Ben Shephard, Martina Cole, Beth Chatto and Ruthie Henshall - why they love Essex

In a special celebration of the county and all that it offers both residents and visitors, Visit Essex has invited some well-known Essex faces to share their thoughts on the county. Here they share those views with Essex Life

Ruthie Henshall

Award-winning singer, actress, dancer and TV personality, Ruthie Henshall is a star of stage and screen. Ruthie has played roles in hits, such as Cats, Miss Saigon, Chicago, Les Mis�rables, Oliver!, and Fosse. She moved to Manningtree six years ago and is now a judge on Dancing on Ice and presents Friday Night is Music Night.

Why is Essex special to you?I fell in love with Essex when I visited it as a child. I love the county's beautiful countryside. Because of my work, I need to be close to London, so Essex is ideal.

Can you tell us something about Essex we don’t know?That Essex doesn’t deserve such a bad reputation. It’s not all Essex girls.

Can you sum up Essex?A haven away from London, but close enough to commute.

What made you choose Essex as a place to raise your family?I have two children, aged four and six. My little girl goes to a village school with no more than 60 students in total. I love that she’s getting a good-quality education and is growing up surrounded by greenery.

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Have you performed in Essex?Many times. Around ten years ago I did a concert of Les Mis�rables in Hylands Park in Chelmsford. There was an amazing turnout with a crowd of thousands. People in Essex love theatre too.

Why is Essex special to you?I fell in love with Essex when I visited it as a child. I love the county’s beautiful countryside. Because of my work, I need to be close to London, so Essex is ideal

Where is your favourite place to eat out in the county?The Italian restaurant, Lucca, near where I live in Manningtree. The chefs are trained in Italy, it has wood-fired ovens and is very child friendly. It’s a London-quality restaurant right on my doorstep. The Thorn Restaurant in Mistley is another of my favourites – it’s great to have good places to eat so close by.

What is your fondest memory of Essex?Crabbing at Wrabness beach. It’s a hidden gem in Essex, a tidal, muddy, area which means it’s great for crabbing.

Where should all visitors to the region go?Constable Country, on the Essex and Suffolk border, is just amazing, especially for walking and boating. Another place of interest in Essex is the animal sanctuary in Mistley. A great place to take the kids where you can pet, walk with and feed the animals that have been rescued.

Martina Cole

Born and brought up in Averley, Martina Cole is the youngest of five children. She attended a convent school which she hated and left school at 15 with no qualifications. She first became famous in 1992, when her debut novel, Dangerous Lady, was bought by Headline for a then record-breaking advance and became an instant bestseller. Now, 17 years on and 15 novels later, Martina regularly tops the bestseller lists and total sales of her novels are now at nearly ten million copies. Martina still owns a home in Essex and retains close ties to her roots.

Why is Essex special to you?It’s where I grew up and a lot of my good friends are still in Essex. Some of the greatest and some of the worst times in my life were here. I only have to hear the song Kung Fu Fighting and I am transported back to the Circus Tavern.

What is your fondest memory of Essex?All the big landmarks in my life are in Essex, like my first home in West Thurrock. Another great memory is the birth of my son in the special baby unit at Basildon Hospital. At 10lbs, nobody believed how big he was! I had my daughter in Essex too, at Southend Hospital.

When you are away from Essex, what do you miss most?The one thing I always miss is that the people are very friendly. You can be at a bus stop and people will talk to each other. People really help each other out.

Where is your favourite place to eat out in the county?My favourite restaurant is Ancora in Hadleigh. Lovely people run it and I had my daughter’s first birthday there. When Dangerous Lady was televised, I had the party there. This is closely followed by La Quinta in Benfleet, where I lived for 19 years.

Do you have a favourite place to shop in Essex?Apart from Lakeside, I do love Brentwood. I also used to pop over to Battlesbridge Antiques Centre a lot.

What’s the best Essex contact in your little black book?In Essex you need to have a big black book. My main contacts are my friends, who all still come to see me. If I am researching for a new book, I can always find what I need in Essex.

Where should visitors to the region go?I would tell visitors to make sure they visit our countryside. I would recommend places like Maldon, and Colchester’s good for Roman history. Essex isn’t just about nightclubs: there are some beautiful places that can compete with anywhere in the world.

Can you tell us something about Essex we don’t know?Essex has some of the oldest churches in the country. Also, more girls in Essex pass their GCSEs than elsewhere in the country. I’ve always been a big advocate for the Essex girl.

Can you sum up Essex?Beautiful countryside, friendly people and great food.

What do you think the future holds for Essex?I think that it is going from strength to strength. More and more big properties are coming on to the market and it is becoming a more desirable place to live.

Ben Shephard

Epping’s Ben Shephard got his big break as a TV presenter in March 1998 when he hosted Channel 4’s teen TV review programme, Control Freaks. Now Ben is a regular on GMTV and has recently presented ITV shows The Krypton Factor and Dancing on Ice Friday. Ben is married to Annie and has two children, Samuel and Jack. As a teenager, Ben played rugby for Essex and was in the South East England’s football team.

Why is Essex special to you?Because it’s the only county that quite rightly celebrates Ford Escorts, fluffy dice and white socks.

What’s your fondest memory of Essex?I have very fond memories of the park near where I lived in Epping, called Stonards Hill. I spent hours playing football, riding my bike and discovering the pleasure and traumas of girls in that park.

Where is your favourite place to go to eat out in the county?I love eating at the Theydon Bois Balti House. The guys in there are so friendly, the food is great and it means I am with my family, which is always very special and the old man will pay.

Can you sum up Essex in five words?Honest, loud, brash, loyal and underrated

Can you sum up Essex in five words?Honest, loud, brash, loyal and underrated

Where should all visitors to the region go?I spent most of my childhood and teenage years at Woodford Rugby Club. The view from the club house balcony is one of the best I know and I would thoroughly recommend an afternoon watching a match, having a drink and taking in the view. Just don’t accept a game of suicide chess.

What’s the best Essex contact in your little black book?I think I still have a number for the Epping Forest Country Club, even though I never went there and I’m not sure it still exists. It was a place of myth and legend when I was growing up, so I can’t bring myself to delete it.

Can you tell us something about Essex we don’t know?My parents rented a farmhouse for a while in High Ongar, which was apparently where the words to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star were written. Oh, and there’s a secret nuclear bunker in Ongar, too, which obviously isn’t as secret as it should be.

Beth Chatto

A celebrated plantswoman, gardener and writer, despite having no formal horticultural training, Beth Chatto was inspired by her parents’ enthusiastic gardening. Her husband’s lifelong study of natural associations of plants and her friendship with the great plantsman and artist, Sir Cedric Morris, were also significant influences on a life dedicated to plants. The Beth Chatto Gardens began at Elmstead Market in 1960.

Why is Essex special to you?I am an Essex girl (now 86!). I was born in Good Easter in 1923, but we moved from there to Great Chesterford when I was two years old. From there, we moved to Elmstead Market when I was 12. I was educated at Colchester County High School for Girls and from 1941-43 I was a student at Hockerill Teacher Training College in Bishop’s Stortford. In 1943 I married Andrew Chatto, a fruit farmer in Elmstead Market. He influenced me to a new approach to gardening through 50 years of research into the natural homes of garden plants until he died ten years ago, aged 90. Inspired by his work, I have made the gardens here, and, through lecturing and writing, pioneered the idea of setting plants adapted by nature to problem places, for example, drought-tolerant plants for dry gardens or shade-lovers for shade.

What advice would you give visitors to Essex?Because I am country born and have always lived in the country, I would recommend a stranger to avoid the overdeveloped conurbations, although I am well aware we need housing, amenities, etc. Seek out the smaller towns and villages tucked away on the quieter roads, especially in north-west Essex. For holidays, the coastline and marshes offer patches of undeveloped natural beauty, while there is ample opportunity for sailing.

Where should all visitors to the region go?For anyone interested in history, architecture or the history of architecture, there is much to discover and admire, especially the churches. You’ll find varying styles of domestic architecture throughout the ages in the centres of many Essex towns and villages.

What makes gardening in Essex special?Essex gardens are subject to a wide, not always favourable, range ofconditions. The amount of rainfall can be the governing factor, whetherfor farming or gardening. Global warming is affecting our climate, exacerbating extremes. In some areas they have floods while others aredrought-stricken. Where I live, the rainfall is the lowest in the country, so droughts are a regular problem. We have 20 inches of rainfall per year: 10 inches in winter and 10 inches in summer. We usually get the tail end of a storm while a few miles away there would be a useful downpour. Because some of my garden is spring fed, while other parts are dry gravel, I have been able, by using plants adapted to varying conditions, to turn problem areas into advantages.

These words and images have been used courtesy of Visit Essex. You can read more thoughts on the county from other famous residents at

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