Historic environment

Thousands of years of settlement

The Essex coastline has attracted human settlement and exploitation for thousands of years, resulting in an outstanding legacy of historic landscape features, buried archaeology, buildings, defences, industrial and maritime remains.

Archaeology along the coast can be exceptionally well preserved. Within the mud flats of the inter-tidal areas, waterlogged prehistoric land surfaces contain a wide range of archaeological evidence, including timber structures and organic material that simply doesn’t survive on dry land sites. In places it is possible to see the remains of forests more than 4000 years old. Such evidence can provide important clues as to past environmental change and its relationship with human activity.

Later exploitation of inter-tidal areas is represented by timber fish traps, which survive from the Saxon period. Oyster pits are a common feature, and Red Hills, the remains of Roman sea salt production, are another widespread archaeological site along the coast. Many Red Hills survive in unploughed grazing marshes, which represent some of the best preserved historic landscapes in the county.

Coastal grazing marshes have been of great economic importance for farming in Essex since the medieval period, and the seawalls that protect them are the largest archaeological earthworks in the county. Distinctive star-fish shaped decoy-ponds, used to catch wildfowl between the 17th and early 20th century, were once a common feature of the Essex marshes.

For thousands of years the Essex coast allowed access to continental Europe and, in the last few centuries, the world beyond. The timber skeletons of boats and barges, and former landing places hidden down estuaries and creeks, serve to illustrate the importance of the coast for maritime trade and transport.

Periodic threat of invasion has resulted in a rich heritage of military defences around the coast dating from the Roman period to the 20th century. Over the last couple of centuries the coastal landscape of south Essex and along the Thames became increasingly built-up with a wide variety of installations, docks, factories, refineries and power stations, highlighting the importance of industry in the county.