The county town of Essex sits at the confluence of the Rivers Can and Chelmer. Being 30 miles from the centre of London, Chelmsford has a population of commuters working in London’s City and Docklands, but has also been a big regional employer since Guglielmo Marconi established his Wireless Telegraph Company here.
For heritage, Hylands House is an 18th-century villa in vast grounds that are open to the public as a country park, welcoming the V Festival (now RiZE) since 1996. Chelmsford’s renovated city museum is a must, as is the Essex Police Museum, while a brief drive will bring you to the Tudor Ingatestone Hall and the picture perfect Royal Horticultural Society garden at Hyde Hall.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Chelmsford:
1. Hylands Estate
Chelmsford City Council rescued this Neoclassical villa from dereliction in 1966 and organises festivals, children’s days and markets in its grounds.
Restoration work lasted until 2005, and Hylands House opens for community events and is also rented out for opulent weddings.
If you fancy a look around there’s a schedule of open days to peruse interiors that date back as far as the 1730s.
The stable block contains a gift shop, cafe and artists’ studios.
Everyday visitors can make the most of the 574-acre country park, venturing through ancient woodland and meticulously tended Victorian formal gardens.
The accessible children’s adventure playground near the entrance to the park is styled on a Medieval fortress and has picked up awards.
2. Chelmsford Cathedral
The Church of St Mary became the Chelmsford Cathedral in 1914 with the foundation of the Chelmsford Diocese.
That church was consecrated around the start of the 13th century, but was rebuilt in the 1400s and 1500s, and required interventions to the nave and chancel in the 19th century.
Chelmsford Cathedral is the third smallest in the country, and has held onto lots of its Perpendicular Gothic stonework in the nave and lower part of the chancel.
The nave ceiling reconstructed up to 1803 has circular plaster mouldings painted in pastel shades.
The South Porch was enlarged in 1953 to commemorate the cooperation between British and American forces in the Second World War.
Note the American Window, which has the stars and stripes, and the arms of the US Air Force and George Washington.
3. Chelmsford Museum
As the county town of Essex, Chelmsford has a high-quality town museum that deserves to be in your plans.
The setting is impressive too, at Oaklands House, the Victorian mansion for entrepreneur Charles Pertwee, with a peculiar neo-Romanesque campanile.
The museum has a recent multimillion pound extension and reveals many different facets of Chelmsford’s past.
You can find out about local industry, investigating R. E. B. Crompton’s trailblazing electrical engineering works, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company, or Hoffmann Ball Bearings, another big employer.
One of the UK’s most revered artists, Grayson Perry, is a Chelmsford native, and there’s an exhibition of his idiosyncratic pottery.
The Story of Chelmsford exhibition is a timeline recording thousands of years of history, via Ice Age mammoth bones, Roman and Celtic coins and a model of Chelmsford’s Marconi and Hoffmann Factories created by the Luftwaffe in preparation for an attack, and discovered at a German airfield after the war.
4. Central Park
For a moment of peace, this park curls along the north bank of the River Can in the centre of Chelmsford.
The park is divided into meadows, pastures, a nature reserve, a war memorial garden and a large lake with geese and swans.
On the south shore is the Cake at the Lake cafe, a pillar of local life, while the Central Park Viaduct brings some spectacle to the park.
This eye-catching, 18-arch construction dates to 1842 and was built for the Eastern Counties Railway.
Be sure to take walk along the River Can, and you may forget that you’re in the middle of one of the largest cities in Essex.
5. Essex Police Museum
A trip through more than 150 years of policing and justice in the county of Essex, this museum is at the Essex Police Headquarters next door to Chelmsford Prison.
Many of the exhibits hark back to the Victorian period and 20th century, when justice was swift and brutal.
The museum has the death mask of Frederick Browne, convicted of the murder of a policeman in 1928 and hanged four months later.
Other morbid artefacts are the shoes of Camille Holland, killed in the notorious Moat Farm Murder of 1898, which made national news.
On the lighter side you can step into a Victorian Cell and inspect a Noddy Bike, a small four-stroke bike used by officers in the mid-20th century.
Youngsters can dress up as an officer and have their prints taken.
6. Shire Hall
The most handsome secular building the centre of Chelmsford, the Shire Hall is a Neoclassical courthouse completed in 1791. On New Street, take a moment to appreciate the pediment and four Ionic columns, between which there are three bas-reliefs representing Justice, Wisdom and Mercy.
The facade is made from Portland Stone, brought here from Dorset, while this very spot had been the site of a court from the turn of the 13th century all the way through to 2012 when the court finally closed.
As a listed building Shire Hall is in no danger, and as of June 2018 there were plans to convert it into a restaurant and community space.
7. RHS Garden Hyde Hall
An indispensible day out in summer, this garden is one of four around England maintained by the Royal Horticultural Society.
In 360 acres, the garden was first planted in 1955 on a hilltop enclosed in arable farmland and with panoramic views in every direction.
The 60 trees bought at the market in Wickford nearby formed the basis of Hyde Hall’s Woodland Garden.
At its core Hyde Hall has a strict formal plan, with roses framed by cypress hedges, giving way to open meadows and grassland in the outer reaches.
There’s endless inspiration to take from the herbaceous borders, courtyard garden, water features like an ornamental lake below Clove Hill, and a dry garden with succulents and cactuses.
Hyde Hall also has a modern visitor centre with a gift shop, cafe and nursery.
8. Ingatestone Hall
A five-mile drive from Chelmsford, this Tudor house was built by Sir William Petre in the 16th century, and is still home to his descendants.
William Petre was Secretary of State to a succession of Tudor monarchs, from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I (she stayed here for a spell in 1561), and he acquired this manor after the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Ingatestone Hall has the intricate and elongated chimney pots that are a hallmark of Tudor Houses.
These climb above crow-stepped gables and around a courtyard with a crenellated turret climbed by a spiral staircase.
A guided tour will show you through eight rooms, rich with tapestries, period furniture, portraits and fine oak panelling.
Your guide will fill you on the story of the Petres and the illustrious figures who have spent time at Ingatestone Hall.
9. Jump Street
On a retail park heading east of Chelmsford, Jump Street is essentially a trampoline park, but warrants a mention for its size and ingenuity.
Almost the whole floor of this massive warehouse is laid with trampolines, for energy-intensive and safe fun for kids and grownups alike.
Adults can get a low-impact cardio workout at a fitness class, but Jump Street’s main appeal comes its activities for kids.
There are daily “open jump” sessions, when youngsters are let loose in the park to take on the Bag, a giant air-filled crash mat, and Toxic Wipeout, when they have to avoid a rotating soft barrier.
10. Civic Theatre
At the Civic Centre, Chelmsford’s largest theatre was given a refit in 2016 and can seat an audience of 504, in the stalls and balcony above.
For parents in Chelmsford during the school holidays the Civic Theatre has a packed schedule of activity days and child-oriented shows.
Beyond this there’s a year-round programme of drama, live music, comedy, musicals and dance.
You can also attend talks by famous figures like politicians, historians and sports people.
The Civic Theatre screens new Hollywood movies, along with classics, independent films, and live feeds from London’s Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne.
11. Sandford Mill Museum
Not normally open to the public, Sandford Mill can be visited on an open day or simply by contacting Chelmsford Borough Council.
On the River Chelmer, the mill is the site of Chelmsford’s former waterworks, which became a repository for the town’s industrial artefacts, hosting exhibits relating to electrical engineering, telecommunications and rolling bearings.
A lot of the infrastructure from the waterworks, like dials, historic turbines and control panels, is still in situ, along with specially designed exhibits to get kids thinking about concepts like sound waves, aerodynamics and friction.
12. Chelmsford City Miniature Railway
A labour of love, this miniature railway on Meteor Way by the River Can is run by the Chelmsford Society of Model Engineers, and you’ll be won over by the dedication that goes into it all.
The miniature railway operates on Sunday afternoons, from April to October and has a special charity day in October, when all proceeds go to a good cause in the area.
There’s a range of tracks for youngsters to ride on, as well as a set of beautifully maintained miniature steam traction engines and an array of static train models.
13. Chelmsford City Racecourse
After the original Chelmsford Racecourse in Galleywood closed down in 1935, Chelmsford and the whole county of Essex had been without a horseracing venue until this new course opened in 2008. It became the first new racecourse in the country for more than 80 years and after a difficult first few years was relaunched under new ownership in 2014. Chelmsford City hosts races on the flat all year round, though the season really comes to life in summer with the blue ribbon race, the Queen Charlotte Fillies’ Stakes and a “Ladies’ Day”, both around the end of June.
There are floodlit races and the larger events close with live music and DJs.
14. High Chelmer
As a regional commercial hub, many of Chelmsford’s visitors are shoppers.
Their first port of call will be this expansive shopping centre, in the middle of the town, a three-minute walk from the train station.
High Chelmer has a whole spectrum of stores, from upmarket retailers like Bang & Olufsen to English High Street mainstays like Next, New Look, Miss Selfridge, Office, Game, Clarks and Primark.
There’s also a club shop for the football team Tottenham Hotspur, which has a big following in Essex.
Food-wise you can pick from fast food like Subway to fast casual chains, like the popular pasta eatery, Carluccio’s.
High Chelmer is part of an extensive shopping area that continues east to department stores like John Lewis and Marks and Spencer, and the Meadows Shopping Centre.
15. RiZE Festival
Launched in 1996, the V Festival took place in the extensive parkland of Hylands House over the third weekend of August.
For more than 20 years, huge names from Jay Z, to Radiohead, Eminem and Sonic Youth played the festival, and the V Festival became a stalwart of the British Festival season alongside Reading and Glastonbury.
In 2017 Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, which put the “V” in the name, withdrew sponsorship, casting doubt on the future of the event.
But the festival was relaunched under a new name, RiZE, in 2018. On the bill at the inaugural RiZE festival were Liam Gallgher, the Stereophonics and Rita Ora.