EXPERIENCE THE REAL ENGLAND IN BURNHAM ON CROUCH
By Bill Vanderford
On a recent trip to the British Isles, finding an old English meal in London proved a challenge. Everywhere I looked restaurants were serving “designer” dishes of French, Italian, or Oriental origins. What happened to simple fish and chips or beef stew? This revelation had me heading for the Essex countryside in search of the “REAL” England, which I found in the tiny east-coast community of Burnham on Crouch.
Located just over an hour by rail or less than two hours by car from Central London, this bustling village lies on the north bank of the River Crouch, an estuary of the River Thames, and exudes an unmistakable old English flavor.
With its numerous pubs, tea houses, and a range of small, independent shops – think butcher, baker and quaint antique stores, walking the main high street is to discover an England where big-box stores aka Walmart are inconceivable. For example, the Clock Tower is just one of Burnham’s historic landmarks. Constructed in 1877, this red brick, octagonal tower was originally dedicated to a local oyster merchant and philanthropist. Later additions gave the Burnham Endowed School (founded in 1785) a home where it remained until 1973. The cinema is another gem. In operation since 1931, this movie house has a quirky, Art Deco charm outside as well as eccentricities inside such as offering patrons a back row of oversized soafs to view first-run movies, rather than regular movie seats.
Burnham is a sailing town and with four yacht clubs along its shoreline, these waters have been the training grounds for many crews of the America’s Cup, Olympic yachting, and World Championship Ocean Racing. On any given day, traffic might suddenly slow behind a boat being manually wheeled out of a backyard, along the high street towards the water. Rather than fray tempers, the sudden slower pace means there’s many a wave, handshake and passing conversation. Even strangers get to enjoy this small town, friendly England.
The best places to see Burnham’s sailing action is along the promenade that extends seven miles up river, past many historic boat buildings, one of which now houses a community museum, rows of fishermen cottages and white, weatherboard houses. Down river, the pathway runs for nearly 15 miles. From the center of town, it weaves through Burnham-on-Crouch Marina, a busy boatyard that provides safe haven for expensive yachts and family dinghies alike, and along the rolling hillsides of quintessential England countryside where, invariably, dog walkers in traditional green wellington boots are out in full force.
In addition to sailing, the River Crouch Estuary is of international importance to wildlife and birds, and Wallasea Island across from Burnham is slated to become Europe’s largest salt marsh bird sanctuary. At certain times, bird watchers can observe hundreds of dark bellied Brent Geese, oystercatchers, lapwings, avocets, cormorants, egrets, redshanks, herring gulls, and many other birds.
The Contented Sole Restaurant is another reason to come hear Having won the 2010 Award for “The Best Small Restaurant in Essex”, this 18th century destination dining room gives new style to traditional English fare with items such as Sticky Toffee Pudding and one of the best steaks I’ve had in a long time. Master Chef Andrew Hemingway, who has worked for the Relais & Chateaux celebrity Grand Chef Michel Roux, uses only fresh, seasonal ingredients from local farms and the North Sea fishing grounds. Consequently, while the menu maintains customer favorites, and a French influence to some of the sauces and presentations, daily offerings might range from a chilled crab gazpacho to English-style roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Little wonder why the judges declared the restaurant to be “streets ahead of the competition!”
As a sports car racer, I would be remiss if I didn’t include mention of the legendary “Burnham Bends” that make up part of the highway approach to the town. According to different counts, these fabulous turns number between seven and eleven, and swerve dramatically from left to right around hairpin corners. Every motor racing dreamer in a car or on a motorcycle will feel the urge to take them on at speed. The problem in these blind corners, however, is that one dives in at breakneck speed, only to discover a tractor pulling a hay wagon, or a huge truck creeping along at a snail’s pace between the hedgerows … and there’s always a chance of meeting the local police who are usually on the lookout for Indy wannabes. Nevertheless, roadsters still come to try the unforgiving Burnham Bends!
With its history as a ferry and fishing port, sailing activities, historical landscapes and cow-grazing countryside, Burnham on Crouch remains an unspoiled, unpretentious community. For travelers looking to get away from London’s commercialized city madness for a taste of the REAL England, it is the perfect place.
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