Seaside postcard: Clacton-on-Sea
I owe a lot to Clacton - it's where my grandparents first met. But 90 years on from their accidental tryst, it's clear that much of the magic has gone. The beaches are still delightfully pristine, and the pier's very much a going concern, but the town's range of attractions has become somewhat limited. Spending a week's holiday here would be something of a challenge, hence most come either for the day or for the rest of their lives. One-third of the 50000 population are retired, very few were born abroad, and these facts may just be related to Clacton having the UK's only UKIP MP. You'll find the resort on one of the bumps along the Essex coast, ten miles southeast of Colchester, overlooking a bank of wind farms in the North Sea. And it really helps if the sun is out. [13 photos]
On exiting the station my first view of Clacton was green and pleasant, aided and abetted by three very carefully angled flowerbeds. Within a minute I was watching one of its former citizens slipping into the back of a hearse draped with a Union Jack, but I'm pleased to say that things picked up again after that. The front of town hall looks like a classical temple, but is in fact from the 1930s, and conceals a theatre behind where Jimmy Carr and the Dream Boys are scheduled, thankfully in separate shows. There follows a considerable number of shops, as you'd expect, with an abundance of non-chain stores and not a Polski sklep in sight. A lot are cosy places to eat, which helps pass the time round here, while the McDonalds looks like it's been set up in a gun emplacement overlooking the fountained square. The covered market is extremely twee, with gifts from fruity bath bombs to novelty dartboards, and accessed up a ramp so steep that it probably puts less mobile shoppers off. And because they know their target audience there are two M&Ss, one in the heart of town and the other (with the cheaper out of date stuff) in the Factory Outlet park on the northwest outskirts.
A trio of amusement arcades line the end of Pier Avenue, each subliminally identical inside. Some of the machines are heroically anachronistic, including a Coronation Street coin-pusher emblazoned with departed stars, and another which plays Up Up And Away In My Beautiful Balloon, while others are stuffed with must-win minions and the occasional Peppa Pig. From here it doesn't take long to walk down to the seafront, and a further floral spread. The oldest kiosk in Clacton awaits to serve you ice cream and fudge, before a brief road (or steps) dips down to the promenade. Pop tunes blare to tempt you left into the funfair, where a sign pinned by the council on a fence warns "You are exiting an award area", so think twice before going that way. Your catering choices here include a Tubby Isaacs seafood stall and the Boardwalk Bar and Grill, where staff struggle to keep up with a trickle of orders in a cavernous chamber designed for a torrent. Or of course there's fish and chips, but don't go thinking it's locally caught because the Sunshine Coast is considerably more beach than harbour.
And here too is Clacton Pier, the heart of the town's tourist offer, built in the 1870s to welcome pleasure steamers from London. A bit longer than a football pitch, the first part's covered and the remainder open to the elements, with a whole load of fairground attractions littered around. Rides can be found inside and out, from a Star Wars-themed VR screen to a Wild Mouse overlooking the sea, plus a helter skelter and some tepid-looking non-dodgems beyond. Feel free to wander, or purchase a Fun Card for access, or shell out £20 for the full deal including ten-pin bowling. Yes, there's an old lady who'll tell your fortune, or stand chatting to an attendant if punters aren't immediately apparent. Yes, there's a parlour where "Tattoo's" can be added or removed, the rogue apostrophe suggesting the latter might soon become necessary. And yes, there's a space right down the end for fishing, plus a SeaQuarium, which advertises itself as "an informative, educational, fun learning experience" and whose turnstiles aren't kept busy.
Which leaves the beach, which is properly sandy and goes on for miles. Given that it's Blue Flag, it probably is a good place to bring your kids, also safe in the knowledge that they won't be forever haranguing you for trampolines, overpriced candy floss and other distractions. You won't see much of it if the tide's in, so check first, but my observations were that there's plenty enough for towel-sprawling, sun-soaking and general kickabout. I also noted that Clacton's not over-blessed with beach huts, which surprised me given how many residents would have time to use one, but within them kettles boil, flags flap and crosswords are completed. I fear the Pirate Radio Museum is now permanently closed, so if you're here for any considerable length of time (and the airshow isn't on) the paucity of attractions means you're probably going to have to go back on the pier again.
Given the choice I'm afraid I preferred Walton-on-the-Naze a few miles up the coast, less smart but with character and scenery. But don't let me stop you flocking to Clacton to enjoy the sun, sand, and sea, because one day your grandchildren might have cause to thank you for it.