Article by Barbara Chandler
With its award-winning beaches, comparatively dry climate and the longest pleasure pier in the world, Southend-on-Sea is a byword for a British seaside resort. And now this Essex town is a property hotspot for developers – notably Weston Homes, with its impressive new Victoria Central apartments – and estate agents alike. The locals take day trips to near-neighbours Westcliff-on-Sea, on one side of Southend, and Leigh-on-Sea on the other. All year round they can stroll nine award-winning beaches along the sweeping coastland from Shoebury to the east, to Bell Wharf on the western side of Leigh.
So how long is that pier? It’s a mile and a third but you can hop on a narrow-gauge railway from the shore to the pier head – and you won’t go faster than 10mph. The iron pier of 1889 replaced a wooden one of 1830, and by the 1940s was drawing more than five million visitors a year. Latterly in decline and badly damaged by several fires, money was raised to save and restore it. There’s more about its fascinating history back on dry land in the Pier Museum in the Old Pier Workshops.
And find a detailed and illustrated website for the whole of Southend’s history in depth here As you promenade down the pier, you can enjoy bracing breezes, sea views and watch ships at sunset. There’s fishing, too, plus a lifeboat station to visit – and when you reach the end, a cream tea awaits. When you’ve enjoyed the pier, pushing upwards from the beach is the Cliff Lift, the world’s shortest funicular railway at 130ft. Built in 1912, it’s still fun to ride.
In the centre of the seafront is Jubilee Beach and Three Shells Lagoon with Adventure Island theme park, offering more than 40 rides to thrill the kids. Favourite ice cream is in the Rossi parlour on nearby Westcliff beach, with a 1932 Italian recipe of fresh milk, butter and double cream. Up the stairs, the Cliffs Pavilion theatre attracts out-of-town acts in a rolling programme of drama, music, dance and comedy, with its sister Palace Theatre also in on the act.
Furthest west, there are working fishing boats at the Leigh cockle sheds on Bell Wharf, with lively cafes and pubs. Nearby is quieter Chalkwell, with wide sands. To the east, Shoebury Common, a Blue Flag beach, has pretty beach huts and the locally-loved Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for ice cream, snacks and everything you need for a family day by the sea. Boats can be launched and there’s a famous school for kitesurfing A new play area is part of a £300,000 landscaping project.
Sport and nature
Abundant green spaces and nature reserves entice walkers and cyclists in all seasons. Southend borough has seven Green Flag parks and has pledged to plant 1,000 trees over a three-year period. “Love Essex, Love Wildlife,” says the Essex Wildlife Trust caring for 87 nature reserves with 11 Nature Discovery Centres.
Among these prized sanctuaries for wildlife is Gunners Park. Hard against the coast at Shoeburyness, it offers five kilometres of paths through more than 12 habitats, from coastal grasslands and a large pond to sand dunes and historic military buildings where barn swallows now nest. Migrating and wading birds keep binoculars busy – and you could spot a grey seal.
There are three golf courses, a big leisure complex at Garon Park and multiple clubs for rugby, athletics, tennis and football – including Southend United FC.
Art in action
“The arty way is Essex,” according to a local newspaper and creativity does indeed crackle and fizz all around Southend, fostered by the go-ahead council’s grants to small groups.
There’s plenty going on.The Kursaal, a 120-year old seafront landmark listed building and the very earliest of amusement centres, has shrunk to a solitary Tesco. But a campaign, backed by Dame Helen Mirren who has local roots, and led by the Concrete Culture co-operative, is under way to transform it into a community arts hub. Meanwhile, the ambitious Estuary 2021 festival taking place from May 22 to June 13 will celebrate “local lives, landscapes and histories in art, literature, music and film” on the Thames itself and along 83 miles of South Essex and North Kent coastline.
At the lively Focal Point Gallery, the “Radical Essex” project is checking out the county’s past, while this summer, Southend-based artist Emma Edmondson is enlisting local volunteers to make bricks and tiles “From This Land”.
Art enterprise is everywhere, often revamping old buildings. Take, for example, The Old Waterworks (TOW), now an art centre and studios for local artists in a former pumping station, with events, a library, garden, screening room and risograph for low-cost printing.
The Essex House Writers’ Club pop-up, back for 2021, is centred on Chalkwell Hall, a four-storey restored Georgian mansion – now admirably low-carbon – and hosting, in more normal times, up to 20 artists in short-term residences.
More diary dates
Up to 70 local artists will deck out the Leigh Art Trail (September 4-19) with paintings, ceramics, photography and textiles in over 50 venues, “as our wonderful town bounces back” from Covid.
The quirky floating Estuary Gallery Barge in Leigh Marina has photographs and watercolours by its gifted owners and other guests, with portrait sessions and photography workshops.
Coming out of lockdown, check out possible dates for the July Fringe Festival (@southendfringefest) and the Leigh Folk Festival
Also revving up is the London to Southend classic vehicle run, promised for June 27; check details here
However Southend Carnival, a popular August fixture since 1906, has sadly been cancelled for the second time.
Hopping mad, perhaps, are the artists making sculptures for the Hares About Town art trail scheduled from July 1 to September 12. The hares will then be auctioned for charity.
Museums and galleries
A little more sedate is Southend Museum, where fans of the Netflix hit The Dig will love unique finds from the celebrated Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial
While you’re there, marvel at the night sky in the Planetarium on the second floor.
Beecroft Art Gallery has over 2,000 works, from 17th-century Dutch masters Molenaer, Ruisdael and Berchem; to Victorian artists including Rossetti, Constable and Edward Lear, and modern trailblazers such as Jacob Epstein. There are also fine finds for fashion fans – how about 500 bathing suits from 1900 to the 1980s?
Now also a museum, Prittlewell Priory has been a monastery and a private house. It sits tranquilly in a walled garden surrounded by the Priory Park, once covered by farmlands, orchards and gardens.
And for the time-travelling magic of a medieval great hall, with heavy blackened timbers to the roof, visit medieval, moated Southchurch Hall
Southend’s cinema is the Odeon Multiplex with eight screens, but there are plans, as yet uncertain, for a multi-screen cinema/entertainment hub on the Seaway Car Park. Click here for details.
Southend’s two big shopping centres that bookend the High Street have recently been hollowed out by the kind of big brand closures that are happening everywhere. But the council in a bold move last December bought the Victoria Shopping Centre for £10million from a £22.3million pot set aside for “strategic and regeneration acquisitions”. They’ve already made some improvements, and plan to fill empty shops with “artist’s studios, creative space, entrepreneurs and small businesses”. Now the Royals shopping centre, recently vacated by Debenhams and then H&M, is also up for sale. Could the council buy this, too, and add a museum? The idea has certainly been mooted…
In the meantime, when restrictions permit, there’s a general market on Southend High Street every Thursday, plus the second and fourth Saturdays of each month – from handbags and haberdashery to clothing and confectionery, and Southend Farmers’ Market is on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
Zip along the coast to the colourful fishing village of Leigh-on-Sea, for specialist shops and galleries. Like the bottle-lined Vino Vero or Mad Dogs and Englishmen, with elegant furniture and a parlour for scrummy afternoon teas.
Trudy Cross has painted out her quirky Tin Design boutique in Sulking Room Pink, and crammed it with eclectic homewares by Seletti, Ibride, Mineheart and more.
Potter Richard Baxter has a gallery for his porcelain, with colourful glazes a speciality. He also throws poetic “Estuaryware”, decorated with sea glass, seaweed and shells from the local shore by Julie O’Sullivan.
Nearby is Paul Siggins, a mosaic artist for over 30 years, who fashioned that £2million angel on the garden terrace of Annabel’s nightclub. He does workshops as well as commissions, with some ready-mades for sale.
Then there’s Create 98 for art and craft workshops.
The award-winning Mayflower pub has views over Leigh Creek and the marshes, plus live music, real ale and an in-house chip shop.
Coming soon, an indoor market for speciality foods inspired by Borough Market. Click here for details.
There are reputedly up to 500 eateries of various types in Southend-on-Sea and round about. But fish and chips is de rigueur. Try the Britannia with its pretty Georgian bay windows on Eastern Esplanade, reopened in 2019 after restoration.
or Sands by the Sea with amazing views on Western Esplanade – they also do a good tea.
The Aurum is an uber-glam 70-seater restaurant with a bar boasting 30 types of gin.
At Thorpe Bay, the Roslin Beach hotel has a beachside terrace – with afternoon tea, naturally.
Finally, Food by John Lawson at Leigh promises “health, wellbeing, creativity and flavour”. This is Lawson’s mantra, after suffering a brain tumour. He was previously a celebrated chef, and after surgery and multiple invasive treatments, he reckons a radical revision of his diet underpinned his recovery. This restaurant is his testimony.