Discovering the Secret Side of Essex- An Unexpected Gem of a Destination.

I'm sorry. Until last week I assumed the English county of Essex was an urban conurbation largely populated by people with nutmeg dark fake tans who have no clue what a conurbation is.

But after a fascinating two day visit I have to admit Essex is a fantastic destination for anyone whether your interest is celeb spotting and high end shopping or fabulous food and fine wine.


 After failing to recognise a single one of the reality TV show 'slebs at a recent blogger event, I have to say my interest was less piqued by the idea of seeing the plethora of venues made famous by shows like TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) and more by the fact that we were to immerse ourselves tasting locally produced wine, beer and gin.

Yes, the trip organisers, Visit Essex, mentioned the magic word gin and I was sold. And that was before I discovered it was jam flavoured! More on that later.

Here's some mind-blowing Essex facts I learned which helped change my view of the ancient county.

  • More than 70% of the county is classed as rural.
  • In AD43 Colchester was the capital city of Roman Britain
  • The first ever radio broadcast was made from Colchester in 1920
  • Essex has Britain's smallest town (Manningtree) and Britain's largest village (Tiptree)
  • Southend has the world's longest pleasure pier.
All interesting stuff but what fascinated me was the number of vineyards in this county which is a stones throw from central London. It simply hadn't occurred to me that Essex might be wine country but it has been for hundreds of years - apparently King John sourced the wine to celebrate the signing of the Magna Carta from vines in Purleigh Essex.

We could see the so-called Magna Carta wine fields from our first stop on a whistle-stop tour of Essex - New Hall Vineyards.

Magna Carta fields ¢essexvineyardspresstrip

Established in 1969 (like me) the vineyard is one of the oldest and largest in England. Walk in visitors  are welcome -you can explore the vineyard trail for free and taste some of the wines produced there.

Special guided tours and tutored tastings led by wine experts can be booked for groups of ten or more. I would go for this option if you can rally 9 wine loving friends.Book a taxi or a coach (we travelled with the very lovely Noel from Kirbys Coaches) or nominate a willing friend or two to abstain and drive you.

The Vineyard holds special events too. During our visit we were given a sneak peak of the barn all set up for their family-friendly Christmas wine sale over the weekend of December 2 and 3.

Visitors will be offered mulled wine, mince pies and wine tasting. There's also a Santa grotto, children's crafts and a whole of host of moving, twinkling, inflatable and traditional festive decorations. It's all free and the perfect opportunity to have a lovely family trip to the vineyard and stock up for the festive season with discounted wines available to buy.

wine at New Hall Vineyards Essex #essexvineyardspresstrip

 The wine is very good and competitively priced. For instance on their website as I write they are offering a case of 6 mixed still wines for just £50. This is not plonk - just three days after visiting the winery I was served a 2015 New Hall Vineyards traditional method classic Brut (Champagne in all but name) at a very posh lunch at the world-famous London restaurant and celebrity haunt, The Ivy, in Covent Garden.

New Hall Vineyards sparkling wine #essexvineyardspresstrip

Next stop was the Brentwood Brewery Co to taste some of their award winning beers. Now beer isn't my thing if I'm honest but the experts on the tour certainly seemed to enjoy the selection offered. I was taken with the imagination of the beer names and packaging and would highly recommend the brewery shop as a must if you need to buy gifts for beer fans.

Brentwood Brewery Co

The award-winning brewery is holding a Christmas Beer Festival on December 9 between 10.30am and 5pm where you can enjoy live music and festive food, meet Santa, enjoy fun and games and of course taste and buy top class ales.

I particularly loved the look of the unusual limited edition Elephant School Creme Brûlée beer. Why Elephant School? Apparently there used to be an actual school in the nearby army barracks for teaching soldiers due to be stationed in India how to ride elephants.

Brentwood Brewery Co Creme Brûlée Ltd Edition beer

The brewery shops also had some great case collections, clothing and hampers for beer lovers - all reasonably priced.

We were starting to get peckish but luckily next on our list of must-see vineyards in Essex was the West Street Vineyard in Coggeshall.

Aiming to bring the New World wine experience to Britain, this self-styled "boutique micro-vineyard" had a very different feel to New Hall Vineyards although their wine is actually made at the New Hall winery.

What West Street Vineyard offers is a truly luxurious experience. You can taste and learn all about wine and enjoy amazing food in purpose built premises which offer top quality menus at prices Londoners will not believe.

West Street Vineyards #essexvineyardspresstrip

As a foodie I was very pleasantly surprised by the imaginative menu at the Wine Barn Cafe. I particularly enjoyed the starter, local pigeon served medium rare. The restaurant advertises a variety of offers and you can go along for breakfast, afternoon tea, Sunday lunch and pretty much everything in between. Check the website for sample menus, special offers and opening hours.

The vineyard hosts weddings, business meetings, private parties, exhibitions and other events. It's a beautiful setting and I think it would make a beautiful venue for a wedding. You can even have your ceremony among the vines. There's two private dining rooms and a lovely terrace.

I really enjoyed the West Street Vineyard experience - tasted great wine, learned a little and ate a lot!

Back on the coach we headed to Dedham Vale Vineyard which has a completely different atmosphere again. Set in stunning countryside the vineyard's owners and staff are proud to be almost self sufficient and a haven for wildlife including kingfishers and otters.

Also offering tours, weddings and wine tasting, Dedham Vale Vineyard is set in 40 acres and like West Street has won awards for the wine.

Established over 25 years ago the vineyard now grows and produces over six varieties of still and sparkling wine and Carter's cider.

I love that Dedham Vale Vineyard's owners Tom and Ben are happy for wedding parties to invite their guests to bring along tents, camper vans and caravans and stay the night after the party. How cool is that?

Our next stop was Wilkin and Sons Ltd, the famous jam and conserve producers at Tiptree. You have to inhale as you arrive at the factory as the entire atmosphere smells of sweet strawberry jam.

There's a fascinating and slightly quirky museum which children and adults alike will love. The farm and factory have had a long and interesting history and you can see everything from machinery and vintage jam jars up to a stuffed four legged chicken. Yep. That's right. Four legs.

We were meant to have afternoon tea in the cafe (one of many dotted around Essex) but for a variety of reasons this wasn't possible. Luckily we were handed a takeaway tea with a delicious scone, clotted cream and of course a tiny jar of their famous Little Scarlett strawberry jam.

We also got to taste the full range of their gorgeous fruit gin liqueurs, made in collaboration with the Hayman family, local gin makers since 1863.
Wilson and Sons, Tiptree gin liqueur Essex

Available in English damson, English raspberry, English rhubarb and of course, Little Scarlet strawberry varieties the gin liqueurs are perfect drunk in shot form, sipped, as part of a cocktail or added to a lovely sparkling wine. I quite fancy using some as part of a traditional English trifle or to make possibly the best jelly shots ever!

My favourite was the strawberry closely followed by the rhubarb which had an authentic natural flavour and a nice warm afterglow.

As darkness fell we returned slightly weary to New Hall Vineyard where we enjoyed one final round (or two) of excellent wine and chatted about the day.

I came away feeling inspired about the quality of English wine and astounded that I didn't know Essex had such a history of producing fine wines, beers and spirits all at prices so competitive there is no real excuse not to support our country's own industry. No, you won't get three bottles for a tenner but you will get good wine and a warm fuzzy feeling about buying British.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Visit Essex on the #essexvineyardspresstrip for the purpose of this review. Views and opinions remain honest and my own. I enjoyed free dinner, bed and breakfast at The County Hotel in Chelmsford following the tour - blog post to follow.