Essex is lovely: no, really. It is.

Put aside your prejudices, says Sarah Barrell, and explore the rural heart of this much maligned county

It may be news to those in Gants Hill or Billericay but Essex has gone posh. And we don’t mean “posh” as a prefix to Spice. We mean the kind of posh associated with muddy green wellies, chic converted heritage hotels and conservation-protected countryside. If you’re looking for a bit of English quaint within dashing distance of the capital, forget the holy trinity of Home County boltholes – Sussex, Surrey or Kent – head to Essex. Or, at least, “Real Essex”.

“We needed to raise our profile,” admits Essex councillor Peter Martin. “Essex has a high profile but perhaps not the one we want to promote.” Out of such diplomatic understatements Real Essex was born – a savvy marketing campaign launched last year giving the county the kind of PR makeover that determinedly eschewed false nails, Outspan foundation and the mere mention of white leather. Despite the campaign being met with a certain amount of snorting derision from the press, one year on, with re-branding established and the general approval of the tourism industry, it seems that Essex is not, as stereotypes would have you believe, taking it lying down.

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