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. You can download a labelled map from the Harlow Council website, which also has details of a trail along the navigable River Stort.
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.
Harlow Town Park blends five themed gardens with a host of facilities like a cafe, adventure playground, outdoor gym, paddling pool and Pets’ Corner. 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.
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.
Frederick Gibberd, the man who planned Harlow New Town, designed this garden at his home in the northeast of the town. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 as well as live music from tribute acts to bands.
Only a 10 minute drive from Harlow, Lee Valley Animal Adventure Park is open to the public where visitors can expect to see a wide range of their favourite animals and enjoy a host of fun new events for all the family to enjoy.