There’s nothing quite like peeling your socks off, sticking a hanky on your head and plonking yourself down in a deck-chair at one of England’s oldest seaside resorts – Southend-On-Sea.
With its dirty high-rise estates riddled with drug-related crime, it’s not exactly St Tropez, but you gotta love it. During the winter months Southend is relatively quiet; the only visitors being teenagers lured in from nearby towns by the promise of cheap beer at Essex’s most famous nightclub: TOTS 2000. In fact, my husband was one of those teens who, many moons ago, braved the cold to “go out on the lash” and “pull birds” at TOTS.
But during those precious few weeks in July – the sum total of our British summer – Southend comes alive. As soon as the sun pokes its head out from behind the clouds, people begin to remove their clothes at an alarming rate, and during this brief period there is a greater concentration of batwings and beer bellies on display than anywhere else in the country, perhaps the world.
I grew up in and around London, and trips to the seaside were rare, but on those infrequent occasions when my family did head for the coast, I remember being beside myself with excitement. In fact, my mother still reminds me – and anyone else in earshot – that I would “accidentally” hurl myself into the sea (fully clothed), every single time. I can’t deny it.
So it was, on one of these relatively hot days last summer, that James decided to indulge my memories of seaside holidays past and drive me the 30-minute journey from his hometown in Rayleigh to glorious Southend-On-Sea.
Chip Fat and Frolicking
A waft of salty sea air, chip-fat and candyfloss hit our nostrils as soon as we exited the ring road and joined the throng of cars lined up on the seafront. To most, the weather was scorching, but my Singapore-thinned blood found it a bit nippy; so I kept on my 15-denier stockings and woolly cardigan in spite of the strange looks.
Ruddy faces etched with determination lined the pebbled beach; those who hadn’t arrived early enough to claim a deckchair were splayed out on blankets and tarpaulins. With only two weeks of sun per annum, this was a sunbathing opportunity not to be missed.
However, there was a noticeable absence of suntan lotion. Despite centuries of burning ourselves to a crisp all over the world, we Brits still don’t seem to have grasped the concept of SPF. Actually, that’s not entirely true – we’re happy to slather it on when we’re abroad, but at home the sun appears too infrequently for us to take it seriously.
From the promenade we witnessed a few brave souls frolicking in the sea, and while they sounded as if they were enjoying themselves, it struck me that perhaps their cries were ones of pain and not of merriment. After all, who – other than someone with third-degree burns – would find pleasure venturing into near-freezing water? Twenty-five years ago I was one of them, but an older and wiser me wasn’t in the least bit interested in joining them, fully clothed or otherwise.
Pennies from Heaven
The crumbling arcades with their peeling signs, unidentified musty smells and sticky carpets are among my favourite places on earth. When we visited the seaside as kids, my brother and I would spend hours working the two-penny machines, trying to make a profit on the one pound our mum had given us to play with. The machines always won and invariably we’d traipse back home with empty pockets.
So, finding myself once again face to face with my childhood nemesis left me overwhelmed with nostalgia. Once again I was mesmerised by the familiar glass frontage that separates the punter from the treasure; those same piles of brown pennies going backwards and forwards, moving ever closer to the edge, waiting for that one triumphant penny to trickle down and send the whole lot cascading into the winnings tray.
But before I had a chance to feed in my entire holiday fund, James quietly manoeuvred me out of the arcade with a look in his eye that said “Gambler’s Anonymous for you, my girl!”
Respect Your Piers
In addition to being the longest in the world (1.33 miles), Southend Pier, built in 1830, is also famous for having been nearly destroyed by two fires, and by a large boat that ran through it. The last fire, in 2005, destroyed much of the pier-head, and charred hunks of wood are a stark reminder of this. Nevertheless, with sheer determination and a lot of public funding, the old lady still stands.
For the infirm and the lazy, there is a train that will transport you from one end to the other, but being neither infirm nor lazy (except at weekends) we chose to walk.
As we strolled along the rickety structure we passed stalls selling piles of sugary sweets, and others dishing out polystyrene cups of cockles, winkles and fresh prawns. Tourists lounged outside cafés, sipping ice-cold lemonade and eating hot, vinegary chips. We reached the end of the pier, wind-swept and happy, and sat for a while watching wizened fishermen patiently throwing out their lines in hope of a catch. Having decided that fishing was possibly the most boring activity on earth (bar watching paint dry), we toyed briefly with the idea of walking back.
The train ride turned out to be quite a nerve-racking experience, and we were only thankful that the pier held up under weight of the hulking hydraulic machine.
The Fun of the Fair
I remember a time when I would badger my mum into taking me to the funfair. Despite the fact that any ride with a circular motion made me violently sick, I couldn’t get enough of them.
The amusement park at Southend is everything that a young child prone to vomiting could wish for. There’s a big wheel, several roller-coasters and even that great British institution: the helter-skelter. But having long lost the inclination to regurgitate my breakfast, I was happy to walk around and soak up the familiar atmosphere.
Eventually we stumbled upon the crazy-golf course, which proved to be far gentler on the stomach. After James had ungraciously thrashed me – twice, announcing his victory with loud and taunting whoops – we went in search of lunch, which at Southend means only one thing: fish ‘n’ chips.
Fish, Chips and a Fond Farewell
There is no shortage of fish ‘n’ chip establishments in Southend, and we chose to enjoy ours at a lovely old white-washed restaurant along the seafront. The staff did an admirable job of delivering endless plates of battered cod, chunky chips and mushy peas to their many customers, and we enthusiastically doused ours in malt vinegar, salt, and ketchup from a plastic squeezy bottle. Finally, replete with enough lard to sustain an Eskimo for an entire winter, we made our departure. With the sea to our backs we turned for home, and as we drove away, leaving the crowds still baking themselves on the beach, I thought: I really do like to be beside the seaside.