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June 03, 2011

For the English pleasure is a dirty secret: Lilian Pizzichini explains why Southend-on-Sea sums up England for her

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Southend-on-Sea sums up England for me. It is a brash and awkward mix of history, domesticity and novelty, on the small scale, aspiring to greatness, and having moments of unexpected wilderness. Like the stickers currently appearing on the Central Line, there is a subversive irony at work in Southend. It defeats our expectations. It is also on the way up.

On my last visit here in 2008, I noted the movement towards "regeneration". Improvements continue apace, albeit with mixed results. As Hastings once did, Southend still struggles with dole-on-sea depression. However, Hastings has cheered itself up with a lovingly tended seafront and a thriving old quarter of half-timbered façades and Cornish-style fishermen's cottages. A beach-launched fishing fleet, the largest in Europe, rockpools and even wrecks on the lowest tides make for great exploring. But that’s Hastings.

Southend is the closest beach resort to London and thus perhaps the easiest to overlook. Familiarity breeds contempt. The poor relation can seem a nuisance. The London, Tilbury and Southend Railway leaves from Fenchurch Street and it has been doing so since the 1850s, when Southend-on-Sea became the place to be.

Avoid the Quiet Zone - this carriage is the noisiest, possibly because it sets up the expectation that it will be the quietest. Take a seat on your right, facing the direction of travel. After the high-rises and shopping malls of Barking, Upminster and Basildon, comes the contrast of Benfleet, gateway to Canvey Island. It is also home to a picturesque creek where shoal draft yachts and other shallow craft nestle up to each other. From the train, you can almost touch them, so close is the track to the river. The boats are either moored off the foreshore or tucked up in the muddy little creeks. One thing they all have in common is that they take the ground when the tide leaves. Silver mud flats unfold into distant green waters. The creeping tide uprights the dinghies' masts, curlews cry and reeds shimmer in the grey light. High and dry, boats look about to topple over into the mud. There is the most persistent stillness in the air.

The next stop is bijou Leigh-on-Sea, which, with its clapboard houses, quays and wharves, is Essex's answer to Hastings. The chief fish caught here are the brown shrimp and cockle. Alight here for a pint of either, and walk along the coast, past Chalkwell and Westcliff straight to Southend's Royal Terrace. Should you do so, and I recommend that you do, you will be following a long, coastal line of vast, golden stretches, seaside caffs, Rossi's ice-cream parlours, and 1930s-style beachfront properties. Londoners are missing a trick, apart, that is, from those who have moved here. The views of the Thames heaving and simmering in its final resting place before it decants into the North Sea are stunning. Southend itself, the Mecca of the 19th-century pleasure-seeker, is fronted by extensive drying mud flats that reach almost to the end of the 1.33-mile pier, the longest in the world. Before it was built, visitors who came by ferry from London were carried ashore, piggy-back fashion.

I stayed at the Pier View Hotel on Royal Terrace, which was built between 1791 and 1793. In 1803, Princess Caroline of Wales, neglected wife of the Prince Regent, stayed for three months at number 9 Royal Terrace, and it was from this circumstance that the Terrace received its name. In 1805, Lady Hamilton gave a ball in honour of Admiral Lord Nelson in the Assembly Room of the Royal Hotel on the corner of the terrace. Throughout the 19th century, the Assembly Room was used for social and civic events, including meetings of companies to build the first pier and railway to London. During the Second World War, houses in the terrace were used as headquarters by the Naval Control Service for the organisation of convoys.

My room was the Princess Caroline. I would not normally extol the virtues of businesses in these pages but there is something rather splendid about the restoration of this hotel that deserves mention. It is a perfect recreation of Georgian gracefulness - all powdery blues and buttery matte cream. Spectral chandeliers, silken eiderdowns, cavernous fireplaces and a quietness that suggests respect for Southend’s regal past. The Terrace with a Shrubbery that dates from the same period, is a conservation area. Speaking of which, deeper into Southend town is the saddest sight: an abandoned Sixties office block - brutal in its simplicity, stark in its outline and glorious in intent. It stands empty at the top of Victoria Avenue - a boulevard that would fit into central Europe quite happily. There, it would have pavement cafés and promenading shoppers. Here, it is an eyesore. This block, one of a handful, once housed the Customs and Excise department, which has now been downsized.

My argument is that the whole of Southend should be designated a conservation area - with room for manouevre. From Sixties ambition to Georgian graciousness, it is all here. The view from my room took in the whole of the seafront and the entire length of the pier. I could see right across the great expanse of the estuary to the pylons of Sheppey. The dining-room’s wrought-iron balcony offered a similar view. I took tea overlooking the terrace, which rests like a shelf on top of shrubberies that tumble down the side of a cliff and land the strolling pedestrian on the tarmac of Southend's sea front. Southend is a picture-book selection of long-ago eras - Georgian, Victorian and early Elizabethan. Oh, and Edwardian - the funicular that runs up and down the western cliff is back in service. Once deposited on the seafront, we are no longer basking in period detail, but we are confronted with southeast England's answer to Coney Island.

Adventure Island, which covers the waterfront in Southend with a kind of stealthy swagger, is a lurid, concrete and machine-driven fun-beach dividing the town from the ancient muds of the Thames estuary. As an island people, we have our own idea of the end of the line. It is here in the hinterland of an English urban seaside town and the wilds of the sea beyond it. We have our own very particular coastal reef, and it has all the brashness and hysteria of Coney Island with little of the latter's sense of the mythic: on the far edges of New York state, there is a sense of pride in the pleasure industry, a pride which the English could never have. For the English, pleasure is not something to be taken seriously, to be enshrined in the national culture, it is a dirty secret.

In the future, along Southend's sea front there will be a calming-down of manufactured brightness. There will be concealed fountains springing from paved areas and LED lights sending illuminations up and down masts. The beaches are groomed once a week. The Thames is cleaner than it has been for 200 years. All that is missing is the tourists.

Lilian Pizzichini is the author of, Dead Men's Wages, which won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction, and ofThe Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys (2009).

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