PUBLISHED: 10:36 03 June 2013 | UPDATED: 10:36 03 June 2013
If you were to stand on Southend's seafront, binoculars to eyes, at about noon on May 25, you would see a scene straight from the history of Southend. The billowing sails of the Atlantis, an elegant tall ship first launched at the turn of the 20th century, will herald the start of the town's two-week Maritime Festival, charting the town's seafaring past.
But although Southend’s history is dominated by the sea and the seven miles of golden sandy beach that run alongside it, the modern town has seen something of a transformation in recent years. No fewer than six million visitors flock to the county’s most famous seaside resort every year, and that number is on the rise, thanks to a general sprucing up of the heart of Southend and the determination of its people to continually move with the times.
One very obvious change has been the relocation of the local college and Essex University into the centre of the town, which has brought an influx of younger people right to the heart of Southend and made Southend a buzzy place to be.
‘There is a great mix of seaside, entertainment and shopping in Southend,’ says Dawn Jeakins, centre manager at The Royals Shopping Centre for the past 12 years. ‘We have a really strong Town Centre Partnership and the changes in the town have made sure Southend is going from strength to strength.’
Seaside shopping is a real draw and The Royals offers high street names including Debenhams, Primark, Boots and TK Maxx while there are many other specialist stores dotted around the town.
Accommodation in Southend has had an upgrade too. The Park Inn has now replaced the old Palace Hotel and, thanks to the expansion of Southend Airport, many more people are choosing Southend as a place to stay.
Certainly for those who visit Southend for a day or maybe longer, there is no shortage of entertainment and the iconic pier remains the focus of traditional family amusements in Southend. Despite various fires and collisions, it remains the longest pleasure pier in the world, at 1.34 miles, and, although it was first built in 1830, it’s still changing to meet the needs of modern tourists. Last year, the new Cultural Centre on Southend Pier officially opened its doors. Incorporating a marriage venue with a main hall big enough to seat 185 people, an artists’ studio, a café and a covered terrace giving views over the Thames Estuary, this has become Southend’s latest landmark.
Adventure Island theme park has been whizzing and spinning visitors for several decades and is now bigger and better than ever before. The range of amusement arcades, fish and chip sellers, and candy floss, doughnuts and ice-cream stands, make Southend an ideal place for a day beside the seaside for the whole family. Evening entertainment is bright and lively, with a huge choice of bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants to choose from.
One of Southend’s best-loved entertainment venues is the Cliffs Pavilion. Opened in 1964, mainly to host dinner dances and traditional stage shows, the Cliffs has certainly responded to changing tastes in entertainment. Throughout the 1970s, variety shows were popular, headlined by big names from television including Dickie Henderson and Leslie Crowther. The occasional megastar, such as Paul McCartney, dropped in, but the rest of the programme was mostly made up of big bands and summer shows. Bands of the 1980s added the Cliffs to their tour dates and large-scale musicals, such as Chess, came to town.
The Cliffs was extended in the 1990s, and with an extra 500 seats the programme was able to expanded to accommodate more West End musicals, including favourites such as Buddy and Evita, as well as international singing stars and tribute bands and a 12-concert season of classical music by international orchestras.
These days, comedy is ‘the new rock ‘n’ roll’ and the Cliffs Pavilion has been in the vanguard of this trend, regularly bringing the most popular comedians of the day – Michael McIntyre, Micky Flanagan, Jimmy Carr, Lee Evans, Al Murray and the like – to sell-out audiences. Top bands and performers have also visited, such as Stereophonics, One Direction, Gary Barlow, Robbie Williams and Professor Green, all of whom have all appeared at the Cliffs over the past five years.
Southend’s Palace Theatre celebrated its centenary last year and, although it started life as a music hall, today it presents a range of touring productions interspersed with less-well-known comedians and live bands.
‘Like any successful industry, the entertainment industry adapts and changes in line with consumer tastes and demands,’ says Paul Driscoll of the Cliffs Pavilion. ‘Together, the Cliffs and the Palace Theatre really do offer something for every taste.’
Something that hasn’t changed in Southend over the years is the need for the lifeboat station. While the RNLI lifeboatmen who founded the Southend station back in 1879 would have launched their boat with the help of a horse-drawn carriage, the modern service has the use of an Atlantic 75 rigged inflatable lifeboat and a smaller D-Class inflatable lifeboat, which are launched from the pierhead boathouse. There is also a search and rescue hovercraft and D-Class inshore lifeboat, ready to help from its inshore boathouse beside the pier.
The Southend station was the busiest coastal station in the country last year, with 137 call-outs, yet like all RNLI stations, it relies entirely on donations to the RNLI. This month the public have a chance to see behind the scenes at Southend Lifeboat Station at its Open Weekend, which takes place from noon until 4.30pm on June 1 and 2.
‘Our open weekend gives the RNLI volunteer crews and staff at the lifeboat station a chance to show members of the public the important work carried out when a lifeboat is requested to launch by the coastguard,’ says the Southend station’s Den Freeman. ‘The lifeboats, search and rescue hovercraft and our equipment will be on display to give visitors an insight into how the service runs.’
Of course, if it hadn’t been for Southend’s coastline and miles of golden sand, the place may well not have made much of an impression on the map of Essex in the first place. Southend has perhaps the county’s widest choice of beaches – and one of the cleanest stretches of seaside in the country. Three Shells Beach right on the seafront, has long been a favourite place for sandcastle building, but there are quieter spots at Chalkwell Beach or Jubilee Beach. Watersport watchers tend to congregate at Thorpe Bay, Shoebury Common and East Beach and walkers enjoy the sights and sounds of the wildlife at Westcliff Beach. As Southend moves with the times, it’s good to know that buckets and spades and a soothing coastal stroll never go out of fashion.