15 Best Things to Do in Harlow (Essex, England)

Written by Alex Bird
Updated on
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A New Town in the west of Essex, Harlow was built after the Second World War to meet England’s Post-War housing shortage.

The man who led the design was Sir Frederick Gibberd who had a Utopian vision for Harlow as a place of edification, enriched with art.

He helped Harlow assemble one the of the greatest collections of public art in the country, with pieces by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Barbara Hepworth cropping up in unexpected places.

Harlow also has an artful urban design that distinguishes it from other New Towns, and the water gardens landscape in front of the recent Civic Centre is listed by English Heritage.

Frederick Gibberd’s home is a little way from the town centre, while Henry Moore’s studio and gardens are also in striking distance of Harlow.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Harlow:

1. Harlow Sculpture Trail

Harlow Sculpture TrailSource: dcurzon / shutterstock
Harlow Sculpture Trail

When Harlow was designed in the 1950s the lead planner Frederick Gibberd conceived the New Town as a place where the public would have access to important art.

He founded the Harlow Art Trust in 1953, which owns most of the 100+ works of public art strewn across the Harlow streetscape.

The chairman in the 1950s was Sir Philip Hendy, who was director of the National Gallery and secured some vital commissions, including Henry Moore’s family group, now at the foyer of the Civic Centre.

You can download a labelled map from the Harlow Council website, which also has details of a trail along the navigable River Stort.

Some of the must-sees are clustered in the very core of the town, where you’ll come across Rodin’s Eve, Elisabeth Frink’s Boar and William Mitchell’s Seven Relief/Mosaics at the Water Gardens, while The Philosopher by Keith Godwin is a few steps to the west.

2. Harlow Museum and Walled Gardens

Harlow Museum and Walled GardensSource: Looking for the unusal among the usual / Flickr
Harlow Museum And Walled Gardens

The town museum is in the stables and grounds of the 16th-century Mark Hall manor.

This once distinguished residence was visited by Queen Elizabeth I and her entourage on three occasions.

The four main galleries tell Harlow’s story across more than 2,000 years.

In Roman times the town was the scene of one of southern Britain’s key temples, and there’s a captivating display of artefacts including a jar decorated with strange phallic fish! The Living History gallery dives into the work of archaeologists and conservators, while on Saturdays there are “Time Detectives” workshops for young historians.

The Walled Gardens, once used to grow fruit and vegetables for Mark Hall, have a formal Tudor knot design made up of geometric boxwood hedges.

3. Harlow Town Park

Harlow Town ParkSource: Martell Brighten / shutterstock
Harlow Town Park

An annual Green Flag winner, Harlow Town Park blends five themed gardens with a host of facilities like a cafe, adventure playground, outdoor gym, paddling pool and Pets’ Corner, which we’ll talk about below.

You could lose an hour ambling around the Water Garden, Newfoundland Garden, Specimen Garden, Walled Garden and Sensory Garden.

There’s also a Lookout Hill and an excellent skate park that was unveiled in 2012. The cafe is a treat, as it takes up the ground floor of the mid-Victorian Spurriers House, which has just been restored.

If you’re in Harlow at the start of November, the whole town comes to the park for the Guy Fawkes bonfire and fireworks, while in summer there’s a series of concerts on weekends at the bandstand.

4. Pets’ Corner

Pets' CornerSource: Pets' Corner / facebook
Pets’ Corner

A beloved free attraction in the Harlow Town Park, this animal farm opened in 1966. Along with typical domestic species like goats, pigs, ducks, sheep, chickens and rabbits, there are also some more unusual inhabitants like llamas, alpacas and reindeer, as well as rare breeds like Tamworth and saddleback pigs and red poll cows.

You can buy animal feed for some of the residents, and stop by the Learning Centre, which has child-friendly information about the farm’s various species.

5. Gibberd Garden

Gibberd GardenSource: westher / Flickr
Gibberd Garden

Frederick Gibberd, the man who planned Harlow New Town, designed this garden at his home on the town’s northeast shoulder.

Frederick Gibberd worked on this nine-acre space from 1957 to 1984, embellishing it with sculptures and architectural fragments.

There are lawns, terraces, avenues and pools as well as a series of woodland glades on the slope down to the Pincey Brook.

The art in the garden comes from a mix of nationally-renowned sculptors like Elisabeth Frink and more obscure artists that Gibberd knew personally.

Small children will be diverted by the garden’s animal sculptures, as well as the moated castle and tree swing that Gibberd designed especially for his grandchildren.

After exploring the garden, you can grab a cup of tea and a piece of home-baked cake at the Barn Tearoom.

6. Harlow Playhouse

Harlow PlayhouseSource: Geoff Barber / Wikimedia
Harlow Playhouse

Harlow’s main performing arts venue has a 400-seat and a 120-seat theatre, and sits in a corner of the town centre being redeveloped as a cultural hub with a cinema, galleries and restaurants.

The programme is a feast of musicals, ballet, contemporary dance and guilty pleasures, as well as live music form tribute acts to venerable folk bands.

There’s a “Pay What You Can” series, opening the theatre up for everyone, as well as a calendar of workshops in the Studio 3. The popular Aerial Academy teaches circus skills and hosts leftfield activities like “aerial yoga”, combining yoga with acrobatics, dance and pilates.

7. Henry Moore Foundation

Henry Moore FoundationSource: Henry Moore Studios & Gardens / facebook
Henry Moore Foundation

Harlow’s two Henry Moore sculptures may kindle your interest for one of the 20th-century’s greatest artists.

And it just so happens that his home is only eight miles from Harlow and open Wednesday to Sunday from April to the end of October.

The Henry Moore Studios and Gardens presents Moore’s sculptures in 70 acres of beautiful countryside, as you may never have experienced his work before.

The indoor gallery puts on short-term exhibitions: In autumn 2018 there was a show for Moore’s carvings from stone or wood, while there are workshops for children here during school holidays.

For a small extra fee you can take a guided tour of Moore’s house, Hoglands, which is full of art, books and other personal possessions.

8. Ada Cole Rescue Centre

Redwings Horse SanctuarySource: Redwings Horse Sanctuary / facebook
Redwings Horse Sanctuary

From Friday to Monday you can come and see dozens of horses, donkeys and ponies at this sanctuary, all for free.

The Ada Cole Rescue Centre belongs to the Redwings Horse Sanctuary, which rescues and rehabilitates some 1,500 equines across the UK. You can take walking tours of the paddocks, watch horse care demonstrations and pet some of the friendlier inhabitants.

There’s a cafe at the centre, as well as a gift shop with proceeds going to the charity.

9. North Weald Airfield Museum

North Weald Airfield MuseumSource: Robert Edwards / Wikimedia
North Weald Airfield Museum

The aerodrome a few miles away at North Weald was an RAF base from 1916 to 1958, and the station house at the entrance to this former facility is now a museum to the base’s history.

This opens on weekends and has four main rooms, documenting the First World War and interwar years, the Battle of Britain, the remainder of the Second World War and the post-war Jet Age.

You can pore over collections of propellers, radios and photographs, and find out more about the various British and American squadrons that were based at North Weald in the Second World War.

You may also spot two vintage aircraft still based at the airfield: The only airworthy Supermarine Spitfire Mk XI and a P-51D Mustang 44-72035, which was stationed in Italy at the end of the war.

10. Rye Meads

Rye MeadsSource: Loretta Damska / shutterstock
Rye Meads

Just minutes from Harlow, this bucolic landscape of flooded meadows, lagoons and reedbeds is in the Lee Valley RAMSAR site and made up of three different nature reserves.

Rye Meads is prized for its profuse birdlife and at the RSPB reserve there’s a network of trails with hides to get a closer look.

In the winter you can usually spot gadwalls, golden plovers, green sandpipers, tufted ducks and shovelers, as well as otters in the water.

Out in force in summer are common terns, which make their nests on specially-designed rafts, while spring means lapwings, cuckoos and reed warblers.

Rye Meads also has artificial sandbanks, where you stand a good chance of sighting a kingfisher in summer, while the Herts Wildlife Trust puts Konik ponies out to graze on the grasslands.

11. Lee Valley Boat Centre

Lee Valley Boat CentreSource: leevalleyboats.co.uk
Lee Valley Boat Centre

On a warm summer’s day a trip on the navigable River Lee could be in order.

At this boatyard, just south of the Lee Valley Country Park you can skipper a wide assortment of electric and manual vessels for half an hour, an hour or even a full day.

You’ll need to book in advance to hire a boat for a day, but you can just show up for hour-long jaunts on a pedalo, rowboat or electric boat (4-8-seater).

12. Parndon Wood Nature Reserve

Parndon Wood Nature ReserveSource: Lynda Poulter / Wikimedia
Parndon Wood Nature Reserve

This tract of ancient woodland to the south of Harlow has a history going back 900 years and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The Parndon Wood Nature Reserve has also received the Green Flag award every year for more than a decade.

The 1.5-kilometre trail leads you past giant old oaks and low hornbeams coppiced for centuries to make poles.

If you’re a patient sort, you could while away some time at one of three hides, where you may spot a Muntjac deer or green woodpecker.

The wood also has a tearoom and a conservation centre with information posters about the habitat and an array of specimens.

13. Copped Hall

Copped HallSource: The Copped Hall Trust / facebook
Copped Hall

This distinguished Palladian mansion to the south of Harlow stood as a ruin for more than a century after suffering a fire in 1917. But as of 2018 the house is being restored, and the Copped Hall Trust welcomes the public for guided tours on selected days all year round.

The house is from the middle of 18th century, but the history of the estate can be traced back to Medieval times.

The view of Copped Hall’s parkland from the front of the building is spellbinding, and you can discover the colourful borders in the restored walled garden, which has a greenhouse with dainty ironwork in its roof.

14. Paradise Wildlife Park

Paradise Wildlife ParkSource: wwarby / Flickr
Paradise Wildlife Park

One of the best-reviewed zoos in the country is under ten miles across the Lee Valley from Harlow.

Paradise Wildlife Park has more than 500 animals and has taken part in EEP breeding programmes for endangered species like Burmese pythons, marmosets and tamarins.

The park’s inhabitants are found in seven distinct attractions, like the crowd-pleasing Big Cat Territory.

This is inhabited by some of the world’s most endangered feline species like white lions, Amur tigers and snow leopards.

The Tropical Rainforest is home to the largest collection of small monkeys in the country, from ten different species, while Optimus Prime, the biggest anaconda in the UK lurks in the Angkor Reptile Temple.

15. East Herts Miniature Railway

East Herts Miniature RailwaySource: East Herts Miniature Railway society LTD / facebook
East Herts Miniature Railway

Now in its fifth decade, this miniature railway can be found a few minutes out of Harlow at the Van Hage Garden Centre.

The railway is run entirely by volunteers, opening on weekends throughout the year, and will be a hit with young children and nostalgic adults alike.

The line is a 1/4 mile in length and has five steam-powered locomotives, as well as two petrol, one diesel and one electric.

A lot of care has gone into the setup, which even has a little station, with booking office, as well as a signal box, turntable, steaming bays, bridge, engine shed, workshop and water tower.

15 Best Things to Do in Harlow (Essex, England):

  • Harlow Sculpture Trail
  • Harlow Museum and Walled Gardens
  • Harlow Town Park
  • Pets' Corner
  • Gibberd Garden
  • Harlow Playhouse
  • Henry Moore Foundation
  • Ada Cole Rescue Centre
  • North Weald Airfield Museum
  • Rye Meads
  • Lee Valley Boat Centre
  • Parndon Wood Nature Reserve
  • Copped Hall
  • Paradise Wildlife Park
  • East Herts Miniature Railway