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Before I go any further, let's make one thing perfectly clear. If you're looking for somewhere to visit that has a bustling night-life and lots of shopping, then Manningtree is not the place for you. If, however, you are looking to visit a small town steeped in history, then Manningtree fits the bill to a tee. When you think of Essex, what comes to mind? Garish Southend, with it's amusements, or Colchester, with it's garrison and castle, or perhaps Romford, which is more London than Essex. I know that I would never have thought of a sleepy town, surrounded by fields within an area of outstanding natural beauty. And even if I had known about the town, I would never have imagined that I might live there one day, and love my new home town so much that I'd be extolling it's virtues on a website. I'm now going to do my best here to not only tell you about why you should visit the area, but also what makes this such a great place to live.
==A Few Facts And Figures==
Manningtree is a very small town located on the river Stour in the north of Essex. There are claims that it is the smallest town in England, but to be honest I really cannot find anything to substantiate these claims. I think one difficulty with this claim is where exactly is the line drawn between a village and a town. As well as the town itself, Manningtree also includes the (slightly) more built up areas Lawford and Mistley, each of which are also quiet and have historic buildings to visit.
Although there was possibly a settlement at Mistley during the Roman occupation, and Manningtree was documented in the Domesday Book (under the name Sciddnichou), the town's first appearance in written records was in 1202, shortly before it was awarded Market Town status. Although a small town, Manningtree has actually played an relatively important part in England's history and even got a mention in Shakespeare's Henry IV pt 1.
Probably the most notorious of Manningtree's sons is Mathew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, who began his reign of terror in the town. There are still a few places in Manningtree that survive from this period (the 17th century), including the very pond where his victims were 'ducked' and he is said to be buried in the old Mistley churchyard. Manningtree is also in the heart of 'Constable' country, with him having painted several landscapes of the area.
Ok, that enough facts and figures, on to why I think Manningtree is such a lovely place to live and visit, starting with.
I still find it hard to believe how good the rail links are for such a small town. There are two train stations in the area, Manningtree itself and Mistley, both of which are about 15-20 minutes walk from the High Street. Although I must say that not only are the trains that go through Mistley nicer, but the walk from Mistley station along The Walls into the centre of Manningtree is much more scenic (more on that later). With both stations the trains run from London Liverpool Street with a half hourly service to Manningtree and hourly to Mistley.
There are also buses that run from Colchester, Harwich and Clacton, but I will say that it's actually cheaper to travel to and from Colchester by train. Buses to Colchester and Harwich run every half hour, except for School home time, when the bus is diverted to the school run. The Clacton bus only runs every two hours, but also services the two train stations, for those who would find the walk into town too difficult.
Although there are several taxi companies, each generally only has one or two cars operating at a time. This means there are often very long waits for a taxi (occasionally more than two hours) so it's recommended that you book in advance. I normally phone for a taxi before I even get on the train at Colchester or Ipswich and even then I occasionally have a wait. It's for this reason that I would recommend getting the train to Manningtree station as they have a lovely cafe/pub that not only serves food and drink but also gives you somewhere to sit out of the rain. Taxi fares are, however, reasonable and all the companies charge about the same for each journey.
Getting into Manningtree by car is fairly easy, although I don't actually own a car anymore and so have never driven myself. The town is well signposted, but no matter what route you take it will involve some small country roads. While this means you really do take the scenic route, with some gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside, it also means that you need to concentrate slightly more. Some of the bends are quite dangerous and there are some roads where there isn't room for two cars to pass (if you find these roads then you're taking the long route). Once in Manningtree it's almost impossible to get lost, the road system basically goes in a circle. There is also a free car park just off the High Street.
==Somewhere To Lay Your Head==
I can't say that I've ever needed to stay in a hotel or B&B in Manningtree (after all I do live here), but there are a few dotted around. The Mistley Thorn looks lovely from the outside and has a restaurant specialising in local seafood, including oysters. There are other hotels in the area, but The Thorn is the one that's really grabbed my attention. Another option is to stay in Colchester, Clacton, Ipswich or Harwich and then visit for the day.
==Born To Shop and Party==
If shopping is your thing, then I'm afraid Manningtree really isn't the place for you. There is only one supermarket in the area, a Co-op, that I find quite expensive with limited stock. There is also a Tesco Express, which stocks even fewer lines and seems to add a premium when compared to their larger shops. There are supermarkets a 20-30 minute drive away, including two large Tescos, Sainsburys and Morrisons, but to be honest I tend to get my main shopping delivered, as this works out cheaper than bus/train fares.
There is one pharmacy to serve the town, which is located in a very small Boots. Again, this Boots only sells very limited stock, but you can get anything they sell online delivered to the store free of charge and then pick it up. The pharmacy also picks up prescriptions and delivers medication once a week, which is great as I'm not particularly mobile.
The High Street is small, I always joke 'blink and you'll miss it', but has a reasonable variety of shops. There is a lovely, traditional bakery, that sells a nice range of bread, cakes and pastries at prices that compete with the Co-op. The bakery also has a small café area, that serves sandwiches, hot beverages and cream teas. What I really like though, is that they also sell the flour and yeast that they use, and this is vastly superior to anything I can buy in a supermarket. There is also a deli/coffee shop that sells some unusual delicacies, although I don't eat cheese myself, I'm reliably informed that their flavoured cheddar cheeses are well worth the 3 for £12.
Other shops include a boutique, toy/gift/card shop, a couple of hairdressers, florists, iron mongers and art gallery. There isn't a butchers or greengrocers, but there is a farm shop that sells vegetables (fairly cheap) and local meat (quite expensive). The market is held twice a week, and while it's really not a large market, it does give a chance to buy fresh fish, meat and cheap tinned goods. There is also a farmer's market once a month in Lawford, where more unusual goods and home-made produce can be bought. There is also a nice garden centre in Lawford (Heart's Delight) that as well as selling gardening goods, also has a restaurant that serves a delicious roast dinner, that tastes just like home-cooked, but without the hassle of actually cooking.
As well as the few shops there are a number of pubs in the Town centre, many of which serve food as well as drinks. There are also a few takeaways, ranging from Thai to fish and chips, but there are no big name chains, so you won't be able to get a McDonalds.
Nightlife in Manningtree is virtually non-existent, although there are the pubs there are no clubs. If you're staying here and want to party then you'll have to go out of town. This means that Manningtree is a very safe place to visit even late at night, the crime rate is very low, averaging about 6-9 recorded crimes a month (with the majority of those being shop lifting).
==Beautiful and Historic Manningtree==
Let's be honest, if you're planning to stay or visit Manningtree, it's not for the shops. Rather it's for the beautiful scenery, historic buildings and other places of interest.
The most picturesque views are probably to be had by taking a stroll along 'The Walls', which runs alongside the Stour estuary between Manningtree and Mistley. The estuary is a haven for all manner of wildlife, including lots of different species of wildfowl. I don't pretend to be an expert, but I'm sure there is plenty here to keep the avid birdwatcher more than happy. This area is also famous for it's swans, of which there are literally hundreds. These swans are very used to human contact, and will come up onto the grass verges and even the road to be fed. There are plenty of benches along this stretch of road, along with a burger van and a shelter at the Mistley end. There are also some very informative signs giving information on what species of plants and animals you might be able to see.
Once at the Mistley end of The Walls, it's well worth visiting Mistley Place Park, a sanctuary that takes in all manner of unwanted animals and is open to the public. Although there is a small entrance fee, there is plenty to see, and it's always fun to feed the animals. It's also within Mistley Place Park that you'll find the infamous ducking pond, used to seal the fate of so many women in the 17th century. The path round this pond does get quite muddy though.
Other sites to see in the Mistley area are the Mistley Towers. This Grade I listed building is all that remains of the 18th century St Mary the Virgin Church. It's free to visit these towers, but keys need to be obtained from a key holder to do so. The towers do look very grandiose and I often wonder what the actual church looked like. A little further along, opposite Mistley Place Park, you'll find another church, St Mary's and St Michael's, which is still in use, and although I don't know exactly how old it is, it does seem to be of quite an age.
By following the road from the walls, you'll come to the recently restored swan fountain, which is a little unusual and unsurprisingly shaped as a swan. In this same area you'll find the Mistley Quay Café and workshops, where you can grab a meal or browse the various crafts. But a work of warning, these are accessed via a staircase, so if you have a child in a buggy or mobility problems you probably should give this a miss.
Going back into Manningtree, it's worth taking a look at the town clock. Have a good look and see if you can work out what's unusual about it. All right I'll give you the answer, two of the numbers (7&8) are the wrong way round. Although the town was given the chance for this to be changed, it was decided that it should stay quirky. There is also a very small museum in Manningtree itself, which is located within the library and is only open two mornings and one afternoon a week. Manningtree also has it's very own beach, albeit a very small one, but it is clean, there is sand for the children to play in and the water is quite shallow.
If you enjoy taking walks in the countryside, then you really are spoilt for choice here. There are a plethora of footpaths taking you though the surrounding area and there are often organised walks. The walk to Flatford Mill is particularly scenic, taking you on a 4 mile return trip through Constable country starting from Manningtree station.
==In The Area==
Being approximately halfway between Clacton and Colchester, Manningtree makes an ideal base for visiting both of these towns. There's plenty in Colchester, no matter what your thing is, there are clubs a plenty, historical buildings (including the castle), shops and even the zoo. Colchester is easy to get to by train, bus or car, with the train journey taking approximately 10 minutes. Clacton is a little harder to get to, but if garish seaside towns are your thing, then you'll love it here, with the large beach, pier and amusement arcades. If you're willing to travel a little further, then Ipswich features a much larger range of shops, and Norwich is only about an hour away by train.
Living In Manningtree
I live on the outskirts of Manningtree (in Lawford) and I'm really surprised at how much I love the area. The whole town is very quiet and family orientated with an extremely low crime rate. I really do feel safe living here, especially having come from a much noisier town. The schools have an excellent reputation, with people willing to travel miles to keep their children attending after moving out of the area. The town is also served by Sure Start, with regular activities for younger children and their families. There is a also a leisure centre (attached to the High School) but there isn't a swimming pool.
The fact that we have an active parish council as well as district council, means that there are ways to have a say in what goes on in the area. The roads are all well-maintained, something that really becomes noticeable on leaving the town. There was a lot in the new about how badly damaged the roads were by the seasonal weather early this year, and how long it was going to fix. Well, the main roads in Manningtree have already been resurfaced and there isn't a sign of pot holes. We're also surrounded by countryside and farms, so my baby will grow up being able to actually see sheep, cows and horses. Sure, we don't really have much choice when it comes to shopping, but there's always the internet or we can get the train into the larger towns.
All in all, Manningtree is a lovely place to live, quiet, friendly, safe and surrounded by Constable Country, what better place can you think of to bring up a family.
Ok, so Manningtree is not the most 'happening' place to either live or visit, but it is a lovely, quiet historic town with good links to larger towns. For those who prefer the more peaceful pursuits, then Manningtree is an ideal place to visit, with plenty to keep the historical buff interested. Manningtree also makes a great base for making day trips, as there is enough within an hours travelling time to fill any day.
Manningtree is also a wonderful place to live, the people are so friendly it's unbelievable. I challenge anyone to walk down the street without encountering at least one 'Good Morning' and smile. Ok, we don't have the facilities that a bigger town has, but again, it's not really that far to go to find them.