With over 14,000 listed buildings to its name, Essex is unusually well supplied with interesting architecture - of all shapes and sizes! Many of its most notable buildings are of military importance; mighty fortresses like Colchester Castle and Hedingham Castle, testaments to foreign power in a conquered country, and coastal forts at Tilbury and Harwich, built to repel invasion. Others are more purely decorative: the Jacobean splendour of Audley End, 16th century Ingatestone Hall and Layer Marney, whose magnificent Tudor gatehouse was built to outshine Hampton Court.
Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of kings and queens, visiting the best examples of period architecture in the county, or are simply looking for a relaxing spot with a historic backdrop, Essex has a great deal to offer.
Building on the past
Essex architecture through the ages
Among the most characteristic buildings of Essex are its vast medieval churches, many of which hold an architectural surprise or two like Home to the oldest wooden church in the world at Greensted, Little Braxted with its lavish Victorian interior and the medieval wall paintings at Copford.
The subsequent Tudor period saw the birth of many of the county’s great houses, built by nobility and those grown wealthy through trade. It was in this period also that Henry VIII built a series of forts to defend London and Harwich from invasion from Europe, the most distinguished architecturally of which is Tilbury Fort, whose magnificent water gate was added by Charles II.
A wealth of lesser known gems also abound in towns and villages throughout the county, from ornate timber-framed merchant’s houses, built with wealth from the wool trade, to relics of the county’s industrious past including maltings, weatherboarded mills and, more recently, factories, viaducts and power-generating stations.
The threat of invasion in the Napoleonic Wars saw the construction of a series of Martello Towers as well as the circular redoubt at Harwich. Other distinguished Victorian survivors include Colchester’s ‘Jumbo’, the largest Victorian water tower in England; the Mistley Towers, designed by Robert Adam and the octagonal Naze Tower, today an art gallery and tearoom. Rubbing shoulders with these are art deco treasures and striking cutting edge designs, which continue to evolve the face of Essex.
Among the most characteristic buildings of Essex are its vast medieval churches, many of which hold an architectural surprise or two. The subsequent Tudor period saw the birth of many of the county’s great houses, built by nobility and those grown wealthy through trade. A wealth of lesser known gems also abound in towns and villages throughout the county, from ornate timber-framed merchant’s houses, built with wealth from the wool trade, to relics of the county’s industrious past. Rubbing shoulders with these are art deco treasures and striking cutting edge designs, which continue to evolve the face of Essex.
Treasures left behind
Colchester's Roman remains are some of the earliest and most impressive in the country. Not only is it the oldest recorded town in Britain, it was also the first capital of the Roman Empire in Britain. Visit Colchester Castle and get an insight to the fascinating history of this town.
As Roman rule disintegrated so Othona fell to Saxon raids. When St Cedd arrived in 654, he built St Peter’s Chapel on the same remote site. One of Britain’s oldest churches, it still stands today, its simple interior entirely appropriate to its wild location.
The consequences of the Norman conquest are still visible. Castles were built, churches reconstructed, towns developed and hunting forests protected. Finest of the Norman castles is that at Hedingham, home of the de Vere family (Earls of Oxford).
Splendid houses to visit
Built to entertain kings, this grand Jacobean mansion is one of England’s most magnificent stately homes. Experience a real life period drama as you explore life above and below stairs at this decadent mansion. The authentic Victorian Service Wing, glorious gardens, stable block, the nursery suite with its authentic Victorian toys and intricate interiors are all waiting to be discovered.
This tallest Tudor Gatehouse in England is one of the finest examples of Tudor architecture. Built in the same year that Henry VIII met the French king, Francis I at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Henry stayed in the impressive tower in 1522. Climbing the 80ft tower’s 99 steps is well worth the effort, as the reward is a breath-taking view across the north of the county.
Rescued from ruin and steeped in history, Hylands House is a fascinating and beautifully restored Grade II* listed country house. Built in 1730 as a modest red brick Queen Anne style house, the house has changed considerably throughout its history. Visitors can now enjoy spectacular rooms and stunning views over the landscaped parkland.
More gems for you to explore
Step back some 400 years to the 16th century and the home of another knight of the realm, Sir William Petre, Secretary of State to four Tudor monarchs. Scions of the Petre family still live. Visitors can enjoy a fascinating tour of the hall’s eight principal rooms containing paintings, furniture and memorabilia accumulated over the centuries and wander in the gardens.
Cressing Temple Barns, the oldest timber-framed barn in the world, is a medieval moated farmstead once owned by the elite warrior monks, the Knights Templar. Founded in 1119 to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, they were granted the Cressing site in 1137 and it became the largest and most important estate in Essex.
An electrical fault in 1917 caused a fire that pretty much reduced this 18th century mansion to a burnt-out shell. A campaign to restore the fine Georgian mansion to its former glory is an on-going process. You can visit Copped Hall is follow their progress. The gardens are well worth a visit. Rock star Rod Stewart also lives in a property on the Copped Hall estate.