Lovely, lively, Leigh on Sea
PUBLISHED: 08:05 07 July 2015 | UPDATED: 08:05 07 July 2015
Leigh on Sea is one of the county's top coastal spots and has recently been rated fourth out of the top 30 places to live in England by a team of property experts. Petra Hornsby reveals more about the town's appeal
Situated a few miles from the vibrant and action-packed town of Southend on Sea, Leigh on Sea is located on the northern side of the Thames and close to the open waters of the North Sea.
Still very much regarded as a working fishing town, with trawlers busily catching, landing and selling fresh fish and seafood in Old Leigh, this old ‘village’ was also once a busy and successful port. Thanks to it being on the main shipping route to London, passing boats would drop anchor, bringing trade to the village. However, by the late 19th century, deep water access was limited due to silt build-up and Leigh’s times of prosperity saw a decline.
The arrival of the railway not only led to the development of fresh housing on new streets but also resulted in a significant part of the old town being demolished. With the railway and the subsequent rise in population came new businesses and industry. Further changes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with the arrival of out-of-town shopping facilities as well as online shopping, saw Leigh re-invent itself — and how successful it appears to have been.
Today, this coastal town is very much on the up. On a pleasant summer’s day, Old Leigh will be packed with visitors buying fresh fish from the famous old cockle sheds, taking a dip when the tide is in or enjoying refreshments from pubs and cafés, some of which bear the names of the old style fishing boats such as Ye Olde Smack and Peterboat. Away from the water’s edge, the town has an impressive selection of boutique-style shops, cafés, restaurants and galleries, all of which attract many people from out of town.
The town is also a thriving hub of culture, with a host of events going on throughout the year including the Annual Art Trail, Leigh Folk Festival (the largest free folk festival in the UK), the Leigh on Sea Maritime Festival and the Leigh Regatta.
One Leigh resident, Adam Keating, is full of praise for the town and the atmosphere within this local community. ‘Living here you never get bored,’ says Adam. ‘There is always plenty going on with organised events to get involved in and there are many great restaurants in the town to enjoy. Being so close to London and the beaches at nearby Southend is also a bonus.’
The thriving character of Leigh on Sea owes much to its enthusiastic and dedicated council who — as a team — consult with the community to help create a town with facilities that people really seem to want.
One of their great successes has been the Leigh Community Centre which last year celebrated its 100th year. One long-serving member of the town council, Leigh resident and current vice-chair Carole Mulroney, explains the council’s role in rejuvenating this much-loved facility.
‘The centre had for several years been used as a college, but a few years ago the building was vacated and was then left to lie fallow and became increasingly neglected,’ says Carole. ‘Formerly the property of the local borough council, there was talk of it becoming a multi-story car park or even being pulled down. Local people were unhappy at the thought of losing the centre, so we decided to act.’
The community was consulted and just under 80% of locals were clear they wanted their centre to be saved. After several meetings with Southend Borough Council, it was agreed that Leigh’s council would take on the centre with a five-year lease.
Carole is clearly delighted with how things have turned out. ‘We now have a buzzing centre within our community. Open seven-days-a-week, the centre has eight rooms that can be hired, including a dance hall. There is a café where mums attending the nursery groups meet, as well as youth groups and events for senior citizens. We also host vintage fairs, music concerts and plays, and have a resident artist on site. Thousands of people come through the door on a monthly basis and we are now set to sign a new 30-year lease so we are really excited about the future.’
The council is poised and ready to undertake further plans, set to begin later this year. Strand Wharf sits in the middle of the town alongside the Customs House, the Heritage Centre and the museum. Regarded as essentially a block of concrete, Carole and her team feel it is a space with great potential.
‘Once the last outdoor event of the year — the Regatta — is over, we will begin work on refurbishing Strand Wharf. We plan to pave the area, provide seating and plant up some flower boxes. Our intention is to make it a pleasant place for visitors to our attractions — including students from schools — to be able to sit and enjoy the surroundings. It will also be a better place for the community to gather during our events such as the Christmas light switch on and carol concert.
‘We have a great community spirit here; it is wonderful that we have been recognised as being such a great town to live in and we welcome new residents young and old. Leigh on Sea has such a rich ancestry that goes back a 1,000 years. We have just launched a local history project inviting people to come forward and name what they consider to be our heritage assets, places and landmarks that can be listed and documented. I also run a service looking into local family history — which can be a fascinating insight for residents whose families have lived in Leigh and the surrounding area for decades.’
When the tide is out, the landscape of mudflats, creeks and fishing boats provides a fascinating scene all of its own and with views across to Sheppey and the Isle of Grain, Old Leigh is as salty and nautical as it can get. With its cultural events, great restaurants and fantastic community spirit, it is easy to see what makes this a top UK location.