Seaside postcard: Westcliff
Your interactive instructions delivered me to Westcliff, one stop from Southend, at the height of a non-summer's day. I sped ahead of the elderly couple and the vaping teen, crossed the railway and headed up to the built-up clifftop. This is the western end of the Southend Cliff Gardens, a municipal escarpment of floral beds and tumbling grass, plus the occasional sealed-off landslip. In one shelter I found two well-wrapped old ladies sharing lunch from a Tupperware box, in another four of the resort's younger and less conventional residents sharing beers while their dog performed. That large black building down on the esplanade is the second largest casino in Britain, built on the site of an open air swimming pool, and doubling up as a not especially inviting restaurant and club. More to my liking was Rossi's ice cream parlour on the inner side of the road, with trademark blue and white striped awnings and a selection of customers tackling coffee and sundaes at table out front. Lemon sorbet cornet for me, every time, thanks.
At Westcliff's highest point stands the Cliffs Pavilion, a 30s theatre revamped as a broader entertainment venue in the 60s, and it looks it. The central box has a grey castellated brick motif, the foyer has a tall curving lobby more like an ocean liner, and the whole design is topped off with what looks like a school canteen tacked to the side. It has seaside style, in spades, although wouldn't look anywhere near so appropriate to its setting a few miles inland. I wandered through the foyer and bar rather early in the day, before the afternoon tea set dropped in, and found the interior somewhat gloomy. That won't have been the case by yesterday evening, however, as Ken Dodd was stopping by to deliver his famously interminable Happiness Show. The venue's booking team rely on vintage musical acts to reel the punters in, be that Buddy Holly impersonators or the Judy Garland Songbook, but some bigger comics and West End plays drop by on their national tours, and even Paul McCartney and Oasis played once. Retirement entertainment par excellence, by the looks of things. [7 photos]
Seaside postcard: Southend Pier
I've been before, and I've blogged before, and if you're particular interested you'll want to read that particular description. Yesterday's weather was less good, indeed grey and blowy, and the photographs less sparkly. But you can't beat a trek down the boardwalk for a constitutional, not least because there's nowhere else you can stand one-third of the way across the Thames Estuary surrounded by an expanse of rushing river. I arrived in time to take the trainto the end, which was good because there's a 29 minute wait if you miss it, in which time you can just about walk the 1.3 miles instead. Far more people alighted from the incoming service than were waiting to head out, which I took to be an indication of inclement weather mid-channel. The raindrops dotting the windows suggested the same, although I was pleased to watch them clear as we sped (or rather rattled) across the water. The tide was mostly in, hiding the mudflats a few inches below, with few points of reference to be seen other than the silver horizon and the occasional passing shelter. And at the far station even more congregated to board, while a few of us topped up the numbers at the pier head.
The cafe that Jamie Oliver's mate Jimmy opened was closed, but the new-ish Royal Pavilion was buzzing. It was being used as the hospitality suite for the end of the British Heart Foundation's London to Southend-on-Sea trek, a 100km walk from Fulham Palace that had kicked off the previous morning! Occasionally another group of tired walkers hobbled in, resting on their poles rather more than when they'd started out, these the last stragglers trying to meet the 3pm deadline. Ambulance workers waited in case anyone succumbed to conditions the charity exists to prevent, and the remainder of the public sat segregated in the adjacent small cafe. What very few did, however, was cross to the lifeboat station (already with a wide range of Christmas cards on sale) and climb up to the so-called'Sundeck'. The weather might have put some off but wasn't that bad, and yet only I and a resolute old lady sat up top and stared across to Southend in one direction and the chimneys of the Isle of Grain on the other. Give some people a drink and a shelter and they're happy, rather than risk experiencing the mid-Thames environment up close. [7 photos]
Seaside postcard: Adventure Island
Formerly Peter Pan's Playground, this amusement park smothers the seafront either side of Southend Pier. It's been going since 1976, now with 32 rides, and unusually is free to enter. Paying for the rides is another matter, however, with all-access blue wristbands currently going for £27 each. They sell enough though, mostly to non-middle class families who come for a day of escapist jollity and chips. Littl'uns have their own rides and coasters, but the big event for screaming teens is Rage, a short but intense spin with a 97° drop and three inversions. And the whole thing has a Radio Essex backtrack, they being the main sponsor, hence Chesney Hawkes and Kylie were banging out over the general hubbub, which felt about right.
Seaside postcard: Leigh-on-Sea
Three stops before Southend Central, and the western tip of the estuary conurbation, lies the former fishing village of Leigh-on-Sea. When the port's deep water access silted up its industry waned, and the railway driving through managed to remove much of the old town in one swoop. There are now two Leighs, the extensive commuter town on the clifftop and the much quainter Old Leigh cut off by themudflats' edge. Only one street remains, wiggly and partly cobbled, lined mostly by cottage-y outlets that sell fish, art or beer. Not surprisingly this combination draws the crowds, and several pubs and restaurants were doing a fine trade on Sunday, with tattoos old and new on full display. I arrived late enough that Simply Seafood was closing up, hence had no fish to go with my chips, which I then had to keep from the mouths of greedy gulls. The cockle huts were closed too, where in the week the remaining shellfishermen prepare their bounty for plates and plastic trays up the road and across this part of Essex. If you're looking for a seafront getaway less than an hour from London, remember Old Leigh. [4 photos]