diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 22, 2011

Seaside(ish) postcard: Burnham-on-Crouch
I don't know how good your Essex geography is, but the eastern edge of the county is mostly low-lying marsh intersected by rivers. Two of the larger rivers are the Blackwater and the Crouch, one well south of Colchester, the other just north of Southend. And between these two rivers lies the Dengie peninsula, a tongue of agricultural flatness on the way to nowhere. So that's where I went yesterday. End of geography lesson.


Burnham-on-Crouch: The most important thing about Burnham is the on-Crouch. The town wouldn't be here without the river, which flows out into the North Sea a few miles downstream. I say river but what I really mean is whopping great estuary - long, broad and straight, and therefore ideal for yachting. If you have a maritime plaything with sails, this is an ideal spot for messing about. The town boasts no fewer than four sailing clubs, the most prestigious of which is the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club. Their HQ is a white Modernist block, with stepped viewing terraces on three levels where members can watch the action in civilised comfort. Right at the top is a small observation room from which races on the estuary are coordinated via a system of flags, hooters and bangs. Whoever the lad is with the ear-protectors who sets off the match-starting explosions, he has one of the best Saturday jobs in Essex. [photo]

One local bargain is the town museum, housed in what looks like a large boathouse on the quayside. It's only a pound to get in, for two floors of local history and heritage, plus the attention of two dear old ladies sat waiting to welcome the not-many visitors. As with many small museums, much of the content is aimed squarely at those who've ever lived nearby, which isn't you or I. But I was drawn in by details of the great flood of 1953, and enchanted by an oh-so-simple display of wedding reports clipped from old local newspapers, and intrigued by the adverts on the cinema's original safety curtain [photo]. Oh yes, despite its lowly population Burnham still boasts a quirky two-screen independent cinema, and they were queuing out the door for Pirates of the Caribbean on Saturday.

Several pubs and a ye olde hotel overlook the river, which were ideal spots yesterday for sitting outside in the sun with a beer or fish and chips. The social mix can be quite diverse, from well-heeled couples off to the chandlery for supplies to oversized families and leathered-up bikers enjoying a day out. Most of the jetties are private, but from one a ferry service takes twitchers across the Crouch to the RSPB reserve on Wallasea Island. I stayed north-side, walking up as far as the huge marina where the moneyed of Essex moor their mighty pleasurecraft [photo]. But nothing quite beat watching the hubbub on the estuary, as convoys of white and orange-sailed yachts sailed up and around and out of sight and back again. Class.

Mangapps: Its name sounds like a dodgy porn website, but absolutely not. Mangapps is a railway museum [photo], based on a farm north of Burnham (beyond the 30mph limit, where the pavement gives out). A couple of large sheds are given over to railway ephemera, much but not all from the East Anglia region. The walls are covered with signs, particularly old station nameplates from all over (King's Cross, Dover Marine, Ais Gill Summit, etc etc) [photo]. There are signal levers to pull, there are umpteen lamps in cabinets and there are disused carriages filled with more 'stuff' to clamber inside. One of these is from a Northern line train, decommissioned 1999, complete with mothballed ads and a fully accessible driver's cabin. I especially appreciated all the old maps and timetables scattered throughout, but then I would, and you might be bored silly by the sheer railwayness of it all.

Good news, there's also a railway [photo]. It only heads down to the bottom of the farm and back, not even a mile, but that's long enough for a decent ride. Heritage diesels most days, but there's an in-steam event coming up for the bank holiday next week. I took a ride with an incredibly excitable seven year-old whose parents had clearly brought him along for train-based weekend therapy. Almost as thrilled were a bunch of middle-aged train spotters, one with a thick black notebook stuffed down the rear of his trousers for ease of access, ticking off the vintage units that we passed down the line. They have lots of old engines and carriages here, many restored, others still in need of a fair amount of volunteer-led tinkering. All this plus a scattering of railway buildings shipped in from elsewhere, including (blimey) the original Berney Arms signal box [photo]. I can't believe Mangapps is ever packed out, not this far from the heart of things, but avoiding railway overcrowding is fine by me.

Southminster: The furthest you can travel on the real railway, via the branch line from Wickford, is Southminster [photo]. The town doesn't deserve a station, not by Beeching's standards, but kept its connection thanks to the nuclear power station up the road (since decommissioned). Clustered around a medieval church, this is an odd spot for a thriving commuter suburb, but its streets are considerably more attractive than South Woodham Ferrers further up the line. There's evidence of Essex affluence, such as a shop in the high street selling "simply stoves", but also a strong sense of community throughout. I was once taken house-hunting in the village up the road, and departed insistent that I absolutely definitely couldn't live this far out and could we please go home now? But looking yesterday in a Burnham estate agent's window I discovered that I could now rent a four bedroom apartment with a river view for less than I'm currently paying in London for somewhere smaller with no view. I'm still absolutely definitely not moving, but maybe they've got the right idea out here after all.


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