Top Destinations in Essex for Young Bookworms

From Dodie Smith (101 Dalmatians) to Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Essex has it's fair share of links to the world of literature.  There are even many people who believe that Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford who grew up at Hedingham Castle, was the real William Shakespeare. 

Whether you want to help books come to life or explore the inspiration behind well loved books here are ten places in Essex to take your book-loving children. 

A child sitting on a pile of books
Enjoy book inspired days out in Essex suitable for toddlers to teens

Literary Inspired Days Out In Essex For Book Lovers

Hamford Water

While many people associate the Swallows and Amazons series of books with the Lake District, Arthur Ransom’s Secret Water was set in Hamford Water, between Walton-on-the-Naze and Harwich. There are many options to visit the area but to get up close to the water itself, Seal Watching, Harwich offers two-hour boat tours around the backwaters. Not only will you experience the area close to how the children in the book did but you will be guaranteed to see seals (or receive a free second trip) and a variety of birds. Toilets are available on board.

Child tickets in the summer season are currently £15.40 (1-5 year olds), £20.90 (6-16 year olds) and £26.40 for adults.

Open year round, most weekends and school holidays. Boats depart from Harwich Ferry Berth on Ha’penny Pier. Free street parking throughout Harwich is available or use The Quay car park close by.

Tip: If a boat trip doesn’t appeal you can also visit the Naze Tower or the Naze Nature Discovery Centre.

Abberton Reservoir

Jill Barklem, author of The Brambly Hedge series of books, grew up in Epping and used the trees of Epping Forest to inspire the initial books. It seems appropriate then that Essex has a wooden sculpture trail featuring seven of the much-loved characters.  

At Abberton Reservoir in Colchester you can find Wilfred, Primrose and other characters from Brambly Hedge. Maps for the Brambly Hedge Trail are available for £1 from the Nature Discovery Centre and there is also a wildlife quiz to keep little ones entertained. The reserve itself is one of Europe’s top wetland sites and has a host of facilities, including a cafe, picnic area and outdoor play area. 

Read more about what to expect from a visit to Abberton Reservoir here.

Open year round, except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
Free onsite car parking.
Trail is wheelchair and buggy friendly.
Abberton Reservoir Nature Discovery Park, Church Road, Layer-de-la-Haye, Colchester, Essex CO2 0EU

Tip: For more Brambly Hedge, take a walk around the High Beech area of Epping Forest and see if you can find the Hornbeam tree featured in the stories. 

Two children standing next to a Brambley Hedge character carved from wood
The creations of Jill Barklem are recognised at Abberton Reservoir

Hanningfield Reservoir

Based near Chelmsford, Hanningfield Reservoir plays host to a 0.75 mile-long trail based on the characters from the Wind in the Willows. Set in the ‘Wild Wood’ this woodland trail, which takes about 25 minutes, offers the opportunity to create brass rubbings of the corresponding animal for each character you come across. The Nature Discovery Centre shop sells associated merchandise. 

Across the 870-acre site you can also find more challenging trails, bluebell woods, a cafe, a picnic area and accessible toilets. If a day out isn't complete without a playground then a short drive (or a long walk) around the reservoir takes you to Hanningfield Waterside Park which has a play area next to the main car park. 

Trail maps cost £1 from the visitor centre and they’ll also lend you a crayon to do the brass rubbings with.
Open year round, except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
Free onsite car parking.
Trail is wheelchair and buggy friendly.
Hanningfield Reservoir Nature Discovery Centre, Hawkswood Road, Downham, Billericay CM11 1WT

Tip: Catch a retelling of the famous story of Wind in The Willows at Hedingham Castle on 24th July.

A child pointing at a brass rubbing of a toad next to a wood sculpture of Mr Toad
Toot Toot, find Mr Toad and other characters at Hanningfield Reservoir

Weald Country Park

Weald Country Park in Brentwood is home to a trail based on Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s ever-popular Stick Man book. The 1.4km long trail features six of the characters set around the lake. Children will also find two play areas on the trail and can build a den in the nearby woods. The site offers a cafe, shop with Julia Donaldson's book merchandise and plenty of space for a picnic with benches throughout. You can purchase food to feed the ducks and deer from the visitor centre.

Maps are 80p from the visitor centre and animal feed is £1 per bag.
Open daily.
Onsite car parking starts from £2.80 for an hour.
Trail is wheelchair and buggy friendly, but the rest of the site the paths are mostly grass. 
Weald Country Park, Weald Road, Brentwood, Essex, England, CM14 5QS

Tip: On 25th August Adventure Cinema has an outdoor cinema experience at Hylands House, Chelmsford showing The Gruffalo and Stick Man.

A carving of Stick Man into wood at the start of the Weald Country Park Stick Man trail.
"Stick Man, oh Stick Man, beware of the girl!"

Tilbury Fort

Long before writing Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe lived and worked in Tilbury as a brickmaker. Unfortunately, the buildings have long since been replaced but among his more than 500 works, he also published 'A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain’ in which he described Tilbury Fort in great detail, calling it ‘the key of the river of Thames, and consequently the key of the city of London’. 

Spend a day visiting Tilbury Fort (managed by English Heritage), which is said to be one of the best examples of this type of fort in England. Children will love seeing how soldiers once lived and getting a glimpse into the past as Defoe himself experienced it. There is a museum to visit and an exhibition plus the on-site shop offers some refreshments but picnics are also welcome to be consumed in the grounds.

Advance tickets start at £3.60 for children over 5 and £6.80 for adults.
Open Wednesday-Sunday and bank holiday Mondays until end of October when opening days change. Free parking is available in front of the fort. 
Tilbury Fort, Officers Block, Tilbury, Essex, RM18 7NR

Midsummer Madness Family Fun Day

Each year Essex Book Festival hosts a number of events throughout the summer months. Visit Cressing Temple Barns on 23rd June for a magical day of theatre, workshops and storytelling for all the family. With African storytelling, crafts and drumming on offer, paper making, a treasure hunt and mindfulness activities to name just a few, there really is something for everyone. Picnics are welcome.

Event is free, workshops can be pre-booked at £3 per child.
23rd June 2024, 11.50am-4.00pm.
Free parking available.
Cressing Temple Barns, Witham Road Braintree, Essex CM77 8PD


Low-tech and story led, Wyvernwood near Colchester offers an immersive day out for children age 2-12 (recommended, all ages welcome). The magical world is based on a book which you can buy on your visit, but you don't need to know the story to become fully immersed during your visit.  Filled with pirates, fairies, wizards, a princess and a dragon, there’s bound to be at least one character that catches your child’s imagination. The actors really make this day out something special.

The 27 acre outdoor site is set in both woodland and open spaces and features several themed play areas, performances by characters throughout the day, go karts, a maze and a treasure hunt in a giant sand pit - there are even real ‘unicorns’ to visit. 

It is all outside so best visited in warmer weather, but they have a guarantee allowing customers to revisit if the weather is particularly bad. They offer a number of special events throughout the year, including around Christmas, when they are otherwise closed. Picnics are welcome, but a range of refreshments available to purchase.

Tickets start from £12.49 for children over 2 and £10.49 for adults.
Open weekends and school holidays. They are also open on occasional weekdays in term time aimed at pre-school children.
Free onsite parking available.
Wyvernwood, St. Osyth Road, Alresford, Colchester, Essex CO7 8AP

Characters from the Wyvernwood world in Essex
Enjoy a world of story telling at Wyvernwood, Colchester

Langdon Nature Discovery Park

Beatrix Potter’s much-loved characters grace this wooden sculpture trail near Basildon. Named after Peter Rabbit, you’ll find him alongside favourites such as Jemima Puddle-duck and Tommy Brock. The Peter Rabbit woodland trail takes approximately 45 minutes and is a mile long, although sadly the play area has been removed.

The 461-acre site has plenty of other activities to fill the day, such as a 30 minute lake trail and 30 species of butterfly to spot. There is a gift shop selling themed merchandise and a cafe

Maps cost £1 from the visitor centre (open 10am to 4pm winter, 5pm summer).
Open year round, except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
Free onsite car parking.
Main trail is wheelchair and buggy friendly.
Langdon Nature Discovery Park, Lower Dunton Road, Basildon SS16 6EJ

Find out more about visiting the Peter Rabbit Woodland Trail here.

A wooden carving of Mrs Tiggywinkle
Meet Mrs Tiggywinkle and other characters on this woodland trail

Thames Chase

Thames Chase is hosting a Gruffalo Party Trail celebrating the 25th anniversary of the book this year (2024). The trail has a host of boards with activities to take part in about the forest with a theme of finding the items for the Gruffalo’s birthday party, unlike the other trails in this list it does not feature any sculptures. There is a small playground at the centre along with a cafe, shop and seating area.

Trail is free to take part in but party packs with a selection of activities and keepsakes are available to buy for £4 each.
Parking is available for £2 all day.
Open daily. Car park open dawn til dusk. Visitors Centre open 10am to 4pm (or 5pm n Summer)
Thames Chase Forest Centre, Pike Lane, Upminster, Essex, RM14 3NS

Tip: Thorndon Country Park has a permanent Gruffalo trail with wooden sculptures.

Gardens of Easton Lodge

Easton Lodge Estate in Dunmow was once home to HG Wells (between 1910 and 1928) who included parts of Essex in The War of the Worlds and 1984. While unfortunately the building no longer stands, you can still take a trip to the gardens where a huge tree house awaits young guests. They are mostly open Thursdays but offer a number of family friendly events throughout the year, with themes such as the Tudors and the World Wars.

Adult entry starts at £5.50 bought in advance and children under 16 get free entry.
Parking is available onsite.
Open on select dates throughout the year. There is a path suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs.
Easton Lodge, Dunmow, CM6 2BB

Tip: Spend a day in Maldon to relive one of the alien encounters from War of the Worlds.

Essex Libraries

Essex libraries are obviously packed full of books, but there is plenty more to appeal to book lovers including regular events (often free) and the Children's Summer Reading Challenges. This year's challenge, Marvellous Makers, runs from 20th July to 7th September in all Essex libraries (including mobile libraries).  There is also be a special early joiners’ day on Saturday 13 July.

To complete the free challenge children need to read 6 books. They get a sticker after each book and a certificate and medal on completion. There is also a version for preschoolers.

A girl holding a certificate from completing a summer reading challenge
Every summer there is a free reading challenge at Essex Libraries

Temporary Events and Places Further Afield

Chelmsford Museum have a free exhibition running until 3rd November 2024 about the life and works of JA Baker. He spent years studying the peregrine falcons in Essex and published his observations in The Peregrine in 1967.

If you are happy to travel to Stratford in East London then Discover Children's Story Centre is a great place to visit with children 8 and under. You can read about it here. 

Encouraging a love of reading in children with these book inspired day outs
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