea’s posher little sister keeps 1,000 years of fishing heritage up her sleeve. Briny breezes and screeching gulls, the changing light and shifting tides of the Thames Estuary – this is a proper hit of the Essex coast, with a dash of gentrification. Leigh is less buckets, bingo halls and kiss-me-quick hats, more seafood platters and art galleries selling moody seascapes (check out Piece Gallery, Old Leigh Studios Gallery and Two Tree Gallery).

You want to head for Old Leigh, of course, with its cobbles and history. Here on Bell Wharf beach, you can dig your toes in the sand, watch the boats bring in the catch and scoff cockles (as well as shelled shrimps, winkles and jellied eels) at Osborne’s. Duck into one of the pubs like smuggler faves Ye Olde Smack and The Peterboat or, if the weather’s fine, sit on the deck by the water at The Boatyard, which rustles up fish and chips and Sunday roasts. Or score a table at rustic-chic Food, where the focus is on sustainability, seasonality and organic wines. The tasting menu plays up zero-waste ingredients in dishes such as local mallard with parsnip, beetroot, sprout tops and leg Bolognese, and raw cacao mousse with sea buckthorn.

Go for a sea-skimming hour’s walk east and you’ll hit Southend-on-Sea and its mile-long pier. Or stroll half an hour south instead to Two Tree Island Nature Reserve, a trail-laced mud and salt marsh haven for waders and wildfowl. In winter, listen out for honking dark-bellied brent geese that feed on the beds of eelgrass.

Leigh-on-Sea and Southend Central are served by Thameslink; Southend Victoria is served by Greater Anglia

Saffron Walden

Facade of old colorful terraced cottage houses with Cathedral tower visible in Saffron Walden, England
Find colourful cottages among the streets of Saffron Walden (Photo: Getty)

If you haven’t heard of Saffron Walden – so named for its link to the Tudor crocus trade – you’re missing a trick. The dinky market town has classic medieval looks, with wonky beams, half-timbered houses in chalk-box colours and some impressive ornamental plasterwork (pargeting) on the 14th-century, Grade I-listed Old Sun Inn. But the showstopper is St Mary the Virgin, the largest parish church in Essex, a Norman beauty with a soaring spire and 800 years of history to tap into.

If you’re escaping the city for the day, the calm, green spaces here are soul balm. Go for a wander around the hedge maze and rose garden at the free Bridge End Garden, designed by Quaker businessman Francis Gibson in 1840, then brush up on the local art scene at the Fry Art Gallery (reopening in spring 2024). Or swan around English Heritage Audley End House and Gardens, a grand Victorian manor plonked in Capability Brown-landscaped gardens. There’s tons here for kids, including a Victorian nursery and working stables with horses to pet.

For a bite to eat, stop by The Goat and Grass for gourmet salads and sarnies or stomp two miles out of town to Little Walden and beamed country pub The Crown Inn for a ploughman’s and pint of real ale. En route you could visit Saffron Grange vineyard for a glass of their fizz overlooking Essex vines.

Audley End is served by CrossCountry and Greater Anglia.