Essex; home of birds, booze and boobs or so ITV docu-soap The Only Way Is Essex would have you believe. The series, which follows a cast of real life twenty-somethings, has prompted a spike in hotel bookings to the county. We dig deep to uncover what the real Essex has to offer.
With 900,000 viewers tuning into the show weekly, it’s little wonder the programme has sparked a surge in interest to Essex. As beauty-therapist-cum-wannabe-glamour-model Amy Childs puts it, it’s “the new LA”. A major hotel chain has jumped on the bandwagon, by offering fans a chance to live the lifestyle. Travelodge is offering 10,000 rooms across Essex from £19 a night, with a suggested itinerary of activities based on what the cast get up to.
Whilst low key isn’t in the show’s vocabulary (indeed the motto is more like ‘fake and fabulous’), the county isn’t just about shopping and clubbing. Beyond the glitz there’s also nature, history and culture to sample. Read World Travel Guide’s take on the real Essex, beyond the borders of Brentwood…
Clubs in Essex: Hangout at the Hut?
According to The Only Way Is Essex, the only place to be seen is the legendary Sugar Hut in Brentwood, a favourite location for boozin’, dancin’ and confrontin’ – it’s like, totally wicked, yeah?
Whilst some may appreciate the club’s cool baroque interiors and many chandeliers, others may find it a little too full of poseurs to be pleasant, and the vibe can sometimes verge on the pretentious. With a minimum spend of £500 a table, it’s not cheap either. It certainly attracts the bold and the beautiful, but there are other clubs that have a rather more laid-back appeal; less ‘see and be seen’, more ‘come and have a laugh’.
The Eclipse club in Brentwood is a more intimate venue, where the crowd is generally more down to earth, with music ranging from club classics to R & B and funky house on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Alternatively, for a cheap and cheerful night out, head to Basvegas (the strip of bars and clubs that populate Basildon’s town centre), where the drinks and dancing flow freely. Other popular Essex hotspots include Faces nightclub in Gants Hill, which is often frequented by celebrities, and Club 195, which, with its lit up dance floor, has a great disco vibe.
Shops in Essex: Where to splurge?
The Only Way Is Essex stars Kirk Norcross and Amy Childs have both been spotted around Lakeside shopping centre, and it’s no surprise – the mall is home to some of the biggest brands on the high street. There’s the Boardwalk where you’ll find most chain restaurants like Wagamama and Café Rouge and hairdressers and salons galore, perfect if you fancy a blowdry or a manicure. In essence, Lakeside is the perfect one-stop destination to Essex-ify yourself.
However, if you want to get away from the clichés and forge an independent path, why not take a trip further afield? Leigh-on-Sea, located right on the coast, is a picturesque enclave of independent boutiques. Antique shops, specialist delicatessens, small galleries and bookshops, and some clothes boutiques give the town a unique character, and provide visitors with an enjoyable experience, far removed from that of the identikit shopping mall. The town is also home to several spas; Leigh Sanctuary day spa offers treatments such as the Espa facial and St Tropez tanning. No vajazzling here but seeing as we don’t know anyone (Essex girl or not) who’s had one, perhaps that’s no great loss.
Activities in Essex: Essex’s ‘natural’ beauties?
Most of The Only Way is Essex is set in and around the footballer-friendly areas of Brentwood and Chigwell. Whilst each has their (somewhat plastic) charms, the rural delights of other towns are definitely worth a visit. And it seems more and more people think so, as according to figures from one hotel booking engine, which claims visits to Essex are up 140% on this time last year. Individual towns are also enjoying a boost, with internet searches for breaks in Chelmsford up by 211%.
Chelmsford is a picturesque town situated in the heart of the county, and its proximity to the countryside makes for a great holiday setting for those who enjoy nothing more than a long rambling walk before dinner. The Ramblers’ Association can help you find the best routes.
Alternatively tourists to London who are considering a day trip out of the capital should take a trip to one of Essex’s sandy beaches – Walton-on-the-Naze and Frinton-on-Sea are full of retro charm. Epping Forest is another great option for a day trip. This former royal forest covers 2,476 hectares (6,118 acres) and offers a range of leisure activities including rambling, orienteering and horse riding. It also marks the start of the Essex Way, a 129km-long (80 miles) countryside walk that leads through historic villages and idyllic landscapes, ending at the port of Harwich in the northeast.
Culture in Essex: Any highbrow hotspots?
Essex and culture – surely the two go together like oil and water? Well, you’d be forgiven for thinking so but whilst the idea of culture in The Only Way Is Essex may only stretch to the dubious honour of Essex Fashion Week, the Visit Essex tourist board demonstrates otherwise.
V Festival-goers may be familiar with Hylands Park – it is the site of the annual two-day festival. However, attached to the park is Hylands House, an 18th-century, Grade II-listed building, now fully restored to its majestic former glory and open to the public. Visitors can gawp at the neo-baroque gilded drawing room, and take in the spectacular grounds from the Repton room, before enjoying refreshments at Hutton’s Courtyard Café.
Further north, Colchester’s cultural organisation Firstsite’s new space is a modern hub for contemporary art, featuring exhibitions and ongoing projects. The multipurpose building, designed by Rafael Viñoly, houses exhibition spaces, an auditorium for talks, a gift shop and café, and special-purpose studios to support artists in residence and community group project work. Events such as Open House, where artists welcome the public into their studios, book readings, and ongoing exhibitions, make this an intriguing attraction for visitors.
For all the glitz and glamour that’s part of the appeal of The Only Way Is Essex, we think it’s a shame to miss out on the region’s other attractions. With tourism in the county beginning to boom in due to the show’s popularity, we say if you’re going to do Essex, the only way is Your Way.