James Ruddy Goes Behind The Lairy Image Of Fast-Talking Chavs And Bottle Blondes To Discover Southend On Sea Has Delights That Have Been Buried Beneath Too Many Lazy Jokes And Tv ‘Reality’ Shows.
First a confession: after more than two decades in East Anglia, I never bothered to venture down the A12 to Essex, which had always seemed a depressing delta of mudflats bordered by greasy spoon seafronts inhabited by ne’er do wells with grass-strimmer voices and evil intent.
How misinformed I was. A few days spent in Southend on Sea, visiting a coastline packed with ancient cobbled streets and quirky modern history – as well as plenty of people oozing kindness and warmth to strangers – and I became a penitent with many apologies to make.
The county, where England’s best landscape painter John Constable produced great works like The Hay Wain and Dedham Mill, has so much that remains as chocolate-box-picturesque as it was in his 19th-century heyday. It is also packed with fine eateries, traditional pubs, fascinating art galleries and those friendly locals (with hardly a fake Burberry handbag in sight).
Of course, there is nothing new about today’s popularised negative images of the county. In his new book, The Invention of Essex, Tim Burrows recounts how, in 1700, a clergyman called James Brome claimed the place was home to ‘Persons of so abject and sordid a Temper’ that they seemed ‘by conversing continually with the Beasts to have learned their Manners.’
Then there was Spitting Image’s song about Essex being nothing but shell suits, leather sofas, coal-effect fires and karaoke. And now we have the TV hit, The Only Way is Essex, or Towie for short, which has updated the stereotyping by bringing us the 21st-century version with its ridiculously over-the-top chronicling of the lives of some of the area’s bling-draped and cosmetically enhanced twentysomethings.
But, as we all know, travel is all about discovering your own truths, away from the distorting prism of the lazy popular media. So, over a few surprising and fascinating days here are the delights that my partner and photographer Sue Mountjoy and I found under the untanned skin of the South Essex coast:
Forget Southend’s dodgems and the amusement arcades of the central seafront, where every inch of beach is sardine-can-jammed with sunbed-hogging Londoners in August.
In either direction, along seven miles of coastline, we found delightful alternatives. Eastward were acres of empty sand, backed by majestic, coloured beach huts along the ‘millionaire row’ of Thorpe Bay, whilst to the west we wandered through the delightful independent shops of Leigh-on-Sea, as well as the tasty treats to be had at the cockle sheds, along with decent beers in the historic inns and charming walks along the seafront and the medieval streets of Old Leigh fishing village itself.
The whole place, with its rows of fishermen’s terraces, sweeping Georgian and Victorian mansions and stacks of walk-around independent craft shops and delis, has the aura of Hampstead or Windsor by the sea.
And the people? Whenever we asked directions or were spotted checking our local map, the reaction was helpful and utterly kind, from the young woman on Leigh Broadway who pointed us to ‘the best charity shops in the south-east’ to the smiling elderly regular in the old village’s 16th century Crooked Billet who guided us to ‘the finest pint of Adnam’s Bitter outside of Southwold’ (where it’s brewed, of course).
Further along the coast, we headed along the Foreshore, which is a protected nature reserve at its western end and is packed with 153,000 wildfowl, like oystercatchers and dunlin, many drawn by the multitude of burrowing and crawling marine life that live in the sprawling mudflats.
Our target was Canvey Island, which was a hotbed of rock music in the 1970s boasting homegrown outfits like Eddie and the Hot Rods and Dr Feelgood. We were able to follow a Feelgood trail, from the Canvey Club which provided the cover for the Sneakin Suspicion album to the Lobster Smack Inn where the band’s guitarist and singer-songwriter Wilko Johnson launched his autobiography. Ah, nostalgia.
Back in Southend on Sea, amid the burger-chomping crowds and excited children screaming with fun on the roundabouts, were such cultural treasures as the Beechcroft Art Gallery which houses over 2000 works ranging from 17th-century Dutch masterpieces to dynamic local exhibitions.
On our visit, the latter show was by two locals, Jennie Sharman-Cox and Simon Monk, who produce utterly absorbing work that takes you into fictional worlds that you can enter and inhabit through the use of either immersive box construction or trompe l’oeil painting and drawing. Quite remarkable in quality for any gallery.
And then there was the amazing Southend on Sea accommodation. We stayed at the four-star boutique Roslin Beach Hotel, on Thorpe Bay, which was a revelation due to its bright and lively Miami South Beach-style interiors, as well as its friendly and unstuffy atmosphere, great food and wide sea views.
It was there we came across Jacqui Dallimore, 59, the managing director, who has been at the hotel for the past 17 years and has an amazing story about her upbringing. Born to an unmarried Limerick mother who bravely left Ireland to give birth in a London convent, Jacqui was adopted six weeks later by a Southend On Sea couple ‘who,’ she says proudly, ‘were the best parents in the world’ and, as well as having two of their own sons, always called her ‘their special little Irish girl.’
Nowadays, the former travel agent says she loves having Irish guests – some of whom, she recounts, have spent all night in the bar during wedding parties, claiming they were ‘waiting up to wave off granny when she left in the morning.’ Jacqui would love to see Dublin flights restart at Southend Airport to supplement the regular flights into Stansted, just 40 miles north.
Talking of the airport, we drove out there one evening for dinner at the only rooftop restaurant and bar in Essex, the1935, which overlooks the main runway and sits atop the five-storey Holiday Inn and takes its name from the year the airport first opened as a municipal public airport.
The duty manager was great fun and kept the jokes flowing as we tucked into the ribeye and grilled chicken and had that ‘waiting for our plane’ feeling as passengers came and went.
Before ending our stay in the resort, we took the bracing walk along Southend Pier, the world’s longest at 1.33 miles, and the scene of several boat crashes, storms and fires since it was constructed in 1830. At the end is the lifeboat station, a decent chip shop and the Pier Railway terminus, which saved us from taking the windy slog back.
Of course, if a bucket and spade family visit here is your aim, then Southend has plenty of gems, from all the usual scary and more gentle rides, a Planetarium, as well as oodles of candy floss and food spots.
Of the latter, of particular note has to be Sands by the Sea Restaurant, which boasts the ‘Sands Queen Consort Cod meal.’ This offering, the sign revealed, was ‘enjoyed by Camilla, the Queen Consort during her recent visit.’ Apart from the ‘lightly battered deep-fried Atlantic cod’ the future Queen, on her official visit, also appears to have enjoyed ‘a Wally’ (a gherkin to you and me)!
A right royal taste of Southend on Sea, indeed. Essex like Towie? Don’t you believe it.
Tell Me More About Southend On Sea And Its Coast
For lots of tips and useful information on the county go to the Visit Essex Tourist Portal.
Visit the Roslin Hotel for information on staying, weddings and other inquiries.
Southend Airport menu offers a variety of food, including fish & chips, seasonal salads, a variety of steaks and much more. 1935 Rooftop Restaurant & Bar