In love with Leigh
PUBLISHED: 10:24 26 August 2008 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013
Leigh on Sea's famous cockle sheds and surprising scenery have made it one of the most treasured towns in Essex. Elaine Syvier discovers why Leigh is so refreshing
LOCATED at the mouth of the Thames, Leigh on Sea's identity has long been shaped by its seaside location.
Positioned on the important shipping route to London, the town saw increasing amounts of trade and by the 16th century had flourished into a fairly large and prosperous port.
A significant local industry to benefit from this growth was shipbuilding. Vessels of up to 340 tons were once constructed in the town, possibly even counting the famous Mayflower among their number. The historic ship is certainly believed to have docked at Leigh to collect provisions and passengers before its epic voyage to the New World with the Pilgrim Fathers.
However, with the tides came change, and the rising sea level during the 18th century caused the silting up of Leigh's deep water channel and the decline of the town's importance as a port.
Leigh gradually reverted into a fishing village as fishermen harnessed the ideal conditions provided by numerous mud-banks and even cultivated oysters inshore. With no other rivals in the Thames estuary, business boomed as Leigh supplied the London market by road and barge.
Today Leigh remains famous for its shellfish and a small but active fleet of boats keep the town a well-regarded name in the cockling trade. Picturesque cockle sheds are an iconic feature of the town, many of which have been owned by families for generations. Sampling their mouth-watering array of the freshest seafood is one of Leigh's finest recommendations.
One of the most distinguished travellers on Leigh on Sea waters was Henry IV in 1406, as he endeavoured to escape the plague then ravaging London. However, in crossing the Thames from Sheppey to Leigh, his ship was attacked by French pirates. A great chase ensued but the king escaped and upon setting foot on dry land he went down on his knees and gave thanks for his safe delivery to Leigh.
Indeed, local tales of heroism are not confined to days gone by. In more recent history, the fishermen of Leigh are famous for their attempts to rescue British soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. A memorial in St Clements churchyard stands in testimony to their bravery and sacrifice.
Leigh Old Town manages to retain some of its maritime atmosphere, and echoes of the past resound around its cobbled streets and quaint architecture. A walk down the High Street reveals several interesting buildings, including the Old Smithy rebuilt from two earlier cottages in 1869-1880 and now housing a Heritage Centre.
Leigh on Sea boasts London's nearest beach and visitors flock to enjoy the sea air and spectacular sunsets. The waters are also very popular for all types of sailing and canoeing and every year the various local groups organise the Annual Old Leigh Regatta, which takes place on September 13 and 14 this year.
Yet aside from the diverse activities in the area, Leigh-on-Sea offers a haven of peace and beauty to those who know it well. John Wonnacott has lived in the town for most of his life, and has an art studio overlooking the estuary.
'I have been painting the estuary for more than 40 years,' he says, 'and there is nothing more beautiful than in the winter months when the sun shines low over the rivulets, throwing up incredible colours.
'The area is actually very popular with artists for that reason. It really is a stunning site, especially given that you don't expect to see that sort of scenery so close to London. It is also one of the most tidal places in the country, and when the tide withdraws and then rushes in, it is very dramatic.'
With such a rich history and present charm, Leigh on Sea's popularity shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.