Listed places

The Historic Places Behind ‘The Essex Serpent’

Explore the haunting vistas and historical places in Sarah Perry’s atmospheric novel and the Apple TV adaptation starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston.

Modern Essex is often thought of more in its southern urban areas adjacent to London. But the county is a real mix of urban and, particularly in the north of the county, a rural hinterland.

What is ‘The Essex Serpent’?

‘The Essex Serpent’ is a 2016 novel by British author Sarah Perry. A TV adaptation premiered on Apple TV in 2022.

The story follows the relationships of a group of Londoners, revolving around the fascinating widow Cora, and their interactions with the people and places of this part of Essex—roughly from the Stour to the Blackwater river estuaries.

It’s also about how they relate to reports of a mysterious riverine monster – the ‘Serpent’ of the title. Is it a myth? A real monster, or a living fossil?

Sunrise over the Blackwater estuary at Maldon, Essex. © Timothy Smith / Alamy Stock Photo.

Where is ‘The Essex Serpent’ set?

‘The Essex Serpent’ is set in North-East Essex, and Sarah Perry perfectly captures the feeling of this part of the county as a relative backwater in the late Victorian period. ‘What good is Colchester?’ asks a metropolitan character.

Perry brings alive the spirit of the landscape of small towns, villages, pink-painted houses, estuaries and marshes.

Let’s look at some of the places from the book and filming locations in more detail.

Where is ‘The Essex Serpent’ TV show filmed? ‘Aldwinter’, Maldon and other locations

Cora stays with the family of a local vicar, Will Ramsome, at the fictional village of ‘Aldwinter’ on the Blackwater’s estuarine marshes or ‘saltings’.

If you’ve not yet read the book or seen the TV adaptation, I’ll avoid any spoilers on Cora’s interactions with the family members or encounters with the Serpent!

Since the village doesn’t exist, filming of ‘Aldwinter’ and its surrounding marshes and creeks for the TV series took place at Maldon, North Fambridge, Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Tollesbury, Alresford Creek near Brightlingsea and West Mersea.

 A view along an estuary to a small town with a church and quay, at which are moored a number of boats.
A view towards Hythe Quay, Maldon and the Blackwater river. © Daniel Jones / Alamy Stock Photo.

Maldon and the area around it were Perry’s inspiration for the landscape of ‘Aldwinter’. It’s fitting that filming for the series took place at Hythe Quay, the adjacent (originally Edwardian) Promenade Park and other locations in the town.

There are several historic buildings near the quay, including Taylor and Son’s Sailmakers.

Filming also took in Silver Street and outside the Blue Boar Inn, an extraordinary complex of buildings whose oldest core goes back to the 14th century.

And although not central to the plot, we can’t let you go without mentioning that the actual historical Maldon was the scene of a battle between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in 991 AD. The battle ended in a pyrrhic military victory for the Scandinavian invaders and a glorious epic poem in Old English marking a ‘moral victory’ by the Saxons.

A line drawing of a river estuary with a group of buildings including a church;  a number of boats are moored by the bank of the estuary.
Boats on the River Blackwater at Maldon with St Mary’s Church, by Charles George Harper, created between 1892-1933. Source: Historic England Archive. Image reference CGH01/01/0234 .

From the book – Colchester: inns and hotels

Many of the characters visit the largest town in the area, Colchester, staying in the George Hotel and the Red Lion, both located around the old High Street.

The George Hotel on the north side of the High Street was originally a medieval 15th-century building with two wings altered in the 17th and 18th centuries. The present frontage is from the 18th century, but it retains medieval beams and cellars.

The three-storey plastered frontage of a historic hotel building with ranges of sash windows.
The George Hotel, photographed in about 2004. © Mr Brian Martin. Source: Historic England Archive, image reference IOE01/11737/07.

While the more fashionable characters stay at the George, Cora and her possibly autistic son stay at the quirky Red Lion over on the south side of the High Street. This building was constructed as a townhouse in about 1481-2 for the Duke of Norfolk. It was converted into an inn around 1500. It’s also said to be haunted.

Alt text: A three storey timber framed inn building with a former carriage entrance
The street frontage of the Red Lion Hotel, photographed in about 2004 © Mr Brian Martin. Source: Historic England Archive. Image reference IOE01/11737/10.

Sadly many nearby fine old buildings were lost when a shopping precinct was built in the adjacent Lion Walk in the second half of the 20th century.

A line sketch of a three-story timber framed building with a carriage entrance, created on lined note paper.
A drawing of the Red Lion Hotel, Colchester by Charles George Harper (created between 1892 and 1933). Source: Historic England Archive. Image reference CGH01_01_0247.

Colchester: Boudiccan references

Colchester was a major Roman settlement and might be England’s oldest recorded town. Its early incarnation was destroyed by the vengeful queen of the Iceni, Boudicca, and then rebuilt by the eventually victorious Romans.

Cora’s Bohemian appearance is compared to Boudicca when some characters meet in the town:

‘I would tell you it’s a pleasure to see you, though I never saw anyone more like a barbarian queen bent on pillage: is it necessary to emulate the Iceni just because you’re on their turf?’ … ‘Boudicca would be ashamed to be seen like this, I’m sure.’

A woman with red hair dressed in iron Age clothes with plaid patterns and carrying a sword.
A modern recreation of what Queen Boudicca may have looked like. © E. Katie Holm / Alamy Stock Photo.

Colchester: The Castle Museum

Colchester also boasts a massive Norman castle built on a Roman temple plinth, which houses a museum founded in 1860 with important collections. The characters, particularly the curious Cora, visit the museum during their stays in Colchester.

A low but massive stone built castle and grounds, with gate piers and wrought iron gates in the foreground.
Colchester Castle photographed in 1906, 13 years after Cora’s fictional visit. Source: Historic England Archive. Image reference OP12136.

The castle was constructed to keep down the local Saxon population and defend against the threat of a specific attack from Scandinavia (which never materialised). In the masonry of the walls, you can still see the line of a preliminary battlement that was hastily constructed to meet that threat, then built over.

The castle site is not only fascinating in itself, but it is like a microcosm of many aspects of wider English history: Roman rise and fall, Norman castle building, besieged in the Barons’ Wars with King John, besieged again in the English Civil War between Royalist and Parliamentary forces, then used a prison for the innocent victims of ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins’ appalling persecutions.

A stone castle and surrounding park.
Colchester Castle photographed around the turn of the millennium. © Mr Bryan Shaw. Source: Historic England Archive. Image reference IOE01/13659/14.

The Colchester Earthquake

No, you didn’t misread that – there really was an earthquake around the Colchester area in 1884.

In the book, the main characters meet a man in Colchester who the earthquake has crippled. His house has been damaged too.

The earthquake damaged up to 1,200 buildings, especially at Wivenhoe, Abberton and Peldon.

In Colchester, damage included the collapse of the top of the Spire to the Church in Lion Walk. In 2019, a plaque was unveiled at the church to commemorate England’s most destructive earthquake, which was felt as far away as Ostend and Boulogne.

The front cover of a Victorian newspaper with various illustrations of damaged buildings.
Victorian Newspaper coverage of the Colchester Earthquake. on the front page of the Graphic Newspaper May 3rd 1884. © Walker Art Library / Alamy Stock Photo.

Cora’s fossil-hunting expeditions 

Cora writes a letter to her friend in London explaining she’d been looking for fossils – ‘a sea dragon’ out at Walton-on-the-Naze and St Osyth (near Clacton).

A black and white archive image of people in later Victorian clothing  on a wooden pier with a group of modest hotel buildings in the background.
Walton pier photographed between 1870-1895. Source: Historic England Archive. Image reference BB80/00911 .

We’re not told, but surely the observant Cora can’t have overlooked the Martello Tower at Walton, one of a network of towers built to guard against invasion during the Napoleonic Wars, or to have been charmed by the medieval ruins of St Osyth’s priory?

An archive image showing visitors on late Victorian or Edwardian clothing at a derelict, weather-boarded post mill on the coast.
Visitors at a post mill, Walton on the Naze, in a late Victorian or Edwardian photograph. Source: Historic England. Archive. Image reference AA78/01450 .

A gruesome decoration

When referring to an odd (fictional) carving of the Serpent in a church, the characters mention that it can’t compete with another more gruesome eastern counties curiosity, which is the supposed ‘skin of a Viking’ nailed to the door of Hadsctock church (in Essex but closer to Cambridge). There is also another alleged ‘Dane skin’ closer to home at St Michael’s, Copford, near Colchester.

These have recently been the subject of scientific analysis that has shown the skins to be animal hide rather than human skin, probably a decorative leather cover to the doors. I leave it up to you to feel either relieved or let down according to your natures.

Maritime wrecks and hulks

The wreck of the Leviathan outside the fictional ‘Aldwinter’ stands for the many blackened wrecks in estuaries and inter-tidal coastal areas that you can find around and off Essex.

Historic England’s maritime records recount the fate of vessels lost off Maldon.

The dark timbers of the wreck of a boat by the edge of an estuary.
Boat wreck on the Blackwater at Maldon. © CandyAppleRed Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Role of Historic England 
Many of the beautiful old buildings and monuments mentioned are protected as listed buildings or scheduled monuments. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England.

I work in Historic England’s Content Team. I originally come from a corner of Essex rich in history. My previous background was as an archaeologist, having worked around England, Central Europe and the Near East.

2 comments on “The Historic Places Behind ‘The Essex Serpent’

  1. Interesting article. I disliked the book intensely but I might watch the film just to see the locations!

  2. A very interesting article. I grew up in Walton on the Naze so I’m interested in the area and the old photographs. I haven’t read the book yet.

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