Family days out Essex: 32 brilliant ideas for fun in 2020
By Helen Wright
As someone who grew up in Essex, I already knew it was one of the best counties in the UK for family activities, so putting together this Family Days Out Essex list was so much fun. As well as my own experiences with Finn, 4, and Isobel 1, I also reached out to friends and family and my fellow Essex locals to find the best days out in Essex for families in 2020. It was a superb reminder of the wide range of places, activities and things to see in Essex, many of them less than an hour from London. In fact, my post started as 25 things, but I couldn’t narrow it down, so take your pick from 32 brilliant Essex activities to do in 2020.
Family days out Essex: 32 days out for kids in Essex
For our readers: Many of our activities naturally allow for sensible social distancing and the companies we have selected have made appropriate efforts to respect new social distancing rules after COVID-19. Before you plan your fun days in Essex, please check with the individual destination or attraction.
1. Epping Ongar Railway, North Weald
If you have a little (or big) trainspotter in the family, the Epping Ongar Railway is the longest heritage railway in Essex and the closest steam railway to London. As well as traditional steam train rides along three-miles of beautiful Essex countryside, the railway also has special family events, including guest visits from Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol and Father Christmas. For the big kids, the Real Ale festival or the classic steam vehicle rally make for a jolly day out. For something different, there is also a quirky Halloween fright night.
2. Classic days out Essex: Fossil-hunting on Mersea Island
This cute island on the Blackwater estuary, just eight miles from Colchester, has been a well-kept Essex secret for years. Joined to the mainland by a single-lane road (the Stood), the island gets completely cut off during high tide. [Before you travel, check the tide times here] Mersea recently gained notoriety with out-of-towners thanks to its freshly caught and delicious shellfish, in particular oysters, which have been fished from the creeks surrounding Mersea since Roman times.
For kids, the appeal of Mersea is good old–fashioned family fun. Crabbing off the jetty, scoffing ice creams and fossil hunting around the cliffs to the east of the island. 300,000-year-old fossils such as monkey, bear, tusked elephant and bison have been found here, so bring your magnifying glass. If you want the beach, head to West Mersea, where the sand is soft and the waves shallow enough to paddle in. Here you will find a scattering of beach cafes, fish and chip shops and oyster shacks (like the famous West Mersea Oyster Bar), plus a large playground and a display of candy-coloured beach huts. If you plan on staying all day, you can rent one of these little cuties from The Little Beach Hut, but overnight stays are not permitted.
Days out Essex
3. Healthy days out Essex: Go fruit picking in Halstead
Picking-your-own fruit and veg has been a really good way to spend time outdoors, maintain social distancing and support local businesses during the pandemic. For kids, picking your own fruit from the tree is a novelty – and let’s face it, much more fun than going to Asda. I absolutely loved going strawberry picking when I was little and it’s still one of my favourite memories.
Spencer’s Farm Shop is open June to September and also has special Halloween and Christmas events. At this cute farm, you can PYO strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, blackberries, loganberries, tayberries, plums, cherries, runner beans, sweetcorn, and courgettes. The large play area has a sandpit, climbing frame and ride-on tractors and there is also a coffee shop with outdoor seating. Now, you just have to plot what to bake with your loot – cherry pie anyone? spencersfarmshop.com
family days out Essex
4. Spot a seal at Walton-on-the-Naze
Walton-on-the-Naze is a good spot for a family days out Essex, with a nice beach, crabbing and the historic Naze Tower, a historic landmark, art gallery and viewing platform which you can climb (£3 adult, £2 child, under-4s free). For something different, book a boat trip and get a glimpse of the local seal colony who gather on the mudbanks at Hamford Water Nature Reserve. The famed tour on Tony Haggis’s boat, Karina, is the top pick*, with charismatic Tony pointing out local wildlife, birds and of course the pretty harbour seals. Adults, £14.00, children £8.00, (*summer months only). If an authentic experience is what you are looking for, Tony doesn’t even have a website. Give him a call on 07806 309460 or 07596 597615 to book but, note that he doesn’t respond to messages.
5. Travel along Southend pier and railway
Famously, the longest pleasure pier in the world, Southend Pier is so long that it has its own train to take guests to the end. You can take the 1.3 mile length on foot if you fancy it (2.6 mile return trip), or walk one way & ride the train back. A return fare for a two adult and two child family ticket is £13.80. An adult single fare is £5 one-way or £5.50 return.
Southend Pier doesn’t have as much entertainment or arcades as other seaside pleasure piers, such as Brighton Palace Pier, but it is a fun way to ‘get on the water’ with the family and take in some sea air without needing a boat!
6. Adventure Island and Southend Seafront (great days out Essex for teenagers)
Loud and proud on Southend Seafront, Adventure Island is an amusement park with 40 thrill rides and attractions. There is no fee to enter but rides cost between £3 and £10 each. The all-day Blue Wristband costs £32 at the park (but you can buy online in advance to save money, and they currently have a great post-Covid deal for £22.50). Our favourite ride is the spinning and swooping, Vortex, but the classic seaside Helter Skelter is fun too. Adventure Island definitely tops this list of days out Essex for teenagers!
The promenade offers a choice of beaches, cafes and gardens and the closest sandy beach to the pier is Jubilee Beach (Three Shells beach, which is directly next to the pier is much busier and not as nice). DID YOU KNOW: That Southend-on-Sea is thought to be one of the warmest and driest places in the whole of the UK. Perfect for a beach break, don’t you think?
7. Go sailing at Brightlingsea
Brightlingsea is a really cute beach town, just east of Colchester on Brightlingsea Creek and one of our most fun days out Essex. Watersport is the top activity here with a wide range of options, from swimming at the Brightlingsea Lido, to paddle-boarding on the calm waters, sea swimming, fishing and sailing. Brightlingsea Sailing Club offer sailing lessons from beginner (adult beginners and juniors from age 10 and up) to improvement courses designed for those with some experience. Taster sessions are available, but if you’re just looking for a fun day on the water, you can go cruising with an experienced skipper who will do all the work for you.
8. Crabbing in Maldon
Going crabbing is something we always did as kids and one of the most easy-going, fun and cheap days out Essex. Promenade Park in Maldon is a great place to go crabbing with lots of families taking part and a fun atmosphere. The most popular spots are around the boating lake, along the estuary edge and at Hythe Quay, as well as at nearby Heybridge Basin. All you need is a length of string (20ft), a weight (pick out a big stone from the beach), some bait (bacon or tinned sardines work well) and a bucket. You can buy buckets and string from the shops in Promenade Park if you don’t have time to make your own.
Fill your bucket with water from the Estuary, add a few stones or seaweed and some bait so that the crabs can hide and have some food. Hang your line in for five minutes and gently bring it up to see what you have caught. You will land more crabs if you also have a children’s fishing net – but that’s cheating! When you catch one of the little guys, let him into the bucket himself so you don’t hurt him and always put the crabs back into the water before you leave!
9. Bike riding in Tendring
Sometimes, days out in Essex can feel a bit like California with a cycle ride along the coastal path on a warm summer day. The Tendring Peninsula is the peak of the Essex Sunshine coast and you can take on all or part of a day-long bike ride from Frinton to Jaywick. This route is perfect for families or those looking for a casual cycle, because it follows the beach and the path is flat and wide. You can make a detour into Holland-on-Sea (more on that later) and stop for a well-earned lunch in Clacton or a little break on the beach.
10. Follow the Gruffalo Trail, Thorndon
If you are raising a little reader, they will no doubt be familiar with Julia Donaldson’s books and the Gruffalo is a firm favourite. Bring the story to life with an adventure along the Gruffalo Trail at Thorndon Country Park. This cute, self-guided walk includes characters and settings that kids will recognise from the book, with the Country Park standing in for the Deep Dark Wood. The trail takes about 45 minutes and weaves through the forest with hidden characters, carved from wood, to find. For adults, it’s very easy to follow, but pick up a map for kids at the Countryside Centre in Thorndon North and it makes the whole trip extra exciting for littles. This is definitely one of our favourite days out Essex.
11. Explore the Stick Man Trail, Weald
Following on from the success of the Gruffalo Trail, you can also plan an adventure in search of Stick Man too! Weald Country Park, near Brentwood, hosts the Stick Man Play Trail. As the story goes, Stick Man has many adventures as he travels home to his family tree, and now you can follow his footsteps. This permanent trail is around 2km and includes climbing frames, slides, swings, Stick Man’s family tree and a giant swan’s nest, so older kids will love it too.
The Stick Man play trail is free, but you do have to pay to park. The parking fee helps with maintaining the park (which is gorgeous) and protects the surrounding wildlife. There are also themed events throughout the year, so keep an eye on visitparks.co.uk for updates.
12. Hop on the Peter Rabbit Trail, Langdon
That Peter Rabbit always was a cheeky bunny, so he wasn’t going to let Gruffalo and Stick Man have all the fun. To celebrate the 150th birthday of Beatrix Potter’s most famous character, Essex Wildlife Trust opened the Peter Rabbit™ Woodland Trail, at the Langdon nature reserve, near Basildon.
The lovely nature walk includes six beautiful, solid wood sculptures of Potter characters, hidden within the forest, meadows, lakes and hills. Help your kids spot Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin, Tommy Brock and Jemima Puddle-Duck and pose for a few selfies with the gang. The idea of these literature trails is to bring stories to life and encourage children to engage with nature and the beautiful outdoor areas in the UK, which Essex has in abundance.
**PLEASE NOTE: The Potter trail is currently under construction until Autumn 2020 while the new Nature Discovery Centre is being rebuilt and this may be delayed due to Covid-19. Follow here for details of the reopening: essexwt.org.uk/peter-rabbit
13. Check out Colchester Zoo
We have been taking Finn to Colchester Zoo since his first birthday and its one of our favourite days out Essex. Set over 60 acres of parkland and home to 220 species of animal, the zoo is a fun-yet-educational day out for the whole family.
There is lots of information displayed with fun facts about animals from around the world, from Komodo Dragons to white rhino, giraffes, ostrich, zebra and kudu. There is also a great petting zoo for younger kids and a walk-through aquarium (Finn’s favourite). For something extra special, the zoo also offers interactive experiences, such as elephant and giraffe feeding, for an extra fee, which are really good fun and ideal for a special occasion. During this pandemic period, pre-booking is required from colchester-zoo.com
TOP TIP: Visiting the zoo in winter means a big saving on the entrance price. It’s a little colder and some of the outdoor entertainment aspects are closed during inclement weather, but (especially if kids are younger), they will get the same out of a day at the zoo for half the price. We also found that year-round, Colchester Zoo was far better value for money than London Zoo and just 90 minutes from London by train.
14. Drive a tractor at Marsh Farm, Chelmsford
Another of the most fun family days out Essex, and a favourite of Finn’s, is Marsh Farm in Chelmsford. There are large barns with the usual farm animals, opportunities for feeding and daily demonstrations from the handlers, plus a petting zoo. Finn loved the tractor ride, drive-your-own tractors, the huge adventure playground and soft play. It was raining when we visited but a bit of drizzle didn’t stop the fun and no-one seemed that bothered. There was also an absolutely manic indoor show, that the kids were going wild for – although parents might want to bring ear plugs…
Marsh Farm also have year-round special events like Bubble and Bop Children’s Festival, Halloween and Christmas.
15. Alpaca walking in Braintree
So, apparently Alpaca walking is a thing and what could be more fun than leading a fluffy and friendly alpaca around a farm? Alpaca Walking Experiences take approximately 90 minutes, including safety tips and a practice walk around the paddock to get to know your alpaca. Then, set off for a leisurely stroll around the farm, past paddocks of pygmy goats and alongside the beautiful river Blackwater. There are plenty of photo opportunities for selfies and cuddles with these friendly animals and sometimes Elvis the bantam even makes an appearance. Experience for two people sharing one Alpaca, £37.50
16. Sample the Cheesecake at The Blue Strawberry Bistrot in Hatfield Peverel
There are a lot of fair weather activities on this list so how about something that doesn’t require sunshine and can be enjoyed indoors (well, this is the UK, after all!). After one of these fun days out Essex, especially walking your fluffy friends around the farm, you may need a little sugar pick-me-up and there aren’t many places around there that are more indulgent than The Blue Strawberry Bistrot. Their famous chocolate drizzled cheesecake is a slice of creamy heaven and available for takeaway if you’re a bit stinky from the farm to sit in their smart dining room. By the way, we’re not sure why this is spelled with a ‘t’ either…
17. Beach at Holland-on-Sea, Clacton
Costa-del-Clacton can get really busy in the summer, but there is a sandy beach to the east of Clacton called Holland-on-Sea and it’s our insider secret! Holland-On-Sea is one of our favourite Essex beaches, with golden sand and a nice promenade that has beach huts, grass areas for picnics, beach cafes, kiosks and toilets. Holland-on-Sea beach is less busy than the main Clacton beaches, but only a half hour walk from Clacton Pier (named Pier of the Year in 2020 by the National Piers Society, no less). Plus, if you can stay until dusk, the beach provides some epic sunsets too.
18. Picnic at a palace, Saffron Walden
Wild swimming has grown in popularity over the last few years and the River Chelmer is one of the most popular places to go wild swimming in Essex. This is a beautiful stretch of the River Chelmer and the river is considered one of the cleanest waterways in Essex. Confident swimmers can head downstream to Hoe Mill Bridge and Lock, or walk for a mile upstream on the towpath to the secluded Rushes Lock. If you’re planning your days out Essex and have youngsters with you, Ulting is ideal for a paddle or a splash about and you can also try kayaking and stand-up paddle on the calm water.
24. Horseriding at Frinton-on-sea
Frinton is one of the only beaches along the Essex coast that allows horses on the beach. There are some times where riding is restricted but if you can visit during the allocated periods, you can enjoy a hack along the seafront. If you don’t have your own noble steed (let’s face it, many of us don’t), there are a few riding stables close to the beach, the closest being Elm Todd Livery. Frinton is also one of Essex’s six Blue Flag Beaches, so if you would rather keep your feet on the ground, enjoy a walk along the thick sand and a paddle instead.
25. Walk on water at Aqua Park, Basildon
It’s a case of ready; steady; splash at Festwake Aqua Park in Basildon. The inflatable water park has a bouncy assault course on water to challenge the whole family (age 6+). The relatively new Aqua Park features two Jungle Joes, two Blast Bags, a huge Trampoline, a Jungle Jim, a Zulu Slide, two Foxtrot’s, two Sierras, a Walking on Water walkway, and a Hamster wheel Cyclone. Even if you have no idea what any of this means, there is a good chance your teenager does! Tickets start from £20pp to participate, but it makes a great spectator sport too – especially if someone you know takes a dunk!
26. Rent a row boat at Dedham park
Since the artist, John Constable, was inspired to sit here and paint the beautiful landscape, quaint Dedham has been known as the place to hire a rowing boat for classic days out in Essex. Dedham Boathouse have Clinker built row boats for hire (£10 for 30-mins, £17 an hour) for a leisurely (especially if you are not rowing) sail along the river Stour. Flatford Mill, the Mill made famous by Constable is 1.5miles along the river if you are feeling energetic, or you can just float and relax in the idyllic surroundings. Finish up with an ice cream at boathouse café.
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27. Go to Forest school at Grange Farm, Chigwell
Chigwell Meadows is a haven for wildlife including deer, hedgehogs, stoats, bees, great crested newts and foxes together with a variety of birds. The Grange Farm Centre offers educational activities for kids of all ages to explore the great outdoors and develop practical skills. There are activities such as orienteering, bushcraft and habitat exploration such as pond dipping and minibeast surveys. The Forest School Nature Tots is a weekly group suitable for children aged from 18 months to 4 years. Sessions take place outside in a wooded area, designed to get children excited about caring for the planet, starting with their local environment (£6.95 per child, £4.65 siblings). To make a booking or for more information, email Emma at the Essex Wildlife Trust on 020 8500 3094.
Even if you’re not able to commit to a full course, the Roding Valley Nature Reserve is great for family days out Essex for those interested in nature and walks in the outdoors. The 160-acre site is managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is the ‘go-to place’ for lovers of ancient trees, bird watching, butterflies, wildflowers and a wander in the great outdoors.
28. Mountfitchet Castle
Mountfitchet Castle is one of the more random days out Essex, but kids love it and it definitely makes for a different kind of experience. Historically, quite significant, Mountfitchet Castle is the only medieval Castle and Norman Village in the world that is reconstructed on its original site. Now a fun open-air museum where you can go back in time over 900 years and experience life in a medieval Motte and Bailey castle. Kids will love being able to feed the tame Fallow deer and other rescued animals that roam freely throughout the 10-acre site. Adults £15, Children four and over £10)
29. See the biggest collection of toys in the world, Stansted
If you’ve planned a day at Mountfitchet, your entry fee (£12 adult, £10 child) includes entry to the House on the Hill Museum, which amazingly contains the largest toy collection in the world with over 80,000 toys from the Victorian era right up to the 1990’s. There are some big kid toys too – memorabilia from Only Fools and Horses, Dads Army, film and TV props and life sized figures from Star Wars and Dr Who.
30. Days out Essex: Go shopping at Leigh-on-Sea
If you fancy being fancy for a day in Essex, Leigh-on-Sea is a pretty beach town with a TOWIE vibe. The high street is a mix of quirky craft shops, independent boutiques, and art galleries, with a decent mix of traditional and modern. There are some fancy seafront fish restaurants (like The Boatyard), but families might be more comfortable at the gastropub, Peterboat Restaurant, which has excellent sea views and a more modest menu. Alternatively, take your pick of local cockle sheds along the front and have an alfresco snack in a box.
31. Rainy days out Essex: Gants of Braintree
This is one of the fun days out Essex that can also be done in the rain (if you have a car – or an umbrella). In Braintree, just north of Chelmsford, there are eight curious alleyways with obscure names that have made them a talking point. They are known as the Gants of Braintree, thanks to a large number of Flemish weavers who settled in Braintree during the 16th Century. ‘Gants’, is derived from the Flemish word ‘gang’ which means corridor and this refers to the little access routes that lead to the old market square.
Some of the Gants have very silly names and it’s a fun game to challenge your teenagers and kids to find them all. The six main Gants are:
Bird In Hand Gant
Pig’s Head in the Pottage Gant (the most famous)
If you want to maximise your time in Braintree (especially if the weather is a bit iffy), there is also a decent outlet shopping mall here, featuring well-known brands such as Adidas, Clarks, Jack Wills and Kate Spade. braintree-village.com
32. Design your own pottery, South Woodford
For a nice, indoor activity in Essex, try this cute pottery café in South Woodford, enjoyed by kids of all ages. Creative Biscuit is a paint-your-own ceramics cafe where you can paint pottery and get creative whatever age you are. And you don’t have to be a minor to have major fun, on the second and fourth Thursday of every month the cafe hosts a Late Night Painting evening so you can get making and creating – and even bring your own drinks!
Have you done everything on our list? Why not plan a day out in Kent instead?
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