diamond geezer

 Saturday, November 13, 2021

In today's post I'm continuing my walk across the new city of Southend-on-Sea, essentially missing out all the "on-Sea" bits and focusing on some suburbanier areas inland. There are no piers and amusement arcades back here, nor many chip shops, just blocks of parallel Victorian streets across interlocking suburbs which spread when the railways came, and a few points of interest inbetween.

If you've ever wondered what 'Southend' is south of, it's the historic village of Prittlewell. Only at the end of the 18th century did a few fishing huts at the southern end of the village morph into a full-on bathing resort, then commuter town, ultimately engulfing the original settlement. The Romans built at least one villa here, Saxon royalty took a local interest and a medieval Cluniac Priory put Prittlewell firmly on the map. That priory somehow still exists, at least in part, alongside the small stream which made this an ideal place to settle. What remains is mostly the refectory, much altered but with a 12th century doorway, now blessed with a lottery-funded Visitor Centre nextdoor. The tomb beneath the cross outside may look ancient but in fact commemorates local benefactor Robert Arthur Jones who donated the priory and surrounding park to a more than grateful town council in 1917. Alas what you can't do between November and February is get inside to have a look, but Southend's museum portfolio is well worth a lengthier visit during the warmer months.

Prittlewell's heritage is more readily apparent around the parish church, St Mary's, which has a Saxon doorway, a Norman nave and a 15th century tower. The timber-framed building facing the main crossroads is Swan Hall, which currently does business as Southend's only medieval estate agent. The Blue Boar pub nextdoor alas isn't the original, having been rebuilt after falling foul of a Victorian road-widening scheme, but is believed to be the hostelry in which Southend United were first formed. Their current Roots Hall stadium lies immediately behind, although the club are very keen to relocate to a site further out by the airport, a move which'll allow Sainsbury's to move in instead, although the club is currently in freefall after two successive relegations dumped them out of the Football League for the first time in a century, and if nothing else you can imagine how this sporting turbulence helps keep the local paper in business.

The chief river through the Southend conurbation, if you don't count the Thames, is called the Prittle Brook. It's not much of a river - mostly jumpable throughout - and because it's mostly culverted not especially scenic either. But the path alongside it provides a useful cross-city shortcut for bikes and pedestrians which, since it was upgraded ten years ago, is now known as the Prittle Brook Greenway. The full 3½ miles links Prittlewell to Belfairs, but I merely walked the first mile to try to get a feel for Southend-Not-By-The-Sea. I'm not sure who the wooden cowled figure at the start of the path is but I suspect they're supposed to be Priory-related.

It was nice to be following a thin strip of green rather than yet another residential street, although the PBG did mostly have the feel of a tarmac path beside an overgrown concrete trench. Among the sights to be seen were part-obscured allotments, the occasional cat, rotting fences at the rear of back gardens, a lot of brambles and the edge of a school playing field. There is a limit to what you can build on a flood plain, even in a closely-packed city. Every so often a chirpy sign encouraged me to walk for health and carry essentials like food, hats and gloves, so I soon learned to ignore those. The Greenway was absolutely nothing special and yet simultaneously, for mid-Southend, pretty much the best footpath residents have got.

My inland walk had bypassed Westcliff and delivered me to Chalkwell, another extensive interwar suburb. At the turn of the 20th century there was nothing here but fields, a single row of cottages and a Georgian mansion called Chalkwell Hall which enjoyed an unbroken view down across the estuary. The Hall's estate was preserved as Chalkwell Park, now the sole greenspace hereabouts, which benefits from sloping landscaped lawns and what I assume at the right time of year must be a splendid rose garden. Meanwhile the mansion was un-derelicted in 2007 to become a cultural community hub called Metal, which describes itself as a "low carbon space for artists-in-residence, events and creative conversation". At Chalkwell they claim to have created the world's first digital art park, which I think means you can't see any of the works unless you point at a QR code and download an app. I was almost tempted to experience "a breath-taking 360˚ brass band performance" where the bandstand used to be, but quite frankly couldn't be bothered with all the hassle so carried on down the hill.

Opposite the church on Leigh Road is Iveagh Hall, which at first sight looks like it might be a Scout hut but is in fact home to the Southend West Conservative Association. Normally they inspire members with meetings and keep fit classes, offer competitively-priced refreshments and provide somewhere for a muted game of cards or darts. But times are not normal, as confirmed by the Union Flag flying at half mast out front, following the murder of local MP Sir David Amess in Belfairs last month. His contact details remain on the noticeboard alongside a black-edge portrait, and if you come down for the Beaujolaise Day lunch next Thursday you can likely pay your respects over pate, cheeses and a glass of red.

I'd only previously walked through Old Leigh, the cute coastal village with the pubs, galleries and multiple opportunities to purchase fish. But on this occasion I stayed up beyond the clifftops and followed the main shopping street and blimey, that was another world entirely. It's where the good folk of Leigh come to spend their dosh, mostly in independent shops, and somehow it goes on and on almost unbroken for a full mile. A significant proportion are places to eat and drink or to help prettify your home, with 'soft furnishings' proving to be very much a Southend staple. Window displays in clothing stores prioritise smart and sensible over excessively TOWIE. The custom of older residents helps support a Wimpy, a second hand book shop and even a proper record store (clearly chuffed to be selling new vinyl from Abba and the Beatles). Top marks to the tearoom which has called itself TrueLeigh Scrumptious. This is quite some linear retail offering.

For additional interest Leigh's library is housed in an old rectory which has been here since 1838 and lies adjacent to shady clifftop gardens. The multi-storey Grand Hotel has long been surplus to requirements so is slowly being converted to luxury flats. The town also boasts that rarest of media commodities, an independent local newspaper, with offices on the Broadway. And here and there surprisingly steep footpaths slink off over the edge of Church Hill for anyone who fancies walking down to the old town for beer and fish. The views across the estuary from up here are surprisingly good, at least now a lot of the leaves have fallen. Somewhere in the distance is Leigh-on-Sea station (which it turns out is not at all well placed for the town centre) and beyond that the flat marshy sprawl of Two Tree Island.

I had hoped to walk out to the island to complete my cross-Southend walk because the city boundary somehow divides it in two, but I was knackered by this point and it was almost dark so pulled up half a mile short. There is so much more to Southend than can be seen in a day. [15 photos]

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