Head upwards, and peer down on it from one of these towers. Essex isn't exactly well-endowed with skyscrapers, but these towers will take you off solid ground for a little while.
1. Layer Marney Tower, near Tiptree
England's tallest Tudor gatehouse is Layer Marney Tower, a redbrick building with two hexagonal turrets, about 80ft tall, which wouldn't look out of place in the courtyard at Hampton Court Palace. Layer Marney was actually intended as a palace — Henry, 1st Lord Marney, who had it built, was a close friend of King Henry VIII, but died before it was completed, so it remained as just the central section, the tower, and the outbuildings. Queen Elizabeth I is known to have spent a night here in 1579.
It's always been a private family home, passing through 11 different clans in its history, its headline moment being damaged by the 1884 Colchester earthquake (though that was soon patched up).
Layer Marney Tower has been owned by the Charrington family — who also own Tymperleys restaurant in nearby Colchester — since 1959, and it's still their family home today. They open the Grade-I listed gatehouse tower, the grounds and the chapel to the public on certain days of the year, usually Wednesdays and Sundays in the summer months, with visitors able to go up to the top of the turrets, and even out on the roof. It's an odd illusion — from the outside, the tower doesn't look that tall. It's only when you're up there that you get a sense of its height.
The view is predominantly open countryside, as Layer Marney is fairly remote, surrounded by rural Essex with the nearest town (Tiptree) a couple of miles away. There's the option of a guided tour, or you can explore at your own pace, and there's a tea room on site, plus a play area for kids. Otherwise, the building is used for weddings and special events.
Layer Marney Tower, near Colchester, Essex, CO5 9US.
Getting there: Car is your best option for this one due to its remote location — the nearest station, Marks Tey is about six miles away. It's about 85 minutes drive from Junction 28 of the M25.
2. Jaywick Martello Tower
In the 19th century, over 100 martello towers were built along the English coast between Sussex and Suffolk, and many of them are still standing today (hardly surprising — they were built as defence structures so are fairly solid units). One such building is the Jaywick Martello Tower, a couple of miles east along the coast from the Essex seaside resort of Clacton-on-Sea.
The Jaywick Martello Tower has been cleverly repurposed into a heritage and local community centre. The ground floor has an exhibition about the history of the tower itself, while one floor up, you can see regularly changing exhibitions on all manner of topics.
Really though, we're here for the roof, which has been opened up as a public viewing gallery, complete with replica cannon. Martello towers tend to be as wide as they are long, thanks to their thick walls, so the building is only about 10 metres high. Sure, it doesn't rival The Shard, but with the sea on one side, and the Essex countryside and the caravan parks of Jaywick on the other, there are worse places to be on a lovely summer's day.
Jaywick Martello Tower, The Promenade, Belsize Avenue, CO15 2LF.
Getting there: Nearest station is Clacton, about three miles away. Driving, it's about 90 minutes from J28 of the M25.
3. Naze Tower, Walton-on-the-Naze
We've mentioned Naze Tower once or twice before, but as one of our favourite places in Essex, it's worth reintroducing. It's a 26m (eight storey) high, 300 year old brick tower, perched on crumbling cliffs at what — by our reckoning — is the most easterly point in the county of Essex.
Naze Tower was built as a navigation aid for ships heading up the coast to Harwich, but these days, the building is repurposed as a cafe/exhibition space/viewing gallery. Ascent is via a metal spiral staircase, but the climb is broken up by four floors of artworks and a museum about the tower. Up on the eighth floor roof, a hexagonal viewing platform, only a few feet wide, offers 360° views; the sea to the east; Harwich to the north; Walton to the south; and the sprawling Essex countryside to the west. For our money, it's the best viewpoint in Essex.
Read more about our visit, and see some photos of the impressive view from the top.
Naze Tower, The Naze, Old Hall Lane, Walton-on-the-Naze, CO14 8LE.
Getting there: It's located a 30-minute walk along the coast from the town of Walton-on-the-Naze, where you'll find the nearest train station. Otherwise, it's about a 90-minute drive to J28 of the M25.
4. Pier Hill Lifts Observation Tower, Southend
Like many seaside towns, Southend is built on something of a small cliff, with the seaside attractions — including the world's longest pleasure pier, and an amusement park — situated slightly lower than the town centre.
Thankfully someone had the sense to install the Pier Hill Lift*, a modern and accessible elevator conveying passengers from the top of Pier Hill down to Western Esplanade below and vice versa. But you don't have to be ascending or descending to enjoy the view; a space age-style observation deck was built onto the outside of the lift, with anyone able to follow the pedestrian walkway from Pier Hill out to a 360° viewing platform, accessible for free. A word of warning — the glass sides of the bridge and the observation deck itself may cause some discomfort to those with acrophobia or vertigo.
It offers views in both directions along the coast, including the 1.33 mile-long pier, and across the Thames Estuary to both Canvey Island and Kent's Isle of Grain.
*Not to be confused with Southend's Cliff Lift, a funicular which operates further west, and offers its own views across the Thames Estuary.
Pier Hill Lift Observation Deck, 5-6 Pier Hill, Southend, SS1 2EH.
Getting there: Unfortunately you can no longer ride a tube train to Southend. The Pier Lift is under 10 minutes walk to Southend Central station, which has direct trains to Fenchurch Street taking about an hour. Otherwise it's around a 40-minute drive to J30 of the M25 — though as is the way at the seaside, parking can be hard to come by, particularly in good weather.
Other towers in Essex
There are also a couple of smashing castles kicking around these parts. Hedingham Castle is a five-storey high fortress with views across north Essex. Then there's Mistley Towers, a symmetrical pair of porticoed classical towers which once formed part of an unusual Georgian church — they're all that remain of the building today. They can be viewed from outside at any time, or you can acquire the key from a local hotel at certain times if you want to go inside, but it's ground level access only.