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The great escape

The islands of Essex

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Oysters, reggae, Dickensian inns – all not much more than an hour’s train ride from London.

Places of note Dotted around the coast near Colchester lie 30 tidal islands. The village centre of Mersea, the capital of sorts, has delis and antiques shops, while West Mersea has the best beach, lined with pastel-coloured beach huts that can be hired for the day. Book a 20-minute ride around the bay or a two-hour sunset cruise (from £3.30; essexboattrips.co.uk). Fossil fans should head to Cudmore Grove Country Park. For wildlife, go to Ray Island, Skipper’s Island or Two Tree Island, where, amid the rolling grasslands, you’ll find plenty of redshank, oystercatchers and wildfowl.

Famous faces Osea is the UK equivalent of Necker, Richard Branson’s private island, says The Times. Bob Marley and Rihanna have recorded music there, the Delevingnes have hired it out for parties, and its Roman causeway, which is only accessible twice a day at low tide, made an appearance in Daniel Radcliffe’s 2012 film The Woman in Black.

To eat The Company Shed, on Mersea, is famous for its oysters, and the Lobster Smack, on Canvey, is also worth a visit – it’s said to have inspired the inn in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.

1 To stay

The islands aren’t blessed with boutique hotels but the Victory at Mersea is a smart Edwardian pub with large modern rooms – some with freestanding baths and balconies from which to soak up the sea views. From £130 a night.

2 To rent

Grade II listed Monkey Beach Cottage has been in the same family for decades, and wooden beams, antiques, oil paintings and piles of books combine to give it a homely feel. It sleeps up to seven, with three bedrooms, two sitting rooms, two bathrooms and a pretty garden. The West Mersea Oyster Bar is a couple of minutes’ walk away. From £750 per week.

3 To Airbnb

For seclusion, try Manor Beach 2, on the privately owned 400-acre island of Osea. Right by the beach, the stylish two-bedroom cottage sleeps four and has ensuite bathrooms and a cosy dining and living area with a wood burner. £570 per night.

4 To buy

This grade II listed manor house close to the water’s edge is one of the oldest on Mersea. It has a private driveway, estuary views, four bedrooms, a pretty garden and a large conservatory with a trapdoor that leads down to a 1,000-bottle wine cellar. £1.395m.