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I had intended to go to Southend at the weekend, but for some reason I didn’t. I fancied a walk along the front, to take in the sea air. I checked the train times and fares. Plenty of trains and the fare was not expensive. I was ready to rock and roll. Except that I just couldn’t organise myself to go. I had work to do and that took priority. I’m not sure now when I will get the chance to go, so I read up on the town anyway.
Southend or Sarfend as it’s known in Estuary English (there is even a website of that name) is about 40 miles east of London. Its proper name is Southend on Sea, but even the railway stations just refer to Southend.
Southend started life as the southern end (south end) of a village called Prittlewell, on the land owned by Prittlewell Priory. Prittlewell Priory was not in the same league as Barking Abbey, it was home to only 18 monks. Some of the priory building did survive Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, although not much of the original building remains due to the various subsequent rebuilding projects.
No visit to Southend would be complete without a visit to the pier. It was built in 1830, when Southend was growing in popularity as a seaside resort. The Southend coastline is made up of mudflats, which means that the sea is never very deep, and at low tide, it is about a mile from the beach. This all meant that, unlike many other coastal towns, pleasure boats were unable to stop near to the beach, so pressure was put on the local authorities to build a pier, and a long one at that.
The first pier was opened in June 1830 but was still too short. By 1833 the pier had been extended to three times its length, and by 1834 it was 7,000 feet long. The railway hit Southend by the mid 1800s, bringing more visitors from London, which put a lot of pressure on the wooden pier. By 1887, it was decided to replace the wooden pier with an iron pier, and although it wasn’t completed until 1889, it was opened to the public by summer 1887.
During World War II, the pier was taken over by the Royal Navy, closed to the public in September 1939 and was renamed HMS Leigh, with the nearby town of Westcliff being imaginatively named HMS Westcliff. HMS Leigh served the dual role of being the Naval Control for the Thames Estuary and was also a mustering point for convoys.
The pier re-opened to the public in 1945, and very successfully, until a fire in 1959 destroyed the pavilion at the shore end of the pier. The pavilion was replaced by a bowling alley in 1962 but Southend had missed the boat – the Brits had discovered cheap package holidays abroad and visitors to the pier declined. The pier started to fall in to decline. In 1980, the council announced that the pier was to close, which caused protests. Clearly the pier has remained open and the pier has been restored as a visitor’s attraction, with a more recent Pier Pavilion for theatre and art exhibitions.
The beaches at Southend are mostly sandy, great for building sandcastles, and there are several to choose from. There are also a number of parks in the area, great for walking the dog, since they aren’t allowed on the beaches in the summer months.
Worth a visit is the Belton Hills Nature Reserve, or if the weather is not great, there are the Southend Pier Museums and Southend Central Museum and Planetarium. There is the famous Cliff Lift at Western Esplanade, a funicular railway, and the Kursaal, which, as well as being a Grade II listed building which was an amusement park, is now a bowling alley and casino.
© Susan Shirley