This suburban town is just outside the M25 ring road and many residents make the short commute from Brentwood to Canary Wharf and the City of London each day.
But while the District Line’s eastern terminus is only a few miles away at Upminster, Brentwood has a rural feel for the open countryside, golf courses and enormous country parks that roll out from the edge of town.
Thorndon and Weald Country Parks promise restful nature for grown-ups and a lot of fun for smaller children as they have affectionately-designed trails based on the works of children’s author Julia Donaldson.
Families will also be pleased with the Hopefield Animal Sanctuary and Old MacDonald’s farm, while Ingatestone Hall was a hideout for Catholic priests in Tudor England.
1. Hopefield Animal Sanctuary
More than 500 mistreated, sick or unwanted animals have found a happy home at this non-profit rescue centre.
Many of the Hopefield Animal Sanctuary’s animals arrived suffering from some form of neglect, and you can find out what some of these creatures have been through, and see how they are thriving today.
Among the many residents are donkeys, alpacas, marmosets, reindeer, fallow deer, horses, goats, sheep, ducks, reptiles, rabbits and cats.
The sanctuary is open in spring and summer and keeps its many inhabitant in large paddocks, enclosures, aviaries and terrariums.
There are 28 different habitats to check out, including a reptile house and two birds of prey displays, as well as a tearoom and picnic/play area.
2. Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker
There’s an amazing holdover from the Cold War under a nondescript-looking house in the countryside not far north of Brentwood.
A Cold War museum since it was decommissioned in the early-90s, this secret nuclear bunker was developed in line with a plan to improve the UK’s air defences in the early 1950s.
By the 1980s this was an RGHQ (Regional Government Headquarters) designed to maintain order and coordinate the recovery in the event of a nuclear strike.
The bunker was kitted out with generators, radio and military telecommunications equipment, as well as its own water supply and air-conditioning system.
Hundreds of people would have been able to survive here for months.
While the facility has been turned into a visitor attraction (via an audio tour), all of its equipment is in place as a surreal memento from a not-too-distant chapter of history.
3. Thorndon Country Park
South of Brentwood is 500 acres of woods, meadows and parkland on high ground.
Thorndon North is wilder, and is mostly cloaked in woodland around the Childerditch Pond.
This is a haven for migrant and overwintering birds like redpolls, siskins and bramblings, and is lovely in spring when the anemones and bluebells are out.
The Countryside Centre in Thorndon North has a tearoom and shop selling jams and Gruffalo-themed merchandise relating to the Gruffalo Trail, which we’ll talk about below.
Kite-flying heaven, Thorndon South is much more open, and commands views as far as Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands.
The Pavilion Café here is open on weekends and school holidays, and there’s a dog activity trail with tunnels, ramps, jumps and hoops.
4. Gruffalo Trail
Worthy of its own paragraph, the Gruffalo Trail in Thorndon North is a lovingly designed woodland walking trail recreating the wonder of the Deep Dark Wood and dotted with representations of Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo characters.
There’s a Gruffalo of course, as well as the mouse, snake, fox and owl.
You can get hold of a cute illustrated map for this self-guided trail for 50p from the Countryside Centre in Thorndon North, and the walk will take about 45 minutes.
5. Ingatestone Hall
This resplendent Tudor mansion a few miles out of Brentwood dates from 1539-1556 and is designed on a U-plan, sporting stepped gables and ornate long chimneys.
Ingatestone Hall, home of Secretary of State Sir William Petre, was visited by Queen Elizabeth I on her Royal Progress in 1561. What’s interesting is that the Petre family were Catholics, at a time when this faith was being persecuted in England.
The family took in Catholic clergy, hiding them in priest holes.
One of these was John Payne, who was executed in 1582 to become one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
You can see these priest holes, oak-panelled rooms and hundreds of years worth of art and furniture, on a guided tour on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons from Easter to the end of September.
6. Weald Country Park
Even though Weald Hall was demolished in 1951, the 500-acre estate is suffused with seven centuries of history.
This is now Weald Country Park but the rambling landscape dates back to a design by Capability Brown in the 1730s and 40s.
There are enormous ancient trees, ceremonious avenues, ponds, wildflower meadows and dreamy vistas from the north end that may catch you by surprise.
By the ponds you’ll see herons and a lot of waterfowl, while there’s an enclosed deer park, and cattle are often put out to graze on this land.
The park is laced with bridleways, cycle paths and walking trails, while youngsters will enjoy the Stick Man Play Trail, based on the popular character by Julia Donaldson.
7. Warley Place Nature Reserve
More than a simple nature reserve, Warley Place is on a former garden planted by the eminent horticulturalist Ellen Willmott (1858-1934), who cultivated more than 100,000 plant species and cultivars.
She also accumulated a lot of debt, and eventually had to sell Warley Place.
The garden grew over and her house was pulled down in 1939. What’s fascinating is that some of the exotic plants from Willmott’s day survive, while fragments of the house’s walls, as well as its cellars can be discovered in the reserve.
From late-winter Warley Place is a must for its flowers, from snowdrops to crocuses, daffodils, camellias, bluebells and magnolia.
There’s also a grand row of sweet chestnuts, and a beautiful array of woodland and meadow butterflies in the summer.
8. Brentwood Cathedral
You would be forgiven for thinking that this English Baroque-style monument on Ingrave Road was at least 300 years old.
But Brentwood Cathedral, by architect Quinlan Terry, was only consecrated in 1991. It is the seat of the Roman Catholic Brentwood Diocese and incorporates a small neo-Gothic church from the 1860s.
Quinlan Terry took his design cues from the Italian Renaissance, and more overtly Christopher Wren’s reconstructed churches of the late-17th century.
Students of Classical architecture will note that all of classical orders are represented inside – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan and Composite, while the Wren-style windows on each of the walls drench the interior with light throughout the day.
The sculptor Raphael Maklouf designed the terracotta roundels depicting the 15 stations of the cross in the spandrels between the arcades.
9. Mountnessing Windmill
This quaint post mill goes back to 1807 and took the place of an even earlier mill.
In fact records show that there has been a mill here since 1477, and it is thought that the current building used timber from its predecessor.
Mountnessing Windmill is a Grade II* monument, with a brick base and weatherboard body.
Flour was milled here until the 1930s, and then it was restored in 1937 as a tribute to the newly crowned King George VI. After another update in 1983 the mill is in full working order, turning two pairs of millstones.
You can stop by in Mountnessing just to see it from the outside, or take a look around on the third Sunday afternoon of the month, between April and September.
10. Chapel Ruins
In Medieval times, what is now Brentwood was a crossroads in the Great Forest, on the routes from Colchester to London, and from East Anglia to Thomas Becket’s pilgrimage site at Canterbury Cathedral.
So the first thing to be built here was a chapel, around 1221, the ruins of which are still visible in Brentwood’s town centre.
In a little garden on the High Street you can check out the irregular ragstone and flint walls.
The intricate doorway mouldings show that this building was reworked near the end of the 14th century, while the conglomerate blocks lower down hint that there may have been a chapel here before the 13th century.
11. Brentwood Museum
The town museum is a small attraction run by volunteers, and should be in your plans if you’re around on a weekend in the summer.
For one, the setting is interesting, at the lodge of an old cemetery that has been turned into a nature reserve.
The museum chronicles domestic and social history in Brentwood from 1840 to 1970. A lot of space is given to the two World Wars, with exhibitions of uniforms, ration books, newspaper cuttings, wireless radios and gasmasks.
There’s also a room filled with manual laundry tools, including a genuine clothes wringer and washboard.
12. Brentwood Park Ski & Snowboard Centre
A popular local amenity, Brentwood’s expansive dry ski slope looks over more than 50 acres of woodland.
If you want to hone your ski or snowboard skills this is a great place to come, especially if you’ve got a winter sports holiday coming up.
A wide choice of lessons is available, whether you’re an absolute beginner or want to learn some new techniques for the slopes.
You may just want to feel the freedom of gliding downhill without travelling further than Essex! One activity that has almost no learning curve and needs no lessons, is tubing.
Children aged six and up can take part for as little as £14 an hour.
13. Barnards Farm Gardens
This bewitching garden is in more than 50 acres and opens as part of the National Gardens Scheme from April to August.
Barnards Farm features the national collection of crab apple trees (malus), which blossoms in spring and then in summer when it bears colourful fruit.
Closer to the house are formal gardens, like a parterre, potager, living wall and an intricate Japanese garden, while out into the grounds the design becomes looser, where there’s a wood, stream, pond and stately long avenue.
The estate is littered with important sculpture by artists like Antony Gormley, Charmiane Cox, Elisabeth Frink and Jean-Marie Fondacaro.
For kids there’s a miniature railway, running on Thursdays throughout the school holidays, but also in the build-up to Christmas.
14. King George’s Playing Fields
The main urban park in Brentwood is to the south-east of the town centre, and a ten-minute walk from the train station.
This is a well-appointed place for the whole town to relax or get some exercise.
There are brightly planted formal gardens, and a sensory garden for blind or partially sighted visitors.
Families can make for the crazy golf course, while there’s a cafe, children’s playground, skate park and facilities for football, rugby, cricket and bowls.
Hartswood Golf Course in the park’s lower reaches is an 18-hole municipal course, open on a pay-and-play basis and with a great pro shop.
Casual play is just £19 on a weekday and £25 on the weekend.
15. Old MacDonald’s Farm
More of an amusement park than a simple petting zoo, Old Macdonald’s Farm has animal-themed fairground rides, a rollercoaster, animatronic shows, indoor and outdoor play areas, radio-controlled cars, tractor rides, JCB-style construction toys and many more things to get up to.
Of course, animals are still the soul of the attraction, and mini-farmers will be able to see or meet goats, donkeys, Shetland ponies, alpacas, chinchillas, guinea pigs, otters, rabbits, pigs, cows, tortoises, shire horses and a variety of owls.
The park has spearheaded a regional environmental project, and there’s an educational aspect to the animal enclosures on the “fun facts trail”, which presents child-friendly information about the park’s inhabitants.