Exploring the beaches of Essex
PUBLISHED: 11:02 05 June 2017 | UPDATED: 11:02 05 June 2017
Whether it’s sandy solitude, the perfect wave or space to let the kids run wild, Essex has plenty of great beaches, many of them complete with Blue Flags. Adam Jones takes us on a guided tour of the county’s unique coast
The British seaside, once all kiss-me-quick and knotted hankies, is a very different place today. Sophisticated restaurants and bistros offer gastronomic delights to rival anything the Mediterranean can offer, while once run-down boarding houses are now boutique hotels.
Of course, the Essex coast does still have elements of the traditional seaside delights, from pleasure piers to penny arcades, but now visitors also flock to our seafront towns to enjoy arts festivals and cultural events. So pull up a deckchair, slap on the sun cream and dip into this guide to the best that our county’s beaches have to offer...
Best for Paddling
Southend on Sea’s aptly-named Three Shells beach not only boasts fine, soft sand but also its very own tidal lagoon. Located near the bustling town centre and slap-bang next to Adventure Island fun park, the beach is painstakingly cleaned every day throughout the summer and the waters of the Thames Estuary also have a Quality Coastal Award.
Adjacent to the eponymous café that gives the beach its name, there is even a freshwater shower to rinse off sandy kids. The iconic Three Shells Café sits on the beach offering coffee, sandwiches and freshly-made doughnuts. Alternatively, enjoy an apres beach aperitif followed by dinner al fresco on Sands Bistro’s dining deck. Both locations afford fantastic views across the estuary, especially to watch the spectacular sunsets. Heaven forbid, but should the little ones tire of paddling and making sand castles, the beach is near to Southend’s world-famous pier and the delights of Adventure Island.
Best for Peace and Quiet
Depending on your point of view, you can thank, or blame, Sir Richard Powell Cooper for Frinton on Sea’s distinct lack of a pier, kiss-me-quick hats, whelk stalls or even an ice cream kiosk.
The doughty knight of the realm oversaw the town’s development a century ago and laid down strict by-laws designed to keep out the wrong sorts. To this day there are no amusement arcades and the town famously acquired its first and only pub in 2000. Consequently, crowds of day-trippers and holiday makers are kept to a minimum, leaving much of Frinton’s beautiful beach and elegant esplanade a much calmer seaside experience.
Best for Seafood
Old Leigh is the charismatic and characterful part of historic Leigh on Sea. Its Bell Wharf Beach is, in keeping with its surroundings, a real gem. Bustling cockle sheds frond the beach, while cosy welcoming pubs beckon should the weather take a turn for the worse. Wiggle your toes in the deep, golden sand and watch Leigh’s fishing fleet bring in their catch. If the local delicacy, cockles, isn’t quite your thing, then try some freshly-battered fish at Simply Seafood or one of the charming hostelries.
In the north of the county, don’t miss the Company Shed. Shed by name, shed by nature. This may seem a harsh way to describe the no frills Company Shed on Mersea Island, but once you’ve been there, you’ll understand. You’re not there for the creature comforts, you’re there for the food. Established three decades ago by the wife of a sixth-generation oysterman, the Company Shed doesn’t measure in food miles, but yards. Fire your appetite with a beautiful, bracing walk and get ready to tuck in to grilled garlic lobster, dressed crab, scallops with bacon or the real showstoppers, native oysters.
Best for Seaside Fun
At the heart of the sunshine coast, Clacton on Sea is a great choice for a traditional seaside trip that all the family can enjoy. Relive treasured childhood memories with a paddle in the sea, making sand castles and then visiting the pier. Alternatively, relax in the award-winning seafront gardens and watch the world go by. For more adventurous types, Clacton also offers a range of watersports, including sailing, windsurfing, canoeing and jet skiing.
Further up the coast, Walton on the Naze is a charming seaside resort with sandy beaches, seafront gardens and quaint narrow streets. The pier is the second longest in England and offers a variety of activities and amusements. The Naze headland is an area of unspoilt heath, saltmarshes and sandy beaches. It is also where you’ll discover the remarkable Naze Tower – an 86ft high, octagonal structure that houses an art gallery and tea rooms. The views from the top of the tower are well worth the giddying climb up the stairs. Albion Beach, next to Walton on the Naze, is a superb sandy beach that is a great choice for families. There is an abundance of handy facilities, including a first aid point, deckchair hire, toilets, a lost child centre and refreshments.
Best for Dogs
Having access to public beaches during the summer months has long been a gripe for responsible dog owners, as many are closed to pooches between May and October.
However, Canvey Island’s Thorney Bay beach has no such restrictions and has the added appeal of being a quieter location for a day out by the seaside.
Best for Watersports
Southend’s huge seafront offers more than seven miles of fun for enthusiasts of several watersports. The Beach Club on Thorpe Bay beach is a Royal Yachting Association Training Centre and the only Fast Forward windsurfing instruction centre in the eastern region. It also offers canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, jet-skiing, powerboat driving and banana boat sessions. The venue has specially adapted craft and facilities for wheelchair users too.
Further down Southend’s Eastern Esplanade, visitors will find Shoebury Common beach. It’s a good spot for intrepid souls who are keen to try their hand at windsurfing, jet skiing and kitesurfing. Shoebury East beach is a long sandy beach, crowned with a magnificent grassy hinterland – making it a superb location to enjoy a picnic. It is also popular with local horse owners, who like to go for a gallop on the beach at low tide, and is home to Essex Kitesurfing Club.
Southend doesn’t have it all its own way. The beach at Brightlingsea is ideal for sailing and jet skiing, and also offers a good choice for open-water swimming. For nippers, there’s a paddling pool as well. While you’re there, go for a leisurely stroll and have a look at the colourful beach huts or follow the nature pathway for the chance to spot local birds and insects.
Dovercourt Bay has much to offer too. Not only does it possess two wonderful lighthouses, which stand like benign sentinels over the expanse of sand and shingle, but there is a wealth of activities. The boating lake is perfect for sailing model yachts, while full-scale sailing, windsurfing and jet skiing can be enjoyed in the Blue Flag-winning waters. Close by is Hemford Water National Nature Reserve which is a great place to see seals. Dovercourt also has a small skatepark, which will keep skateboarders, BMXers and scooter riders amused.
Best for Crabbing
Almost as important as having fish and chips and an ice cream, a trip to the seaside isn’t complete without a spot of crabbing. Whether you’re an expert or budding enthusiast, there can be few greater or simpler pleasures than sitting on a quayside, in the sunshine and with an ice cream in hand, waiting for that tell-tale tug on your line. It’s one of the best days out ever.
The website crabbydays.co.uk recommends four crabbing hotspots in Essex: Brightlingsea, Canvey Island’s Eastern Esplanade seafront, Clacton’s sea defence rocks (when the tide is up) and West Mersea. My friend Giles, a noted crabbing expert (or so he claims) says bacon is the ideal bait.
Best for Ice Cream
Westcliff beach on Southend’s Western Esplanade is famous for the ultimate seaside staple – ice-cream. Over the road from the beach is the impressive Rossi’s parlour which offers spectacular views over the Thames Estuary.
The Rossi family first started making ice cream in Southend as far back as the 1930s and although the firm is no longer in their hands, the current owners have steadfastly stuck to the art of making premium, artisan gelati using fresh milk, butter and double cream to a traditional Italian recipe. Southendians are fiercely proud of their local ice cream. So much so that they refer to it as ‘having a Rossi’. Clearly no other brand will do.