Can you believe that Simeon had been abroad but had never seen the sea? The red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) knew he had to rectify that, so took advantage of the pleasant, late-October sunshine and travelled to Essex’s famous seaside, Southend-on-Sea. With a map produced by Treasure Trails to help him, Simeon was ready to explore.
Southend-on-Sea, more commonly known as Southend, lies on the north side of the Thames Estuary, approximately 40 miles from Central London. With a train service running directly to the capital, Southend has been a popular holiday and day trip destination for millions of people. Originally a handful of fishermen’s huts, the old village has developed into a large, commercial town, now home to the world’s longest pier, an airport and an amusement park.
Adventure Island, formerly known as Peter Pan’s Playground, lies either side of the entrance to the pier on Southend’s seafront. The area began as a seaside garden, appropriately named Sunken Gardens, in 1918, adding a couple of children’s rides two years later. It was not until 1976, when the site was extensively redeveloped, that it earned the title “amusement park”. Since then, the playground has expanded, regularly adding new rides, such as its first roller coaster Green Scream in 1999.
Simeon decided to give the amusement park a miss, the sight of the 97-degree drop on one of the newest rides making his stomach churn. Besides, he did not reach the height requirement to even ride the gentlest mini rides. Simeon was far more interested in the crashing waves and sandy beach.
Southend-on-Sea’s foreshore has been registered as a protected nature reserve due to its importance to migrating birds, particularly in the winter. Every year, Southend welcomes local and international birds to its beaches where they find food to survive the cold months. Southend and the rest of the Thames Estuary support the fifth largest amount of wintering waterfowl of any estuary in the United Kingdom. An estimated 153,000 birds flock to the muddy foreshore, which is full of burrowing creatures such as worms, cockles and mussels.
Along the sea walls and under the water are a number of different creatures. Crabs congregate in sheltered areas, including rock pools or under pebbles. Sea sponges and anemones are often found attached to the underside of the pier along with typical plant life that attracts many waterfowl. Under the sea, a rare plant called eelgrass has flourished, drawing the attention of Dark-bellied Brent Geese who particularly like the delicacy.
Other birds that are often found along the coastline at Southend are the common gull, black-headed gull, grey plover, ringed plover and shelduck. With protection, the natural landscape produces enough plants and sea creatures to feed these species and more.
Simeon was a little disappointed that it was not quite the winter season when he visited Southend and, therefore, was not able to meet the winter visitors. Nonetheless, he was intrigued to find out about the environment along the Essex coastline. Although hiding on the day of his visit, the Thames Estuary is home to Harbour Seals and, during the summer, the occasional Harbour Porpoise.
Those who travel to Southend purposely to see the wildlife do not have to rely on luck, good weather or time of year, instead they can visit Sealife Adventure along the Eastern Esplanade. Seemingly the number one aquarium in the south-east, Sealife Adventure is filled with fish, turtles and a walk-through tunnel shark tank.
As well as nature, Southend-on-Sea is full of history, some forgotten and some that have left their mark. There are a few things that Southend is particularly famous for; one is a traditional seaside delicacy – ice cream. Walking down to the seafront from the town centre, Simeon passed a few benches dedicated in memory to local inhabitants. One, however, stood out above the others: In Loving Memory Of Tony Rossi Founder Of Southend’s Famous Ice Cream. Died 7th August 1977.
On the Western Esplanade, beach-goers can be found taking refreshment at the original Rossi’s Ice Cream parlour. The shop was founded in 1932 by the Italian immigrant Fioravanti Figliolini and has remained open ever since. The famous name Rossi came about when Figliolini joined forces with Tony Rossi, another Italian immigrant. Although Figliolini eventually took over the business, he kept the easy-to-remember name and spread the ice cream establishment to Weymouth in Devon. Unfortunately, this entrepreneur has been forgotten, whilst Toni Rossi receives all the accolades.
“The Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier”
– Sir John Betjeman (1906-84)
Whilst Rossi may be popular, there is no doubt that Southend’s greatest attraction is the pier. At 1.34 miles (2.16 km), Southend Pier is the longest pleasure pier in the world. Due to its length, a train regularly transports people from one end to another, although it is possible to walk. Simeon decided he would much rather look at the pier from the beach than join the crowds on the decking. Due to it being October, and thus almost Halloween, the train had temporarily been transformed into a spooky ghost train.
Now a Grade II listed building, the construction of the current pier began in 1887 based on designs by James Brunlees (1816-92). Prior to that, a wooden pier had been in place since the 1830s, however, the growing influx of visitors from London took its toll on the oak-wood timber. The new pier was built with iron piles to make it a much sturdier and endurable structure.
In 1927, the pier was extended further in order to accommodate larger steamboats and was officially opened by Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902-42) on 8th July 1929. Ten years later, however, it was closed to the public and overtaken by the Royal Navy for use during the Second World War. The pier was renamed HMS Leigh and the seafront from Southend to Chalkwell was given the title HMS Westcliff.
Despite surviving the war, the pier has had a succession of disasters that threatened to destroy the world famous structure. In the late 1940s and 50s, many additions were made, including cafes and a theatre. Unfortunately, much of this was lost during a fire in 1959. Later, a fire in 1976 destroyed most of the pier head followed by another fire the very next year. Some of the ruins can still be seen at the very end of the pier.
In 1980, the pier was condemned, however, protests and a grant from the Historic Buildings Committee allowed the pier to be repaired. After two decades of success, the pier head was redeveloped to accommodate the growing number of visitors and a lifeboat station was opened, which features the RNLI museum.
Everything was going well until 2005 when another blaze destroyed almost half the pier. Fortunately, no one was hurt and a lot of the structure was able to be salvaged, allowing the pier to reopen to the public by the end of the year. Two years later, Southend Pier was voted Pier of the Year and continues to thrive to this very day.
Redevelopments since the last fire are still in progress and the public has been encouraged to help with an “Adopt a Plank” scheme. For £100, people can have their name engraved on a plaque on the pier and their money goes towards the funds for the redevelopment programme.
Whilst most people come to Southend for the sea, it is not the only geological feature, the entire landscape from Southend towards Benfleet is made up of tall and slightly unstable cliffs. Simeon’s tour of the area took him down the pedestrianised section of the cliff to the seafront then back up through the recently developed Cliff Gardens.
Although Simeon walked up the paved slopes, there is the option of using the famous Southend Cliff Railway, which operates during the summer months. Constructed in 1912 by Waygood and Company, the single car funicular takes 12 people at a time up and down the 57 ft (17m) cliff for a fare of 50p each way.
By walking up through the cliff gardens, the hard work and steadfast dedication to nature can be witnessed by the carefully cut grass and well-maintained flower beds. The development process began at the beginning of the 20th century, coinciding with the opening of the Southend Cliff Railway.
Features were gradually added to the garden until 1939 when it evolved into the layout that remains today. These gardens are an important example of an English seaside resort and continue to be one of the best-loved characteristics of Southend.
In 1921, a war memorial was unveiled in memory of the 1338 men of Southend-on-Sea who lost their lives during the Great War. Designed by Sir Edward Lutyens (1869-1944), it features painted stone flags on either side of a tall column. On the grass in front of the memorial, slabs of paving stones spell out the words “Lest We Forget.”
The names of “our glorious dead” were recorded on a tablet in the refectory at Prittlewell Priory. Prittlewell was the original name of the village, the Southend area being at the “south end” of the village. Prittlewell Priory was established in the 12th century by monks of the Cluniac Order, later becoming a private residence after the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Gradually, parts of the estate were sold off and developed into High Street and the terraces. With the arrival of the trains from London in the 19th century and a visit from Queen consort to George IV, Princess Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821), the remains of the Priory’s land was quickly redeveloped, eventually becoming the seaside resort it is today.
The name Prittlewell is remembered in Prittlewell Square, the oldest park in Southend-on-Sea. The entrance is marked with a clock donated by a local jeweller and philanthropist Robert Arthur Jones (1849-1925), who was the last owner of Prittlewell Priory and was responsible for the selling of the majority of the land. Today, Prittlewell Square contains a pond surrounded by well-kept lawns. Along the circular pathway, benches are dedicated to lost loved ones who lived in the area.
Positioned high on the cliffs, overlooking the charming Cliff Gardens and views over the Thames Estuary are a number of different establishments. One is the Westcliff Hotel built in 1891 and still running today. Over time it has been popular with celebrities, such as Billy Connolly and the Chelsea Football team and, more recently, has become a venue for weddings. There is, however, an older, more famous hotel in the area.
After parts of Prittlewell Priory were sold off, the Royal Hotel and Terrace was constructed between 1791 and 1793, however, it got its name much later. As already mentioned, Princess Caroline visited the area in 1803, staying in terrace rooms numbers 7 to 9. The hotel was renamed in commemoration of her visit.
Shortly after, the life of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) was remembered in 1805 with a ball in his honour given by his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton (1765-1815). The hotel was also used throughout the 19th century for special events and meetings, particularly by companies involved with the building of the pier and railway.
During the Second World War, the houses in the terrace were used as the headquarters of the Naval Control Service for the Organisation of Convoys. As a result, the hotel could no longer function and it was not until 1978 that it was fully restored to its former glory.
Another famous building upon the cliffs is the Cliffs Pavilion, which opened in 1964. Originally, a 500-seat art deco theatre was planned during the 1930s, however, the start of World War II put an end to its construction. Over a decade after the end of the war, construction began again but with very different plans. Today, the contemporary looking building contains a 1630-seat auditorium, bar and restaurant and puts on numerous plays and performances every year. Over the years, famous acts have included Paul McCartney, Oasis, Gloria Gaynor, The Drifters and Glen Campbell.
Further back from the cliff edge is a smaller but more intriguing theatre. The Clifftown Theatre, with a 150-seat auditorium, is located in a converted gothic church. The religious building was originally opened as a United Reformed Church in 1865 – a plaque on the side of the building from 1889 remembers the preacher and the architect, both whose surnames were Hamilton. Whilst the addition of a war memorial hall in the 1920s suggests the church initially flourished, it soon fell into desolation. After remaining empty for many years, it went under a four-year refurbishment, finally opening in 2008 as a state-of-the-art theatre. Since the Clifftown Theatre gave it a new purpose, the old church building has been awarded a Conservation Award from the Southend-on-Sea Borough Council Design Awards as a result of the “subtle integration into the street-scene, the intimate theatre space and the care taken to retain and record historic features”.
As Simeon discovered, Southend-on-Sea is much more than a seaside town to visit on sunny days. The area is steeped in history and is home to a wealth of naturally occurring features and marine life. Simeon’s two-mile round tour covered a large amount of Southend’s past and present, however, there is bound to be so much more out there to discover.
Whether you explore Southend via Treasure Trail, like Simeon, or come to relax on the beach, have a thrill in the fairground or have a shopping spree, you are guaranteed to experience one of the greatest natural seasides in Britain. No matter who you are or what you do, there is so much to discover if you are willing to look. Read the plaques around the town, look into the history of various buildings, walk along the quieter roads, what will you discover?
For more information about Treasure Trails and the areas they cover, please visit their website.