Monday, November 20, 2017
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Award winning travel writer JOHN TREW sings the praises of oft-derided Essex, with its well-tended countryside and charming Disneyesque villages...

YOU WON’T believe it when I tell you that I have just spent a delightful break in Essex. This is an English county that gets a totally undeserved negative Press by snooty columnists and TV programmers for some reason. I was really enchanted by the well-tended countryside and Disneyesque villages we passed through on the 90 minute journey en route from Stansted Airport to Colchester.

Why Colchester? Well, my wife/driver/photographer Dr Karen Trew had important business at the University of Essex campus there so I was mainly left to my own devices for a couple of days. Perfect!

I had brought our SatNav from home and rigged it up in our hire-car, but it turned out to be useless and we overshot our destination – the WIVENHOE COUNTY HOTEL which is actually inside the extensive grounds of the University, and not on the periphery as I had imagined. What a place! What a find! It’s certainly one of the best hotels we’ve stayed in the past year.

Surrounded by lakes, streams, pretty parkland and marvellous woods full of cork oak trees planted by the wealthy founder in the 18th-century, Wivenhoe House has been restored and extended by the University as a luxury hotel. It is used as a training facility by Hospitality students under the guidance of professional management and top-class chefs. The enthusiasm of the young staff is one of the hotel’s greatest assets.

It reminded me of the can-do-anything attitudes of the teenage trainees we enjoyed many years ago as regular guests in the Killybegs Hotel managed by CERT, the former catering industry training board in the South. One of the local staff used to take me harbour fishing on the evening tide, so as I could enjoy sweet mackerel fillets for breakfast… Back to the Wivenhoe – the Full English breakfast was a real joy, followed by toast covered in famous Tiptree jams, made down the road in the village of the same name with soft-fruits harvested in Essex berry-farms. Alas, at dinner in the hotel’s stylish restaurant there were no Colchester native flat oysters from the nearby oyster-beds of Mersea which we were told were well worth a visit in summer. The following night we had a lovely meal at MUSSI’S in the city centre, following a trawl through a couple of characteristic pubs.

Our top-floor accommodation in the Wivenhoe was absolutely superb – a spacious en suite room furnished in traditional country-house style with expensive drapes and carpeting. As we are both Mac users and fans, the sight of our first-ever 26in Apple iMac Tv Console was a treat. It competed for our attention with the panoramic views from the windows of manicured lawns and busy university buildings. Wivenhoe House is the perfect base for exploring Colchester plus the coast and countryside of East Essex.


COLCHESTER is the oldest recorded habitation in Britain. I read that among the ancient artefacts of its CASTLE MUSEUM which I intended to browse for an hour but managed to spend a whole enthralling morning. I’m sorry to say that you won’t be able to follow in my footsteps for a year or two because it has been closed since last month for a much-needed makeover. I hope it will be as successful as the ULSTER MUSEUM’S refurbishment which has given it a new lease of life. I have been recruited as a volunteer tour-guide there, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Other central Colchester attractions I enjoyed include HOLLYTREES, a folksy museum packed with WWII memorabilia, Victorian toys and a magnificent Doll’s House, and MINORIES a gallery/shop/café appealing to art students and culture vultures like me.

By far the most impressive attraction is its newest; FIRSTSITE – in spite of its silly name, it’s a world-class multi-million art complex to compare with any new ones I have visited. The building itself in the middle of Colchester is worth finding; its metal cladding has the Wow! factor which started with the Guggenheim in Bilbao and which reaches its zenith with the thrusting prows of our own new Titanic Belfast structure.

Inside, the Firstsight shop was a revelation -- loads of local crafts, artefacts and books plus the usual 'pocket-money' stuff for school-groups. I loved it and spent £40 quid! The restaurant was another eye-opener -- great local produce prepared with flair. What about the art on show? The severely sloping walls of the building will probably restrict the kind of artworks to be displayed, but did not affect the exhibition I visited of retro wallpapers, posters, ceramics etc etc by Hammer Prints which was immensely satisfying. Eastern England is very privileged to have such a venue for meetings, movies,exhibitions and workshops.

On the outskirts of this compact city is its most popular attraction – apart from the celebrated COLCHESTER ZOO which I didn’t have time for – namely the BETH CHATTO GARDENS. Her creations are in a former five-acre wasteland which she has been transforming since 1960. Beth’s work and books are well-known among viewers of Gardeners’ World. Even at this time of year it is a revelation to see what horticultural miracles can be achieved; we loved the couple of hours we wandered among the lakes, woodlands and the famous gravel beds leading to a lovely tea-room.


TO SAVE MONEY, we booked a hire-car for our trip to Colchester, not from one of the well-known hirers, but a little discount firm we found on the internet; it was based in a hotel lobby miles away from Stansted Airport. Picking up the almost-new vehicle was easy enough after embarking into the countryside on a shuttle-bus. Returning it in the dark proved a nightmare. We got caught taking a series of wrong turnings off the Motorway to London and lost an ill-tempered hour driving around unfamiliar fields. Never again will I go to a hire company I never heard of, even though it costs an extra tenner a day. You have been warned.


I HAVE a confession to make which may result in my incarceration in a Brussels prison, so here goes: One of our local councillors sent me his annual newsletter. He’s same guy who urges us not to waste scarce resources – apart from his own glossy paper, presumably.

He cheerfully informed us that our local pond is having a makeover paid for through some European Union fund that will “enhance its biodiversity”. Now, my Dictionary of Useless Euro-Jargon defines ‘biodiversity’ as “The number, variety and appropriateness of organisms in a specified area.”

Oh dear. I doubt if the experts who are doing the Euro-Audit on the pond will find the bucketful of alien goldfish originating in China I once dumped in it to be “appropriate” to a lake in County Down. I know a man who was threatened by the DoE for moving a couple of newts from one garden to another, so I reckon I’ll face jail for inflicting guppies and shibunkins on native waters.

Here’s what happened: We were going to the USA on an extended stay and I thought it would be more humane to scoop the goldfish from our tiny water feature and set them free in the pond up the road.

As I was preparing to empty the fish from my bucket one by one using a child’s net on a bamboo stick, a wee man with a dog misunderstood the situation. He laughed at me and said: “You’ll never catch anything in there except frogs, mate”. I was infuriated by his patronising tone and held up my bucket. “What about these, then,” I sneered, showing him my dozen goldfish. “I’ve been catching goldies for years –- there’s hundreds in this pond, but keep it a secret.”

He was flabbergasted. I was later told by a neighbour who overlooks the local pond that he used to see a wee man with a dog wasting an hour every day dragging a child’s fishing net through the waters… catching nothing.

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