This article contains Tudor houses, big animals and fake Romans. The people you see on TOWIE might be fake but the history of Essex is all real, although some of the attractions have been set up purely for your entertainment.
I’m sure Essex has had a real surge in tourism since the birth of the TV juggernaut that is TOWIE, but Essex is more than The Sugar Hut, fake tan and Gemma Collins delivering unwanted apple pies to Mick in the most awkward piece of TV since Rachel Adedeji went flying on the X Factor… it’s so much more.
It’s home to Colchester, officially the oldest town in Britain and our capital once upon a time. It’s steeped in Roman history, British uprisings, Medieval strongholds and Tudor palaces. There’s enough to do there to keep kids (and big kids) entertained (and tired out) for long weekends and beyond. Here’s The Other Way In Essex…
Layer Marney Tower
This was my personal ‘kid in a sweet shop’ moment. I’m a huge Tudor geek and will happily devour anything Philippa Gregory has to say on the matter and ‘Tudor’ documentaries are my ‘go-to’ thing when there’s nothing on the telly. I mean if you really want to get into it, I don’t think the Tudors should have ever been on the throne and I’d love to see how different the country would be in the Plantagenet dynasty had continued but that’s a whole other thing…
Layer Marney tower in Layer Marney is the largest Tudor gatehouse in the world and due to the fact that the owners died before it could be finished, it’s pretty much in tact and exactly how it would have looked back then. There’s a model in one of the towers that shows you what the finished article would have looked like and it was intended to be a huge Italian palace. The building was started by Henry Marney (a father figure to and the head of Henry VIII’s household) and continued by his son John who unfortunately passed away with no male heirs. Henry VIII stayed there in 1522 in what is now the billiard room (third floor up in the left tower on the below photo), and his queen at the time (Katherine of Aragon – his stay here predates all the wife swapping) would have stayed on the floor above.
We were shown around by the current owner Sheila Carrington who absolutely knows her stuff and was able to teach me all sorts I’d never heard before. Her mother and father in law were actually married at the church in the grounds in the 50’s and then later went on to buy the whole estate which almost brought a tear to my eye when I read that. How romantic 😍
You can also go glamping in the grounds of the tower and believe me when I say, you’ve never seen glamping like it. There are 6 super-tents (named after each of Henry’s 6 queens) and inside they have flushing toilets, running water, dining tables, living areas and wood burning stoves. They are AMAZING.
What do you call a zoo which has only one breed of dog? A Shih Tzu, which Colchester Zoo definitely isn’t. Constantly vying for 1st place with Chester Zoo as best zoo in the the UK on Trip Advisor, Colchester has over 260 species to see and is set in 60 acres of beautiful parkland and lakes.
As you walk around the zoo there’s so much to do, especially for a family with kids. There’s plenty of play areas to try out including the indoor soft play area Jungle Tumble so the kids can unleash their wild side (and hopefully tire themselves out so they’ll actually sleep for a reasonable amount of time and give you a longed for lie in). You can learn more about the animals and see them up close by watching scheduled demonstrations, and the kids can quiz keepers about their favourite animals. Their most recent development is ‘Butterfly Glade’: a walk-through enclosure of free flying butterflies, expect butterflies to land on your bag, head, clothes – wherever. You’ll be able to get right up close to them.
Our personal favourites were definitely the giraffes. They live in a huge enclosure with ostriches an rhinos and they love to run around chasing the ostriches and winding up the rhinos. I don’t know, they just seemed dead happy! Honourable mention goes to the two Black and White Colobus Monkeys who got all the kids excited because they were ‘fighting’, only for a proper ‘ye da’ to say, “Come along kids, they’re definitely not fighting – they’re making up…” HAHA!
Colchester Zoo also offers a full calendar of events throughout the year including their summer holiday events, annual ‘spook-tacular’ Shriek Week in the October half term and the zoo’s Magic of Christmas events on selected dates throughout December. All of which are packed full of fab events for all the family. You can also buy an annual zoo pass that gives you unlimited visits throughout the year, which is a brilliant idea if you’ve got animal mad kids.
Built on the foundations of a Roman temple (told you Colchester was proper old), Colchester Castle is the largest Norman keep ever built in Europe (think around the 1100’s). You can follow in the footsteps of Roman soldiers, Norman invaders, the Witchfinder General and the devastation of Queen Boudicca. Boudicca is the original boss babe by the way; sick of the treatment of the Britons by Roman soldiers, she led an army of over 100,000 Iceni warriors and basically destroyed cities left right and centre, including the Roman temple in Colchester. Boom.
You can learn about some of the most important events in British history, spanning over 2000 years, in the most magnificent Castle. Much of the building is built from material from the ruins of the Roman Town. The castle itself houses an impressive collection of historical finds from in and around Colchester, as well as documenting, explaining and interpreting Colchester’s place in history. There is so much to discover for both the casual visitor and even more so for kids – this isn’t a traditional museum where everything is marked as ‘don’t touch’ – instead you’ll find signs everywhere saying ‘please touch’. You’re encouraged to explore the fascinating galleries and can get ‘hands on’ with everything from real Roman pottery and chain mail to shields and helmets – if you’re up for it, you can even dress up as a Roman solder (which of course my husband was all over) and ride in a computer simulated Roman chariot race. We explored the castle with a 5 month old who couldn’t care less like but we (my husband mainly) had the most fun. It’s a proper laugh and you learn so much too. We were watching University Challenge the other night (yeh we’ve gone full on old now) and a question on Colchester came up and we were able to answer; Camulodunum is its Roman name, just so you know.
A very happy husband 👆
There’s so much more to make Essex ‘reem’ than Sugar Hut 👌