Town guide for Leigh-on-Sea
PUBLISHED: 11:07 08 August 2016 | UPDATED: 11:07 08 August 2016
Leigh on Sea is something of an Essex coastal superstar. Rising through the ranks, this once tiny fishing hamlet has grown not just in size but also in popularity, making it one of the top five locations to live in the country, according to the Bricks and Mortar supplement in The Times
In Old Leigh, down by the cockle sheds on a sunny, summer’s day, visitors to the town can enjoy picture postcard riverside views of the mudflats and creeks, looking beyond to the deeper waters of the Thames. In essence, Leigh has been a fishing community for more than 1,000 years and this heritage remains very much at the heart of the old town today.
Although just a tiny fishing village, due to its location on the mouth of the Thames, by the 16th century Leigh had become an important place to drop anchor for trade ships and merchant boats passing through to London. There was also a ship building industry providing vessels for local fishing fleets and the area was of military significance thanks to its prime location, as naval fleets would take up position to ward off potential attacks from pirates and foreign enemies. However, by the 18th century Leigh’s importance as a port was in decline. Ships were getting larger and trading was changing. Nature was also having its say, with the once deepwater channel silting up, forming the mud flats that can be seen today and forcing a return to the quieter days for old Leigh.
The arrival of the railway to the town in the mid-19th century heralded significant change with large parts being demolished to accommodate the new mode of transport. The town began to expand with new streets and housing developments being built on the hills rising up from the town. The Broadway, now the centre of Leigh’s retail and commercial district, was once a residential street but, in the 1920s, the houses were replaced by shops and businesses. The town (like others) has in more recent times faced the challenge of online competition and out of town superstores, but the expertise and enterprise of local businesses has created a lively town centre for all to enjoy.
In fact, there is plenty going on in the town. This year Leigh is celebrating 25 years of hosting its now famous folk festival and there is also an annual art trail showcasing the works of local artists. A maritime festival takes place in August and, in September, the Leigh Regatta is another favourite event.
Keith Martindill of Coulson James estate agents, has lived in the area for years and puts into words the positive atmosphere in Leigh which makes it such a great place to live. ‘Walk down the Broadway on a sunny day and it is a bit like being on holiday. People are friendly, they smile and wave, and cars pull in and wait for people to cross. The street is packed with interesting boutiques, cafes and restaurants, and there is a certain affluent feel to the area.
‘Leigh has an unspoilt character and a protected Conservation Area which has kept the housing market healthy over the years. People are moving out of London, having sold their houses on for a healthy sum, and Leigh is still a fairly quick commute for them to get to work, so they can still buy a fair bit for their money. It is hard meeting the demand, as once people come they tend to stay. Commercial buildings are being redeveloped into flats.’
As well as all the delights of the town and the riverside, residents are lucky to be surrounded by some wonderful countryside. Situated just south of Leigh’s railway station is a 640 acre nature reserve managed by Essex Wildlife Trust. Two Tree Island, which is named after two prominent elm trees that were felled during storms in the early 1960s, is accessed by a road which divides the reserve into two, and the railway station is just a short walk away. There is a car park at the entrance to the island allowing easy access to the walking routes. Visitors are encouraged to stick to these trails so as to not disturb the wildlife.
The island was formed from reclaimed land back in the 18th century and was initially used for grazing and small scale farming. Now it is home to several species of insects, birds and snakes.
On a warm, humid June afternoon, the island is wonderfully lush, with the trees and grasses vibrant and green. Colourful butterflies and bees busily dance around the plentiful foliage. Bird hides are tucked away overlooking a lagoon and benches are placed perfectly for a clear view over the saltmarsh and mudflats towards Leigh, Westcliff and further to Southend and its pier stretching out to sea. The island is a haven for keen bird spotters (avocets also nest on the island) who might be looking for sea birds including waders such as curlew, redshank and grey proven, and land birds too with kestrel, meadow pipit, green woodpeckers and skylarks frequent visitors.
Turn the corner away from Leigh and the view switches to a greater expanse of marsh and mud and beyond the channel of water known as the Hadleigh Ray. Across the water lies Canvey Island, another location with a fascinating history, although quite different from that of Leigh on Sea.
Two Tree Island is a great retreat for locals and visitors. Jo, a first-time visitor from Colchester, was keen to get a closer look at the mudflats where vegetation such as eel-grass grows as a food source for the sea birds.
‘I am studying the environment and the various eco-systems that can be found around our countryside,’ explains Jo. ‘How the saltmarshes and mudflats are being managed and maintained is clear to see and this is vital for preserving the soil mass and vegetation that grows on it. It is also a beautiful place to visit.’
Dog-walker Stephen and his partner Jill, from neighbouring Southend, are frequent visitors: ‘The dogs love it here and so do we. It is so peaceful and you just get such a sense of being right in the middle of nature. Unfortunately, if the tide is out the dogs often find themselves right in the middle of the mud – making for a messy car ride home!’
Leigh on Sea rightly deserves its desirable location accolade. But those unable to grab a hot property here are still more than welcome to visit and sample some of the boutique lifestyle on offer and explore the stunning countryside.