Why Southend is much more than beaches and arcades

PUBLISHED: 20:01 01 June 2015 | UPDATED: 20:01 01 June 2015




Full of life and bursting at the seams with things to do, Southend is one of the county’s best known seaside resorts. Petra Hornsby visits this popular destination which is always offering something fresh and new

Essex certainly is a county of contrasts, and this includes our coastal areas. From quieter and more sedate resorts to picturesque estuary towns, there’s something for everyone. There are places that are perfect spots for crabbing, camping and sailing and then there’s Southend.

Southend was indeed once the ‘south end’ of the village of Prittlewell, back in the days when all it could boast were a few assorted fishermen huts and some farms. It was in the 1790s that the development of this area as a resort began but it really wasn’t until the 19th century that Southend’s prospects began to improve thanks to improved links with London and a visit from the people’s favourite royal, Princess Caroline.

It was also during this century (in 1830) that — arguably — Southend’s biggest asset (certainly landmark!) was built. The pier, the longest pleasure pier in the world at 1.33 miles in length, gave Southend something quite unique and opened the doors of the town to daytrippers. Inevitably, the construction has suffered the occasional ship collision, not to mention fire damage, but today it remains an essential icon for the town and a magnet for the 6 million tourists who visit it each year.

Southend clearly has a history of being something of a fun-seekers’ paradise. Visitors today can still see and visit The Kursaal, now a Grade II listed building, which was opened in 1901 as one of the world’s first purpose-built amusement parks incorporating both indoor and outdoor attractions. At one stage the complex was used as a home for Southend United FC and briefly for greyhound racing — although this was short-lived due to the amount of pitch damage it caused! By 1986, the whole development had closed and today some of the land has been developed for housing, although the main building remains and is now a bowling alley, casino and arcade.

One very good reason for many to head to the pier is that it houses Southend’s modern day theme park — Adventure Island — which is a perfect venue for the whole family with a range of more than 50 rides to suit all ages. For those wanting to learn more about marine life, the Sea Life Adventure Aquarium is certainly worth a visit. Aside from these popular attractions, the pier offers its own railway covering its whole length, as well as angling, refreshments and magnificent views. At the pier head is the RNLI station — one of the busiest in the country — operating four lifeboat rescue units. Since the station opened in 1879, Southend’s heroic crews have saved an incredible 2,000 lives. Visits to the station can be arranged and there is a gift shop on site to help raise essential funds.

Also sitting at the mouth of the pier is The Royal Pavilion. Opened in 2012, this visually arresting building was constructed off-site at Tilbury Docks and then transported by barge along the Thames to its current location. The venue offers a varied programme of plays, concerts and exhibitions and is the perfect spot to take afternoon tea and enjoy the view.

Those anxious to get to work with their buckets and spades won’t be disappointed either as Southend offers a selection of wonderful beaches. Three Shells Beach
is small, friendly and popular with families, with the convenience of being not too far away from the other attractions. Jubilee Beach is sand and shingle and stretches from the Pier to Thorpe Bay. Again, it is close to amusements and cafes and pleasure boat trips can also be booked. Thorpe Bay is the location of the Southend Marine Activities Centre and definitely the place to head for if you like plenty of action by the sea. Here you can try your hand at sailing, kayaking, windsurfing and many other water-sports. Thorpe Bay beach also has a children’s paddling pool.

If a more sedate stroll along the water’s edge is your preference, then Chalkwell Beach has been recommended by many for just this. City beach, located on the central seafront, has been designed to extend daytime fun into the evening with impressive digital lighting columns that light up the night sky. During the day the landscaped area has a children’s fun fountain area — irresistible for the warmest summer days. In fact, Southend’s beaches have won several awards and the area has been described as, ‘one of the cleanest stretches of seaside in the UK’.

Another famous landmark of this lively seaside town is the Golden Mile; half a mile of illuminated arcades, food outlets and other attractions.

Those wanting to head inland to explore some of Southend’s shops, parks and museums can take the Cliff Lift which takes you up from the seafront to the town. There is also a Cliff Railway which links the promenade to the cliff top. Those venturing away from the sea and the breathless entertainment found on the front will discover a good selection of shops, restaurants and bars as well as art galleries, museums and historic places of interest.

The Prittlewell Priory, located in Priory Park, is more than 900 years old and was once the home to a small number of Cluniac monks. Although now beautifully maintained, The Priory suffered its inevitable fate thanks to Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries before becoming a private residence. One family, the Scruttons, lived there for more than 200 years from 1842 and the extension, which once housed an impressive 13 bedrooms, now has an informative and interactive display for visitors to learn about the wildlife that can be found in the park.

Throughout the year, this coastal town seems to operate at full speed as each year there is the Southend on Sea Film Festival, Village Green Arts & Music Festival and the nearby Leigh on Sea Folk Festival and Art Trail to look forward to. The town also attracts plenty of four-wheel and two-wheel motor enthusiasts with the summertime London to Southend Classic Car Run where classic cars of all descriptions descend on the town. The Southend Shakedown is another popular annual event and an opportunity for bikers and scooter riders to stretch their tyres from the Ace Café in London to Southend’s seafront.

Southend on Sea is alive and kicking, despite a general downturn in fortune for British seaside resorts over previous decades thanks to the cheap European package holiday. Nevertheless, Southend continues to offer plenty of variety for its visitors, whether stopping for a few days or just taking advantage of a fun-packed family day out. Of course, dry, sunny weather can’t be guaranteed, but with so much going on, who would even notice the odd spot of rain?

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