Looking for a Day Trip to the Beach? You could do worse than Southend on Sea…or could you?

The eldest requested a ‘beach day’ with a friend and I was happy to oblige. Out came the map and I started calculating the nearest resort to our home. Meanwhile, the daughter got on her phone and by the time I had found the page showing southern England she had identified Southend on Sea as being the closest; it also met the requirement of having a sandy beach.

‘Closest?’ I said in a tone of patient retribution. ‘Have you factored in the M25?’ I was determined to have the last word. She gave me the look that teenagers reserve for parents of a certain age and soon we were off to Southend. A day plunging through cigarette smoke and used Macdonald’s boxes would soon show her, I concluded. As would the luminous glow around her feet should she attempt to paddle in the Thames Estuary’s famously polluted waters.

Anyway, 90 minutes later we arrived, having not hit a single hold up (including on the M25; we were clearly very, very lucky, as I pointed out more than a few times. She had her earphones in, so couldn’t hear me, fortunately). We slowed along a congested dual carriageway that led into the city, past the airport (or possibly the crash site of a rapidly descending light aircraft, since after its first announcement, we saw no further mention of the mysterious airport beyond a twin engined Cessna coming in fast) and turned right down a rather attractive road of trees and large Victorian houses. A sharp left saw us on the Esplanade, and much to my chagrin it was wonderful. Soon we were parked and the girls went off to do what they do (a sit on the beach in the chilly April sun and a visit to Waterstones, apparently) and I got to work.

We had parked on the London side of Southend Pier, and it really was like stepping back in time. I was reminded of the Ventnor of my youth, before the splendid sea front buildings were gutted and the Picardy Hotel became a shop and apartment building. To the landward side neat gardens rose upwards to the villas which once looked down on London’s visitors of yesteryear. In more ways than one, judging by the ornateness of these homes. (I looked them up later on a well-known home selling sight, which was definitely the right move to make, and found a couple for sale a little further along the Esplanade. Given the views and proximity to London, they really were reasonably priced. Plus, of course, you get the added bonus of being able to watch Southend United play at the weekend. If you can get a ticket.)

The lay out was clever. A ludicrously large number of parking bays divided the lanes of the road which ran along the sea front. In April, they were mostly empty. Could Southend ever really prove to be such a pull as to see them full of day-trippers? Even if we added those who picked the unlikely resort as the destination for their week’s beach holiday.

Well, if the genteel charm I was experiencing now was anything to go by, maybe. I almost expected to see Hercule Poirot strolling along the sea wall solving crimes in his head. I had to make do with more than a couple of elderly couples enjoying the out of season peace and quiet.

Certainly, looking seawards was not quite as pleasant as gazing up at the gardens. Canvey Island is opposite, and the gas towers and container ships travelling up the Estuary were lacking a little in charm. Soon I came across a Cliff Lift. Admittedly, as these things go it was a pretty small affair. Near the single beam of iron rising up the garden hill were some steps, and it didn’t look too much of a struggle to climb them. No doubt the construction was Victorian, built for a time when ladies paid no attention to the prevailing heat when choosing their dress. I suppose it was necessary that they had a way to reach their hotels overlooking the sea without getting into a sweat, and if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me. I dashed over the road, leaving the view of industrial north Kent behind, but the Cliff Lift was closed. A shame. A made my way steadily towards the pier, which looked rather splendid but was one of these constructions which never got any nearer, however much you walked. After another hundred yards of so, I felt in need of restoration, and enjoyed a perfectly acceptable bacon roll at one of the small number of beach kiosks that were spaced along the esplanade. Sitting outside, the wind was chill and the tide was out, leaving a muddy expanse of tidal Thames gloop. Still, though, it was pleasant.

Maybe the Casino should have given me a clue that things were soon to change, but I remained with my sense of having misjudged Southend on Sea as finally I reached the entrance to the pier. Here the muddy banks gave way to a small stretch of sandy beach, and a tiny pleasure park. An area of sea enclosed by rocks offered young children a chance to paddle safely, and in an area unlikely to attract older children or teenagers. A nice touch, I thought. I needed a toilet break by this stage and looked for a typical seaside public toilet. You know the sort of thing, sandy floor wet with, you hope, dripped seawater and not some other fluid. But Southend’s toilets seemed to be either modern cubicles or portable chemical monstrosities. I happened on one of the first, which was smelly, unpleasant and blocked. Still, at least I’m not a woman, so was able to stand at a safish distance. Please note, I aimed carefully, gradually moving away from the bowl as I got up to full speed, so to speak.

I entered the glass fronted pier building, keen to take in the promising looking Pier Museum (that too was closed, it turned out.) Another disappointment hit as it became apparent, I would have to pay for the pleasure of walking along the pier. I remember when such treats were free. However, the £2 cost (and I’m not tight-fisted, choosing to fork out an extra three quid plus so I could catch the train back) was offset by the fact that the pier is the longest in the world. 1.15 miles. Nautical ones at that. Well, what else could I do but set foot and stride out.

It was incredibly peaceful, with just a few others making their way towards the distant rectangle which marked the end of this feat of engineering. But it was chilly, as I noted once more. It hit me that this wind, blowing straight from the east, had probably blown over people suffering in Ukraine not that many hours before. Now it was stroking holidaymakers whose major worry was whether they should have bought a train ticket for the return journey. I did not even have that issue to contend with. It’s an unfair world, there’s no doubt about it. Gradually, the smell of the sea intruded into my thoughts. It was salty, like the endless fish and chip shops I was soon to discover and wafted into one nostril but refused to leave the other.

I was planning a game of amusement arcade bingo a bit later. There was bound to be one, it was Southend after all. In Ventnor, in the seventies, it was 5p a game, and if you got to shout ‘’ere you are’ enough times you could end the week with a teasmade. Of course, I was only eleven at the time, so such a wonder never really appealed, but the faux tonka toy lorries did. I wondered what I would win today.

As I ventured further out into the estuary the wind brought tears. The train passed at one point, making its way to the distant stop at the end of Pier. The end of the world, it seemed. It got up a bit of speed, given the age and potential fragility of the construction on which it was travelling, a sort of HS2 for the World’s Longest Pier, but without the controversy. I thought the train was empty at first, but the last couple of coaches were surprisingly packed. Perhaps people wanted to delay their arrival at Pier’s End for as long as possible. Or maybe they just couldn’t be bothered to walk along the platform and get in a carriage nearer the front. As I say, later I would return on this train. There was no buffet car, but the crew were friendly, given the boredom of their job. The driver even waved at us as he pulled into the platform. Mind you, I was the only one to wave back, other than the toddler standing next to me with his mum and dad.

It was reassuring to know that the train reflected the real thing, even though it was a smallish beast. It might only travel 1.15 nautical miles (at quite a lick – it felt even faster from the inside, and slightly out of control to be honest. Maybe the driver wasn’t smiling out of friendliness, but from mania, or a Southend Soda – a strange concoction of coke, red bull and cocaine they sell from kiosks at the other end of town. I made that bit up. Just to be clear. We pulled into the subterranean hell that is a British Railway Station. All steel beams and vomit coloured flaking paint. Actually this was a demi hell, a layer in Dante’s Inferno. The next step down held the icy waters of the Thames Estuary. If the cold didn’t get you, the chemical waste and raw sewage would.

It was nice to note also that the passengers stood up good and early in order to get off the train first. We might almost have been pulling into Euston on a commuter morning. You can see that I was starting to have second thoughts about Southend. That was, as my daughters would say, probably a me problem. You see, I suffer from vertigo, a horrible fear of falling. I thought I would be alright on the pier, as long as I kept away from the rail, and I was to begin with. But as I reached the middle the gaps between the boards which made up the walkway began to grow. The chilly North Sea beckoned, and the boards uttered strange squeaks and groans as they struggled to bear my weight. The whole structure shook when people passed, heading the other way. When the train made its return journey, just about the time I was in the middle of my outward journey, everything vibrated so much that I swear a perfect Middle C emanated from the top of my head. Or maybe it was just the sound of fear coming from my bowels.

The gaps grew wider until you could easily lose a small child between them. At least that was what my brain was telling me. If a gap coincided with a person walking determinedly the other way, I swore I would fall through, and meet the strange beings that live at the bottom of the Thames. OK, perhaps I exaggerate. But if you dropped your phone and it fell perfectly vertically, and hit a gap without touching the sides, it would be lost forever. Provided it was a slimline model. You have been warned. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.
Still, my big heart and remarkable courage ensured I did make it back, and as I left the World’s Longest Pier; I was confronted by a rather pretty parade of thirteen smallish shops, each with a sort of arch for a roof. Eleven of the thirteen sold fish and chips. Of the other two, one sold angling equipment, in case you wanted to catch your own fish supper. I was pretty confident that if I entered the thirteenth, which went by the unusual name ‘Ice Cream Balls’, I could have left with plaice and medium plus extra vinegar. If I’d asked. Which I couldn’t, since it was the only one of the thirteen to be closed on this sunny late April day.

I now decided to head eastwards along the promenade. There’s only so much genteel Edwardian charm a guy can take, and as nice a surprise as it had been, I had come to Southend for a more down to earth experience. I wanted amusement arcades, beach bingo, and the sort of seaside grockle shops I had grown up with at Ventnor. Buckets and spades, beach balls, stylish Panama hats for a pound, sweets that will necessitate a very rapid visit to the dentist. You know the sort of thing. I’m a sucker for tat. Always have been.

Judging by the fried vanilla smell which now lingered everywhere, I was heading in the right direction. Fresh doughnuts. Yum. Opposite was a largish seaside theme park type place, with roller coasters squeezed into the tightest space and an abundance of rides that went up and down rather than round and round, all the better to push more attractions in. It was closed. The beach widens on this stretch of seafront, and I have to admit, dotted with elderly couples wrapped up to the nines and younger couples in T shirts, it looked attractive. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint, the beach might be nicer here, but the background was less so.

Unless you are after dodgy shops, fast food (the choice being fish and chips, doughnuts, fish and chips or, for variety, fish and chips with doughnuts) and amusement arcades. I passed three of the latter. There was not a sign of a bingo game. No ‘Legs eleven’ or ‘Bozza’s den number ten,’ assailed my ears. In fact, all seemed empty, although they were definitely open. And why is it that amusement arcades never have doors? Why do they just open onto the street? I made my way towards one, my bag of pennies and two p pieces jingling. But stopped on the threshold. Deep in the shadows there was movement, but it seemed more than a tad threatening. Plus, I realised, even the penny falls were now 10 p falls. I was prepared to risk a pound in my search for lifelong riches, but only if that gave me a hundred goes on a machine. It suddenly hit me that I was fifty eight, and it was at least forty years since I’d been in such a place, at least other than in the guise of loving parent instilling in my young children the thrill of gambling.

I had changed, maybe the arcades had as well.

I decided it was time to find a shop selling a fine array of seaside gifts and the sort of nick nacks that make you wonder how you’ve lived for six decades without them. This part of Southend on Sea seemed the perfect place to investigate such an establishment, since all along the esplanade there were stands covered in buckets and spade sets, selling the sort of hats that may be frowned upon at Ascot, and offering beach balls galore: pink, lime, yellow, orange. Every one luminous. (Maybe the shop owners had fished them from the Thames that morning?)

But I soon realised that I had been tricked. I would approach a stand, peruse it for a minute to show I was a serious customer, before making my way inside to get to the real business. Every time I found myself in a sort of portacabin stroke lodge, brightly decorated with postcards and tomato sauce, but which sold only food. Fish and chips mostly. Although I was pleased to note that many also offered a freshly fried doughnut.

I was struggling. But still felt I liked Southend on Sea. There’s a lot of concrete in this part of the city. It was clean, no graffiti that I could see (although it was early season, pre-season in fact). There was one of those areas where fountains suddenly spring out the ground. Small children and the occasional drunk teenager were standing there getting soaked and frozen. It looked like fun. But something else I liked about Southend was that, even here, it did not lose sight of its appeal to young children. There was seating everywhere, all nicely out of range of the spraying fountains. Perfect for watching parents. Mostly it was boxes, brightly painted, but in recognition that sometimes grandparents wish to accompany their offspring generations to the seaside, there were some more comfortable benches as well.

It was while I was admiring this region that I spied my target. As grockle shops go, this one hid itself well. No vibrant displays outside. But as these establishments go, it was otherwise perfect. Classy, in fact. I could tell that because anything costing more than a fiver was locked inside a tasteful glass case. Admittedly, these baubles were a tad gaudy. I was particularly drawn to a small bird, shining with blue, red, yellow and green ceramics set off by its gold beak and legs. For a moment I was tempted. It would really enhance the cabinet of my wife’s grandma’s Victorian glasses. They’d been inherited following the old lady’s demise. But the price tag said £30.00, and that was too much for me. Even for such a charming little bird.

But it wasn’t just such subtly florid items that proved this was a grockle shop with class. Further proof could be seen among the brightly coloured boxes of seaside rock that occupied half the length of an opposite wall. Here, the Sambuca and other alcoholic flavours were kept on the top shelf, well out of the reach of young children. Lest, of course, they be tempted into a life of degeneracy by a lick of a sugary Jack D and Coke flavoured stick of hardened sugar.

(Although, hardened might be a misleading term. Being a responsible adult, I avoided the booze fuelled confectionary, but instead bought a tasteful yellow banana stick for myself, a vivid pink mint one for younger daughter and some oddly unappealing striped salted caramel examples for wife and other daughter. These brought to mind the sort of colours that emerge a day after a meal with a high percentage of beetroot, where the vinegary vegetable hasn’t quite digested. Obviously, once we got home we couldn’t wait to tuck into the traditional seaside treat. Well, me and a salted caramel daughter couldn’t. One bite proved beyond doubt that the proprietor was still trying to shift the stock he’d been unable to sell when Covid first hit two years before. At least there was no risk of breaking a tooth. I’m not sure, though, that bendy rock has a future.)

I ended up spending £23, which was a lot. I knew I couldn’t tell the wife how much of our modest fortune had gone on the delightful gifts I bought. But she won’t read this, so I should be safe. Alongside the rock I found a tasteful fridge magnet, with a superb overhead picture of Southend’s magnificent, if worryingly rustic, world beating pier. The sort of place where Boris Johnson could legitimately (for once) claim that Britain was world beating. This was a particularly apt trinket to buy, and I was pretty proud of myself for finding it. Because, you see, we had just had a new addition to the family. A sort of late child, a younger sibling to our teenagers. We had just purchased our first ever American style fridge freezer. I know, I know, we unknown writers must earn a fortune… So now we had a sort of Christening present for it, a more practical version of a silver spoon or bottle of port. (I mean, what self-respecting eighteen year old will welcome a bottle of old fortified wine when they reach their majority? Give them cheap vodka anyday. You know it will make sense.)

I guess it was the pride at having found the fridge magnet that caused me to get a bit carried away. I had soon added one of those windmill things that you can only get at the seaside. This was world beating as well and had enough sails to generate its own wind power if I could find a way of hooking it up to the national grid. It had spots on its numerous blades, which I thought a tasteful touch. I added a plaque to celebrate George, our loyal boxer. Unfortunately, I do admit that however wonderful the sentiments expressed on the heart shape piece of pottery, it was clearly even older stock than the rock. My wife immediately noticed that the silhouette of the animal contained the cruelly docked tail and ears which were rightly banned under the Animal Welfare Act. That was in 2006, which might explain why the plaque was so reduced in price. I even managed to find a box of locally made Southend on Sea fudge. It must be genuine, because it said so on the lid.

As I paid, I got chatting to the owner, who was a nice bloke. So, I added a couple of boxes of firecrackers to the pile. I’m not sure if they are legal anymore, although they were when I was a kid. I remember well frequently being made to dance in the playground as Phil Stevens threw them exploding at my feet. (To any Phil Stevens out there, I’m not talking about you. It was a different one.) I know there’s a risk the firecrackers could get the girls expelled from university or college, but at 50p a go, I thought they probably wouldn’t work anyway. That could add a frisson of excitement to their use. (They did work and were as much fun as I recalled. They had the added bonus of making me realise I could still dance, as the girls threw them at me with even more vigour and joy than Phil Stevens all those years ago.)

It was almost time to go home, so I decided to sit down with a coffee and review Southend on Sea. My pre-visit assessment had a ring of truth – there was much about the city that could be better, especially if you prefer a diet that stretches beyond fish, chips and doughnuts. It’s a little bit ‘teenage’ as I would call it, or ‘young adult’ as I probably should. Once I arrived east of the pier there had been lots of groups of young lads with bum fluff moustaches and bottles of cheap lager. And I can’t recall seeing quite such a density of tight, faux-leather skirts with zips up the front, but then it is the sin of my generation to be so judgemental. But I didn’t view a single vomit slick, nobody was urinating against a wall (although this was more appealing than using one of the council’s toilets) and I don’t really recall seeing any litter. The ‘young adults’ were a tad threatening in the way any group of young adults are and have always been. But not through anything they did beyond their congenital need to occasionally let out noises that are slightly too loud for the environment in which they are uttered.

Plus, I very much liked the fact that Southend catered for different groups. There were amusement arcades and rides for the kids, lots of safe fun for tots and a recognition that older people like to sit down a lot. And at under two hours from much of the south, east and parts of the Midlands, it made a lot of sense as a day trip destination.

Thus, decision reached I took a draft of coffee.

Honestly, what nice little café serves instant coffee these days? I had picked the venue because a) it did not advertise fish and chips (although the dish featured prominently on the menu) and b) it looked homely and traditional. So traditional my cup of black Americano was from a jar of supermarket own brand. I could even see the undissolved granules floating at the top. Maybe that it was served with a spoon sticking out the mug should have given it away, but I had been too busy reflecting to notice.

So sorry Southend on Sea, I’ve changed my mind. If you want a day at the beach, maybe consider some other places first. Unless you prefer tea to coffee.

Coming soon: ‘Off the beaten track’ – short and weekend breaks in the heart of England.

Alan’s new travel book will concentrate on the sort of places which are quite interesting, but to which people might not usually think about spending a short break, such as  Northampton, Winslow, Oxford, Bedford, Dunstable, Worcester, Bracknell, Loughborough, Burton on Trent and more.

Each chapter, similar in style to Alan’s Isles of Scilly guidebook, will feature a suggested place to stay, four or five local attractions, something a little further afield and a bit of history about the place.  There will be something family orientated, something natural but not too well known outside the area, like Dunstable Downs.

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