Saturday, June 6th 2015
We disembarked for our day out at this rather understated little railway station. Despite its small size, it sees a lot of action, especially during the summer weekends when Londoners come pouring in to spend a day by the sea. Southend is London’s nearest resort.
As you can see from the map, Southend is at the mouth of the Thames and enjoys both maritime and estuarine views. Its unassuming name comes from the fact that the original Southend, a haunt of fishermen and small farmers, was literally the south end of the village of Prittlewell. This in turn was on land owned by Prittlewell Priory. The 12th-century priory still exists but is today a museum. Prittlewell’s importance has diminished and it is now but a district of an enlarged and invigorated Southend. The town came into its own as a seaside resort when the railway reached it in 1856.
Though the distance from Fenchurch Street Station in London to Southend Central is not great, the train was one of those that takes a roundabout path and stops everywhere. By the time we arrived, we were ready for refreshment. Just across Clifftown Road, the street it shares with the station, is a pub called the Last Post. It is also an hotel and is run by Wetherspoons. We ordered tea and relaxed for a while from the heavy work of sitting in a train for an hour. The pub’s name may give you a clue as to the building’s original purpose. I’ll mention it again later.
We next walked south along the High Street, which is pedestrian only for part of its length. The High Street is lined with shops and cafes and would be busy at any time but it also leads directly to the seafront and most people seemed to be heading that way, as you can see from the photo which shows more backs of heads than faces.
To reach the seafront from the High Street, you need to negotiate a steep incline. There are three ways to do this. Firstly, you can follow the road, called Pier Hill; secondly, walk down the long set of steps; or, thirdly, walk along a suspended walkway to the Pier Hill Lift which will carry you down (and back up, later). We took the steps.
Before arriving right at the bottom of the steps, we turned off into Southend Cliff Gardens, a public park beautifully situated overlooking the sea. It slopes quite sharply which means that wherever you sit, you have a view. There are many varieties of trees and shrubs in the gardens, making it an ideal place to sit or stroll in summer because there is plenty of shade.
Leaving the park at the bottom, we discovered a fish pond. It probably has a nobler name than that but, if so, I haven’t found any reference to it. The pond itself is in need of attention as the surface of the water is covered with a layer of duckweed. We spotted a large goldfish in the water and duckweed can prevent the water taking up the oxygen fish need as well as blocking the light and preventing the growth of aquatic plants which these fish possibly rely on for food. Someone needs to take a look at this.
There are fun fairs on the seafront but also a long sandy beach for those who want to bathe in the sea, build sand castles or simply toast themselves without interference from inconvenient shadows. The beach was crowded, as you expect on such a summery day.
We walked along the beach towards the pier. Southend Pier is famous both for its railway and for being the longest pleasure pier in the world at a length of 1.34 miles (2.16 km). Designed by James Brunlees, it was built in 1889 and is now a Grade II listed building. It is Southend’s second pier, the first one being entirely of wood and opening in 1830. As Southend’s popularity grew, it was thought desirable to replace the old pier by one made of iron. Since reopening after the Second World War, the pier has led a chequered existence, suffering from a number of fires and being threatened with closure. Its future seems secure now, at least for the time being.
The railway transports visitors to and from the end of the pier. The railway has been through a number of changes, like the rest of the pier and today the railway carriages are pulled by a pair of diesel locomotives.
I took this view of the pier looking through the iron supports towards the end of the pier which can just be made out. This reminds us that the Victorians were no slouches when it came to building large structures and creating often innovatory designs to achieve their goals.
The sea can provide fun but there is also danger, especially when the conditions turn bad but things can go wrong even in calm weather. Happily, the volunteers of the RNLI lifeboat station can keep a weather eye out for trouble. Unlike the traditional lifeboat station, this one has no ramp but is separated from the water by a tarmacked roadway. This is because its boats are hovercraft that can travel on both water and land.
As it was such a warm sunny day and we had no particular agenda, we found a pair of deckchairs to sit on. For a small sum, you buy a day ticket and this allows you to move around and sit wherever you find vacant chairs.
We were sitting near a narrow wooden arm that pokes out into the sea and is called the Prince of Wales Jetty. A speedboat called ‘Charger’ was operating from here taking people out for rides. It was obviously popular because the speedboat worked continually and the queue of passengers did not grow any shorter.
According to the notice at the head of the jetty, the speedboat is ‘Turbo Charged’, though it did not seem particularly fast to me. It costs £4 for a ride which lasts about 5 minutes. Whether customers thought it was worth 80p a minute, I don’t know, but they seemed happy enough.
We walked again, along the promenade, to where the Kursaal came in sight. It is the building in the photo with the dome on top. A Grade II listed building, the Kursaal was built in 1898-9 to a design by George Sherrin, as a place of entertainment. The name comes from German and means, literally, “cure hall” or perhaps what we would call a spa though, as far as I know, it was never used as such.
Every type of entertainment from ballroom dancing through circuses to games arcades have been practised here but the glory faded in the rush to abandon the British seaside in favour of warmer beaches abroad. Closed for a while, the Kursaal has been opened again as a bar, skittle alley, arcade hall and snooker hall. It seems to be ticking over but the glamour is no longer there. (The discontinuity observable in the above photo is an artifact produced by the stitching program. The photo nonetheless gives a good impression of the foyer.)
The foyer and particularly the ceiling dome are remains of the original grandeur of this elaborate building, a grandeur that has largely disappeared from the rooms currently accessible to the public.
After another spell on the deck chairs, we began retracing our steps towards the station. We had not eaten since breakfast and thought it would be a good idea to have a late lunch before catching the train. But where? We looked at a few menus without finding anything to tempt us. In the end, we returned where we had started, to the Last Post.
Built as Southend’s Post Office in 1896, this noble edifice performed its functions until closing in 1993. It opened again in 1994 but now as a pub, run by Wetherspoon’s. We chose vegetarian sausage and mash and then walked through the pub to Clifftown Road and thence to the station.