How to have a wholesome weekend in Essex
'Wholesome' might not be the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Essex, but Essex isn't just full of tanning booths and tacky nightclubs; it also has some beautiful countryside and great walking routes. Bordering Kent and London, Essex has pretty much always been my neighbouring county, yet I had never really explored it. Several of my friends went to university there, so I'd seen some of the nightlife, and I'd been to V Festival a couple of times, but I had never thought of Essex as a good hiking and camping destination. That was until I was researching places to go camping for Chris's 30th birthday in Summer 2017.
We were living in London at the time and wanted to organise a weekend away camping with friends, somewhere we could camp with a fire pit so we could cook over it. We were limited to London's neighbouring counties as none of us could get a day off work to travel. I started searching for campsites within driving distance of London that allowed fires (which it turns out is not many) and stumbled across Rushbanks Farm. It was perfect, they were right in the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, they rented out fire pits, and they had a river passing through the campsite which you could canoe down to the local country pub!
We booked everything online and the Rushbanks team were very organised and friendly, but they informed us that unfortunately they only had one canoe left, which we wouldn't all be able to fit in. Nevermind; we decided we'd find a nice circular walk instead. Our friends had hired a car, so picked us up after work on a Friday and we all drove together. We arrived as it was getting dark, pitched our tent and headed out to the local supermarket to buy food, drink and firewood.
There is nothing better than a weekend camping with friends. Being able to build a campfire and spend the evening staring into the flames contemplating life; it's so mesmerising and calming.
We sat quietly for most of our first evening, just enjoying each other's company without the need to talk. We were all tired from a long day's work and had spent an hour chatting and singing along to the radio on our drive, so none of us had much energy left for conversation. That was fine though; it's nice to be with friends without needing to constantly say something. Once the fire had burnt down we went to bed.
I never sleep particularly well when camping and always wake up as soon as the sun rises, so I've accepted this now and get up early. Our friends were still sleeping when we got up, so we made ourselves coffees and planned the day whilst we waited for them to rise. Chris worked in the coffee industry for years and makes THE BEST coffee. He had brought his Cafflano with him (check them out; they're great for camping!) and made us freshly ground coffee. The smell drifted through the campsite and soon woke our friends, who peered out of their tent towards the source of the smell.
Once we'd finished our breakfast we agreed on a walking route along the side of the river towards a pub, where we'd aim to stop for lunch.
There are lots of beautiful walks in Essex and some lovely country pubs.
Our walk took us along the Essex/Suffolk border through the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We followed the river and watched families canoe past us. Although it would have been fun to canoe, we actually saw a lot more on foot and had the chance to stop and explore places in more detail. We passed through a church graveyard, corn fields, woodlands and meadows. The scenery and was lovely.
After walking for around two hours we found a country pub by the side of the river. We arrived just in time for lunch and spent a couple of hours enjoying our beers in the sun before we started our return journey back to the campsite.
One thing England does exceptionally well is it's country pubs. Sitting in a pub garden in the Summer with a cold drink is great. It's even better when you stumble across a pub that has an ale festival on and live music playing in the garden.
The band were made up of three middle-aged men who were probably quite cool once upon a time, but now they were playing pop-rock covers that didn't quite suit them. Still, the music was catchy and the audience all seemed to be having fun. That's the thing with pub festivals, the band doesn't have to be particularly good as long as they're playing songs people can sing and dance to. And if they're terrible, at least it gives people something to laugh at.
The walk back to the campsite felt a lot longer than our outward journey and we got a bit lost, which didn't help. After wandering around trying to find a path in the right direction, we eventually got back on track and found a rather interesting woodland with a strange hide-out and a rope swing into a small lake. No-one else seemed to be around, so Chris decided to go for a swim in his underwear. "You have to swim on your 30th Birthday!" Do you?!
Another great thing about England is Pimms. No Summer would be complete without it. We found a lovely glass jug in the supermarket and had stocked up on ice cubes, fruit, Pimms and lemonade; all the key ingredients. As soon as we returned to camp we prepared our drinks and started to get our fire going so we could cook dinner over it. It's no good trying to cook over a newly lit fire because your food will burn instantly in the flames, so like a BBQ, it's best to wait for around an hour for the flames to die down before attempting to cook.
We are all big fans of the card game Exploding Kittens, so we played a couple of rounds of this before trying Bears Vs Babies, another excellent game by the same company. These are great adult games that are stupidly funny and very simple to play. After an hour of giggling our fire was ready to cook food on.
Cooking over a fire pit feels so wholesome. Being able to eat outside and keep warm by an open fire is such a simple pleasure and one of the greatest joys of Summer. Too many people can't even build a fire nowadays.
Spending a night lying on the ground staring up at the stars makes you realise how small and insignificant you are. But it should also remind you that your mistakes and regrets and just as insignificant. They mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. I love looking at stars and wondering whether they still exist. Star-gazing is something I took for granted when I was a child. I thought everyone could see the stars. It wasn't until I moved to the city that I realised what I'd lost. Smog, light pollution, clouds... London is a terrible place to get into astronomy.
We'd been told that there was going to be a meteor shower that night, but had spent the day doubting that we'd see anything through the clouds. By some kind of miracle, the clouds cleared as soon as it got dark and we had a perfect view of the stars. We saw so many shooting stars; it was amazing! I didn't even try and get a photo of them; we were too busy shouting, "there's another one!".
We all went to bed feeling happy and fulfilled that night. The next morning we had to check out of the campsite, so we packed up and drove to McDonalds for breakfast. Gross, I know... We had decided to spend the day at the beach before heading back to London, so we went to Clacton-on-Sea.
Clacton-on-Sea isn't my favourite coastal town, but it's a quintessentially British seaside resort and has a decent stretch of sandy beach. Sandy beaches are basically giant sand-pits and therefore remind me of childhood, of building castles and eating ice cream from a cone.
The beach brought out a childish playfulness in the boys, who swam out to sea in a race to see who could get the furthest. It looked far too cold for my liking, but Chris enjoyed his second birthday swim.
No trip to a British seaside town would be complete without a walk along the pier. The pier at Clacton-on-Sea is a stereotypical mix of funfair rides, food and drink stands, slot machines and way too many seagulls. We didn't stay for very long, just long enough to buy various seafood, doughnuts and ice cream before hitting the road to travel home. Overall it was a great weekend away from the city, which left us feeling refreshed and energised. We're definitely going to return to Essex again in the future!
Where would you recommend visiting in Essex? Leave your comments below!
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