Unsurprisingly, the sea plays a key role in the past and present of Maldon – but there’s plenty more catering to all tastes
Just 40 miles from Central London, and you are in a different world, where the red sails of traditional wooden sailing barges peep through the morning mist, Vikings and Saxons once fought to the death on a narrow island causeway, and orderly rows of vines produce some of England’s finest wine-making grapes. Welcome to the Maldon District – it’s Essex, but not as you know it.
A short hop from the capital by road or rail and you could be exploring 75 miles of coastline, including unique, unspoilt saltmarshes beloved of film directors; enjoying the plentiful local food, wine and ales; or exploring the ancient and recent history that makes this maritime district so special.
The Maldon District features two estuaries, the Crouch and the Blackwater, and its population grew around its ports – the Domesday book recorded significant populations in Maldon, Burnham-on-Crouch, Tollesbury, Goldhanger and Bradwell-on-Sea, where fishing and merchant trade built small, resilient communities.
The sea is still in people’s blood out here – the district has the country’s largest collection of seaworthy Thames Sailing Barges, moored up along Maldon’s Hythe Quay or picking up passengers for a sail around the islands. Meanwhile, yachts gather at Fambridge Yacht Haven, ferry craft head out to see the seals or cross to Wallasea Island, and houseboats line the sea wall at Burnham-on-Crouch. The District’s most famous exports also come from the sea – both Maldon Oysters and the famously large crystals of Maldon Salt originate in the waters of the Blackwater estuary.
For those who love walking, the Saltmarsh Coast Trail stretches the whole length of the Maldon District’s coastline and beyond, starting at the hamlet of Salcott-cum-Virley and ending at South Woodham Ferrers. The first stop is the marshland village of Tollesbury with its back-in-time seawater lido, marina and quaint wooden sail lofts, set on stilts to beat the spring tides. The saltmarshes here, unchanged for millennia, are a film-maker favourite – The Essex Serpent, Great Expectations, Liar, The Mercy and The Woman in Black have all made use of this stretch of coastline.
The 75-mile Saltmarsh Coast Trail hugs the coastline past the 600-acre RSPB nature reserve at Tollesbury Wick and along the sea wall to Heybridge Basin, through Maldon, and right around the coast to Burnham-on-Crouch, before heading up the Crouch Estuary past acres of vineyards. Along the way it takes in the best of what the district has to offer but don’t worry, you don’t have to walk; roads, trains and buses also link the points together.
Maldon town has something for everyone. Promenade Park is a great family day out, with the Splash Park, beach huts, adventure golf, play equipment, tennis courts, sandpits, crabbing and model boating lake and petanque on site, and the picturesque Hythe Quay just outside. Stop for a selfie at the statue of Byrhtnoth, the Saxon hero whose sense of fair play inadvertently cost him the Battle of Maldon in 991 when he allowed the Vikings to start crossing the low-tide causeway to Northey Island. The battle is marked in the stained-glass windows of nearby St Mary’s Church – the Saxon “Fisherman’s Church” that used to double as a lighthouse, with a fire on top of its tower to guide ships home.
The streets of Maldon are alive with history. Don’t miss the 600-year-old Moot Hall that has been a prison, courthouse and now a wedding venue, with incredible views from the roof; the Blue Boar, a 14th century coaching inn with a cobbled courtyard; and a short walk along the river, Beeleigh Abbey, a 12th century former monastery with elegant gardens open to the public and a beautiful weir nearby.
Around the coast, Bradwell-on-Sea has a wild beauty even in the depths of winter, with a cockleshell beach and the rugged Saxon chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, a pilgrimage site for nearly 1,400 years, on the shore. It feels like the ends of the earth, and it’s worth the effort.
Two big family attractions complete the tour. Mangapps Railway Museum in Burnham-on-Crouch offers the chance to ride in a classic carriage pulled by a steam or vintage diesel engine and explore the history of the local railways. While just up the road, the internationally important Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome is an incredibly well preserved First World War military airfield with hangers full of vintage aircraft and occasional flying days.
For your holiday base you can choose from yurts or Thames Sailing Barges, accessible chain hotels or quaint inns. Tea rooms abound – try The Loft in Tollesbury, in an historic sail loft, Vintage Rose in Maldon with its fabulous cakes or The Lock at Heybridge Basin, part of the Tiptree Tea Room group from jam company Wilkin & Sons. For a great pub lunch or evening meal try The Bell at Woodham Walter, the Oyster Smack in Burnham-on-Crouch or the Ferry Boat Inn at North Fambridge. In Maldon, Cafe Brazil has exciting Brazilian street food and Dante’s offers gourmet tasting menus, while in Burnham you could enjoy Asian food at Ruam Thai or a platter of seafood at The Ship Inn to finish your day.
For sea and sky, history and culture, local food and home-grown wine, head to the wilder side of Essex.