Seaside postcard: Southend Southend, on the lower Thames estuary, has long been a place of entertainment and escape. And all oh-so easily accessible by train from East London. What day-tripping cockney geezer could resist?
The Kursaal on Southend seafront is an entertainment venue of legend. Opened in 1901, this was (allegedly) the first theme park to be built anywhere in the world. Stepping beneath its redbrick facade excited punters were guided into 26 acres of rides, gardens and jollity. And then package holidays came along, and the visitors slowed to a trickle, and the Kursaal completely faded away. Ten years ago the main building was fully restored and reopened - at least if you count a bowling alley, casino and themed bars as restoration. Now you can stand beneath the coloured-glass dome and have the entire glazed entrance hall completely to yourself. Outside on the promenade, the petrolheads of Southend drive round in elongated circles to show off their latest souped-up Harley or customised car. Bikers stand and chat on the central reservation in their finest leathers, before revving up and riding round one more circuit. The rest of us, we have to walk.
Southend's Marine Parade is a busy mecca for bleach-blondes and beery blokes, even in February. A series of amusement arcades peddle spinning slots, cuddly-toy grabs and monotone bingo. Lads in stripy tops queue for vinegary chips while their dads attempt to slip into the Foresters for the lunchtime strip show. The shutters at Funland remain resolutely down, and a particularly tacky McDonalds stands empty with its front door firmly locked for the winter. Pick your cafe with care, however, and you could walk away with a piled-high ice cream cornet stuffed with Rossi's finest. Half the crazy golf course has been ripped up and left to rot, but the looping spinning rides at Peter Pan's Playground (now Adventure Island) are still doing brisk business. Let's sit here dear and I'll have a pint while you rest your feet.
At the foot of the High Street is a freshly landscaped slope with a shiny rotunda lift. Step out along the curving walkway, wait for the doors to open and you can descend gracefully to the pierhead or promenade below. Come on, it's got to be the pier. This is no ordinary wooden jetty, this is the longestpleasurepier in the world. Southend Pier was constructed in the early 19th century to provide paddlesteamers from London with somewhere to tie up to. And because the beach at Southend is mostly mudflats that stretch out into the estuary for more than a mile, so the pier has to stretch out even further. It's an astonishing 1.3 miles long - for most of its length just a thin wooden walkway on iron struts with a single-track railway alongside. And this is possibly also the unluckiest pier anywhere in the world. The shore end pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1959, an ever bigger fire destroyed all the buildings at the far tip in 1976, a passing boat sliced through the middle in 1986, and there were further ferocious burnings in 1995 and 2005. Never fear, ongoing repairs mean it's still possible to walk to the end and back for 50p.
The pier may look long when you step past the ticket booth and out onto the first timber platform, but nothing quite prepares you for the true length of your mid-river stroll. That must be Sheerness and the Isle of Grain in the distance - surely we can't be going that far. Within minutes the seafront is far behind you, with Southend shrinking to a thin residential strip across the horizon. You pass the first of three blue-painted shelters, providing somewhere to hide if any driving rainstorm should buffet the estuary during your crossing. What is the tall building at the far end, could it be a rollercoaster or maybe a mighty pavilion? Stride on across the nailed-down wooden planks, with the high tide Thames lapping beneath your feet. By the time you pass the "1 mile to the shore" sign you may be wishing you'd ridden the railway instead. Try not to stare as several mini-carriages of pensionable passengers go chugging by aboard the Sir John Betjeman. Won't be long now.
Since 2005 the train has been forced to halt several yards before the final station because the intermediate timbers are still either charred or destroyed . The pub's missing, the gift shop's gone, the amusement arcade's absent, and the replacement toilets are housed inside a big blue metal container. There's still a cafe of sorts, serving hot soup and chips, as well as rows of sea birds perched in parallel rows along a carbonised jetty. And then, at last, to the final unfeasibly large pierhead platform. A broad central space separates out the peripheral sea anglers, surrounding sealed off steps leading down into the turbulent waters below. And the "tall building" turns out to be a two-deck lifeboat station, with a lofty glass observation tower and a free museum, just so that it feels like the walk has been worth the effort. From the top deck you can stare across to Kent, or sit and nibble some sandwiches, or look back towards the coast at Southend. If you get a move on, you could be back on dry land within half an hour.