Who needs the Settle-Carlisle line when you’ve got Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness?
It’s strange to have reached middle age and never used the Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness line (bar the Barking to Upminster section that my dad used to use to get home quicker from West Ham games).
There was a sort of railway apartheid as a teenager in the 1970s; the denizens of Brentwood and Shenfield used the Liverpool Street line. The Fenchurch Street line belonged to West Horndon and Laindonites and if you travelled too far along it the rumour was you went straight off the end of Southend Pier.
Whatever side you approach Fenchurch Street from, it has great views of either the Tower of London or the Gherkin. And once you’re on the c2c train and past the social housing and building works, it gets really rather scenic beyond Upminster. There’s fields stretching all the way across the reclaimed marshes to the Thames and it’s not dissimilar to Cooling Marsh in Kent where Vinnie Jones-lookalike Magwitch might still be lurking.
On the north side of the railway there’s the ruin of Hadleigh Castle, once painted by Constable. The park here is now going to feature in the mountain biking events at the 2012 Olympics. The land here rises up to wooded hills. In his book Britain BC, the Time Team archaeologist Francis Pryor reckons the Roman invaders mounted a steep gravel ridge between East Tilbury and Mucking and used it as a defensive position in 43AD. You wonder if there might have been the odd bundle on these hills at Hadleigh too as the Romans defended themselves against hordes of Brittunculi armed with satellite dishes and super strength lager.
But the biggest surprise after a glimpse of Canvey Island from Benfleet is when the track starts to hog the coast. There’s the boats and river estuary of Leigh-on-Sea, with a series of Dickensian-looking weather-boarded houses and cobbled streets by the shore in Old Leigh and the Crooked Billet pub. When I interviewed the late Lee Brilleaux over a lunchtime pint or four he recommended the cockles here at Leigh as a great cure for a hangover.
Chalkwell station is right on the beach and through the salt-ravaged station windows you can see nothing but sea. It’s the sort of place you’d rave about were it in Devon and quite a way to start a commute into the City.
Southend Central spoils it a bit by being slightly inland but at the terminus of Shoeburyness you are only a short hop to the North Sea. And I must confess it easily beats the Southend to Liverpool Street line.
Forty-odd minutes from London you can be on a beach via the Thames estuary, boats, beaches and glimpses of Kent. And the Grays and Dagenham Docks loop is yet to come… Never mind the train to Penzance, explore the Essex Riviera line.