It's easy to become jaded with the area you consider home whether you've been there all your life, or moved back to where you grew up and found yourself being wholly disappointed. Something that strikes me is that Essex gets this bad reputation particularly often. Ask most people and it's full of louts and loudmouths whose only source of enjoyment are sleazy pubs, McDonald's and dirty, grotty clubs.
However, I live here and I know that this stereotype is simply not true. Yes, some of those places (and some of those people, exist after all stereotypes do tend to come about as a result of some shred of truth). But it's not the be all and end all. To prove so, please read on to see my top 3 things unusual, unexpected, or non stereotypical things to do in Essex.
Leon's Veg Mushroom Walk
During a holiday in a different part of Britain, my boyfriend found a clump of mushrooms in a field by a castle. He absentmindedly said Wouldn't it be great if you could just pick mushrooms and eat them, and know that you haven't accidentally picked poisonous ones, so you could be safe in the knowledge that you wouldn't die a terrible and slow death by the hand of some not-so-fun Fungi?"
Or words to that effect, at least. And it turns out you can, indeed, learn something about mushrooms at Leon's Veg Walk.
The main premise of Leon's Veg Walk is that you go for a gorgeous ramble through the local woods of Brentwood identifying free edible food out in nature, with a charming and slightly ethereal gentleman called Leon.
Firstly you meet up with all the other walkers in this gentleman's personal abode. Whilst waiting for everyone to fully assemble, you get to know everyone and are invited to take a look at the array of vegetarian cookbooks Leon himself has published.
Each walking group is approximately 10-15 people only so it's still intimate enough to get to know each other whilst still having a band-of-merry-men feel to it. When everyone is accounted for, you all bundle in to a few cars (whether it be Leon's or another guests, or your own, no one much seemed to mind, as long as you can all get there) and shoot off to the local woods where the walk begins.
Leon is informative and chatty, and is open to questions and advice. He explains cheerfully that you can tell whether you should be looking or not simply judging by his speed if he's briskly walking, just follow, but if he slows down, you know you are in a good spot for mushroom finding.
As the day goes on, you will see a group of adults (although the walk is open to children as long as they are properly supervised) go from standoff-ish, nervous, adult-y type beings to treasure hunting maniacs. There will not be a single person who doesn't pick anything up, or look for anything, or say "Can you eat THIS ONE Leon?!", whilst proudly brandishing a mushroom, or a chestnut, or some fat hen. Leon has a dryly sarcastic approach, declaring "Inedible!" with great aplomb for most of the finds. In fact, as Leon told us quite early on, roughly 80% of mushrooms found are nutritionally negligible, 10% are poisonous if consumed, and the remaining 10% are edible and have a decent level of nutritional value.
Leon encourages identification of all types, and considering the sway towards inedible, he certainly doesn't mind naming and shaming what you've found.
However, there are of course plenty of edible items which include, but are not limited to mushrooms. These are discussed, snipped and collected in Leon's basket. It's a good thing that the edible items get collected, because after you've built up your appetite, you get to take part in the best bit; the feast! Now, let it be known that I am incredibly, in fact (verging on obscenely) carnivorous. To put it bluntly, I. Love. Meat. Before we attended Leon's, we were making jokes about how we were going to be getting a takeaway on the way home because "vegetarian food is simply not as tasty or as filling as meaty food".
I have never been more wrong in my life. Leon's cooking was divine flavourful, moreish, tempting, visually appealing and varied there was a bit of everything. Mushroom cutlets, colourful salads with pickled beetroot and fat hen, a risotto with chicken (Chicken of the Forest, that is yes, a type of mushroom!), chestnut falafel, incredible pesto and blue chanterelle pate. There was literally a plethora of dishes, all made with something foraged on the day.
Leon did explain that he has reserves in stock in case he ever had a seriously unlucky day, but for us nearly every single thing had something fresh, that we had found, in it. Walkers from the group got involved with prepping the food, and because the weather was fine, Leon cooked up some of the hot dishes on a small portable stove outside. We all dined in his garden, and everyone got a little taste of each of the 'Nature's Mezes'. Leon also provided wine that nicely complimented the food, which literally was the cherry (or grape?) on the cake.
Leon is a lovely person, who is more than willing to share not only his knowledge, but also his home. It struck me as we left it's not just a fulfilling and tasty day it actually actively challenged my views on not only vegetarianism, but also reminded me that food is natural. That can be so easy to forget in this day and age. And all for £25 quid a head. Not worth missing.
To book speak directly to Leon. Contact details found on; www.leonlewis.co.uk. Walks normally take place on a Sunday. Seasonality affects booking.
House on the Hill Toy Museum at Stansted Mountfitchet
Most people in Essex have probably been to the sleepy town of Stansted Mount Fitchet at some point in their school lives I think at one point it was probably Anglian law that every school year must go and see Mount Fitchet castle on a trip and for good reason, as although it's a little dated it is interesting and informative. However, it's not actually the castle that I am concerning myself with in this article it is actually, instead, the House on the Hill Toy Museum.
This absolutely jam-packed gem is tucked around the side of the hill that the castle stands upon (hence the name). Privately owned by a gentleman named Alan Goldsmith, this humongous collection boasts 70,000 toys of all types, from all over the world, spanning from modern day all the way back to the Roman times. There is every type of toy you could possibly imagine; toy soldiers, thousands of dollies, trains, games consoles, teddy bears, war toys, tons of star wars memorabilia really, really, EVERY toy you could think of. If that isn't enough there's also a slightly naff haunted manor which is good for a laugh considering it's only a pound to get in.
Greedo from Star Wars, Chilling in The House On The Hill Toy Museum, Mountfitchet
The set up itself is charmingly hectic, with floor to ceiling displays stuffed in to corridors, with every corner absolutely bursting with artefacts that will either surprise you or charmingly take you back to your childhood, your parent's childhood, even your grandparent's childhoods. The building itself looks deceptively small and you could easily re-visit time and again as the aisles seem to go on forever. That being said, the displays have clearly been thought out and instead of a random hodge-podge of stuff, like-for-like toys are grouped together so if you visit with someone whose particularly fanatical about, say, trains, you might want to tie a piece of string to them so you can find your way back to the model railway section!
Littered throughout the entire museum are coin operated machines from the late 19th century onwards many of which are still in working order and can be operated with old pennies that are available at the reception of the museum for your enjoyment. One word of caution do pay due attention to the signage of each machine because some are not in working order or do not accept the old pennies. There's also some more 'modern' (it's all relative) coin operated machines that could well suck you in for a few hours, like an original Mario Kart machine.
Information within the museum is adequate without being overbearing, with points of interest on small placards that engage without being obtrusive. Some items though, are just there, which adds to the general wonder of the place like a 5 foot tall resin polar bear or a pretty creepy clown model playing a saxophone. The historical information is clear enough to engage older children (and slightly bigger kiddies, like me), and there is a treasure hunt and work sheet available for smaller children too.
If any of that wasn't enough, as you walk up to the hill to the museum there's various life size dinosaurs which, although a little past their best, add to the overall charm of this wonderful experience. For the price of entry you could easily spend 2 to 3 hours here and still be wanting to come back for a second look, so it's definitely not one to be missed. The only downside is that sadly, due to location and the steep incline of the hill, it could really be quite taxing for a disabled person to gain access.
Adult admission is £10.50 and children's tickets cost £8.50 but considering this could absorb even the flightiest, most energetic children for a decent amount of time, I think the admission is ridiculously cheap. Opening times are 10am-5pm but check ahead as the museum only opens from March to November. More information can be found here www.stanstedtoymuseum.com/ or by calling 01279 813237.
If you don't like mushrooms or you were looking for remote calmness rather than the hustle-bustle of a toy museum, you might consider yourself to be more suited to Northey Island. The National Trust is renowned for looking after lovely places and Northey Island is no exception. Situated in the River Blackwater estuary, Northey Island is one of only 6 "tidal islands" in the UK meaning that it is linked to the south bank of the river by a causeway that is covered for two hours either side of high tide. The entirety of the Island is a national nature reserve and is completely uninhabited except for the warden. Because of this, Northey Island is a perfect destination for that far away feeling if you want to "get away from it all". Through my entire visit there, I didn't see another living soul, and it was lovely to just walk the quiet route around the island with nothing but myself and my thoughts, and the occasional heron.
Northey island is also the oldest recorded battlefield in England, as it was used as a base for Viking Raiders during the battle of Maldon in AD991. Visiting there today, there's certainly no battle cry in this idealistic spot which provides a welcome break from the stress and speed of daily life. Offering a unique experience of feeling as though you are walking on water as you cross the causeway at low tide, Northey Island is a calming, relaxing visit perfect for whiling away a sunny day.
Because of the nature of the Island though, you need to arrange your visit by appointment to check tide times and ensure you don't get stranded on the Island by the incoming tide. However, if the Castaway feeling is something you relish, Northey Island holds a weekend camp out once a year for a relatively small price (approximately £25 per person). It's worth noting that whilst bikes are not allowed, dog walkers are welcomed as long as mess is appropriately cared for and the dog remains on a lead due to the high number of birds that inhabit the island. To arrange your visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/northey-island or call the Warden on 01621853142.