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November 24, 2008

Southend-on-Sea: Lilian Pizzichini is amazed to find regeneration that works

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

After visiting Lowestoft and despairing of the English seaside, Lilian Pizzichini finds regeneration that works in Southend.

Southend-on-Sea has not had a particularly good press. In 1969 Martin Crouch wrote in his guide book to Essex (Essex, Batford),

After Hadleigh there is no escape from Southend.
He briefly delineates the advantages of visiting this relatively modern resort before returning to the disadvantages.
the County Borough has taken in a number of ancient parishes and many of their treasures remain intact. There are moreover a number of modern buildings of character, notably churches belonging to the Gothic Revival and after. The long seafront from the Crow Stone to Thorpe Bay is unique in Essex. All these things are good, but my heart sinks at the thought of all those streets and all those people, including holiday-makers ruthlessly seeking fun.
Southend derives its name from being the south end of the ancient parish of Prittlewell. There was little here before the end of the 18th century. Even the fishing industry was better served by neighbouring Leigh-on-Sea. But Queen Caroline visited Southend in 1804, a pier was built in 1830 (the longest in the world), and the railway arrived in 1856. Southend-on -Sea had become a pleasure resort.

Five years ago I walked from Leigh-on-Sea to Southend, passing the sandy beaches of Leigh, and the ruins of Hadleigh Castle. Across the estuary the ghostly cranes and chimneys of the power plants that populate this faraway spit of land dotted the horizon. As well as being a landscape of industrial decay, the Essex landscape is littered with pioneering examples of modernist design, from housing in Frinton-on-Sea to the Canvey Island seawall restaurant - one of the first commissions of designer and engineer Ove Arup.

I passed muddy beaches, deserted amusement arcades and came into Pier Terrace, a derelict row of Georgian terraced houses that look out to the sea. It was all rather depressing: neglected, run-down, dispirited.

The other weekend I returned. Southend has been transformed. The Georgian houses on Pier Terrace, where Queen Caroline once stayed, have been restored. Pier View Hotel is elegant, deliciously comfortable and sensitive to its history. I could not quite connect this bijou hotel with the Sarfend of popular repute. But not to worry, the ruthless pleasure-seekers Marcus Crouch feared were out in force enjoying themselves.

The results were rather beautiful. Hotels, bandstand and pleasure-garden ironwork are set against fun fairs fizzing with lights and noise. Southend is lucky in standing on a hill that looks down to the sea. The views of these pleasure grounds add excitement and variety to the subtle greys and muddy horizon beyond.

I walked along the pier a mile and a half into the sea. It was an exhilarating experience, half way between land and sea; the sun's rays could be counted and the effects of the wind on the waters below could be similarly felt and enumerated. The sea was alive with colour and movement. The views ahead and behind were bathed in different shades of light depending on whims of the sun - but the eeriness of being suspended above water made the sea and sky seem so much closer, and Southend seem somehow spectral. This was like no other walk I have undertaken. The shifts in temperature and light meant that I went somewhere other than its destination.

Once at the pier head, the RNLI shop and museum is the main focus. There had been bad news earlier in the month. On 11th November at 15:41 an emergency call had been made. Weather conditions were "rain, wind 4-5 west". The casualty was a missing 40ft fishing boat. Two offshore boats, a hovercraft, a helicopter and a Sheerness lifeboat were launched to search for the overdue craft. I imagined the crew's family waiting on shore. The search was resumed at first light the following day. Only the wreck was found.

As day trips to the seaside go, this was a real insight into the realities of living by the sea. Even Marcus Crouch admitted,

Southend is in its way as much a part of the essential Essex as Greensted and Thaxted, and we must not flinch from it.
A walk down the main shopping street displayed the usual uniformity of English high streets - all the chain stores were there. But there was a Christmas market as well - hog roasts on the spit and local produce from local farms.

The Tourist Board had put on a show involving the Chuckle Brothers, stars of the forthcoming panto, and spiky-haired young singers, courtesy of BBC Essex, were seducing the crowds with the latest gloopy hits. Children (or Young People as I am told they are called now) were wandering around with Star War light-sabres and neon hats. They were having a wonderful time.

To cap it all, there was a fireworks display at twilight. It was spectacular - managing even to silence the screams from the rides of the fun fair that never seem to stop spinning. This was "regeneration" due to local efforts involving the local council - despite this involvement, it managed not to be joyless. This was regeneration with bells on.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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How anyone bear to go to Sarfend. Even if the buildings and amenities have been improved the people will still spoil it. This is Essex Girl country where they have the nastiest accent of any place in the world - Estuary English. However good you make it look , it will always sound revolting.

Posted by: seamus at November 27, 2008 10:32 PM

Seamus, some people just talk funny. Accents are not revolting. They are merely different, and pretty harmlessly so. Lighten up and enjoy those differences. You, and the world, will be happier for it.

Posted by: Michael Adams at November 29, 2008 04:51 AM

For years I enjoyed visiting Leigh On Sea but always avoided Southend due to its image.In August 2008 I took my family for a few nights stay at the Southend Travelodge.We visited the Sea Life Centre and got late night discounted tickets for Adventure Island.It was windy and rainy but the local people were cheerful and friendly - even the Essex 'chavs' were happy & enjoying themselves.The kids loved it and we didn't get ripped off (unlike some places).

Posted by: Rob at December 26, 2008 05:21 PM

Having lived dangerously close to Southend-on-sea for many a year, I got to know it quite well, putting a few quid into the arcades, candy-floss, and rock, with a tarted up front. try going along the 'Strip' on a Friday night!!, see the 'Boy racers' and youth's staggering along the front. Why do you think that Police station is located along the front by the Kursal? it has its Friday night ritual of opening at six.
Southend, pleasant by day, horrific by night.
Now in Kent, trying to keep in touch!

Posted by: Andy Mack at February 24, 2009 06:31 PM
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