Standing at the end of Britain’s longest pier, on a cold and misty morning, looking out across the Thames Estuary, I wondered, for the umpteenth time: why do people take the piss out of Southend? It’s got no airs and graces. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yet out here, surrounded by still grey sky and still grey water, with only a few seagulls for company, I’m struck by its barren windswept beauty. You’d never guess London was only an hour away.
Southend-on-Sea has been a running joke for as long as I can remember. Even the train to London was known as the Misery Line, on account of its endless delays. Yet lately, something’s changed. The railway is vastly improved (quite possibly because the route to Fenchurch Street station is run by an Italian company), but there’s more to it than that. The same thing is happening here that happened a generation ago in Brighton. Young Londoners, priced out of the Big Smoke, have discovered this slightly scruffy seaside town is a fine place to raise a family.
I had lunch with local entrepreneur Marc Miller at his latest venture, a posh fish and chip shop called Clarence Yard. Marc spent a million quid on this old bakery, restoring its Victorian brickwork, vaulted ceiling and cobbled floors. It’s a perfect metaphor for Southend’s modest renaissance, a smart restaurant with a rich heritage that’s still refreshingly down-to-earth.
Marc’s family run traditional entertainments around town, including Sealife Adventure and Adventure Island (Britain’s no. 1 free-admission fun park, apparently). They also own Radio Essex, which feels fitting, for Marc is the quintessential Essex businessman — friendly and full of energy, with a keen awareness of the bottom line.
After I’d stuffed my face with cod and chips (the mushy peas were delicious), my friend Tracy drove me out to Southend Airport — sorry, London Southend Airport. CEO Glyn Jones showed me round. The airport’s recent history mirrors South-end’s fall and rise, from one of Britain’s busiest airports in the 1960s and 1970s, when Freddie Laker’s Skytrain ruled the skies, to sleepy obscurity in the 1980s and 1990s, and then a revival in the Noughties, when it was bought by the Stobart Group. Stobart has pumped £160 million into the airport, winning awards. Most of the traffic is no-frills — easyJet and Flybe — but if you’re flush enough to have your own aircraft, there’s also a great facility for private planes.
Back in Southend, I dropped into the Beecroft Art Gallery, a brutalist hulk that conceals hidden treasures, including a landscape by local lad John Constable. In the basement, the veteran jazz trumpeter Digby Fairweather runs the National Jazz Archive, with monthly gigs amid an eclectic array of jazz curios.
I finished my day trip at the Palace Hotel, where Laurel and Hardy once stayed. I’d come to meet Paul Cotgrove, director of the Southend Film Festival (last week in May). Over a pint of bitter, he talked me through this year’s attractions, including an appearance by Robin Askwith. Did you know that as well as those kiss-me-quick Confessions films, Askwith also worked with Pasolini and Zeffirelli? How very Southend.
On the train back to London I started wondering: would my wife let me trade in our suburban villa in Ruislip for a Georgian townhouse beside Southend pier?