Monday, 2 August 2010
The Road to Southend Pier
In Southend you can stand in the middle of the Thames Estuary and still keep your feet dry…
We’re eating fish and chips on the gravel beach in the rain. A typical English day trip, but the chips are good and we’re just about sheltered by two deck-chairs. For my nine-year-old daughter Nell it’s a real adventure. And after eating chips she then finds three dead baby crabs and we dip a toe in the sea. It’s hard to believe we were in London an hour ago.
It’s less enjoyable for the Essex family with teenage kids behind us on the front. “What a shit day… only ‘cos you made it shit… move your fat arse… shut up!… but I’ve got a soaking wet arse!”
Still, the weather clears up and it’s pleasing to see Southend, once a solidly white working class resort, now being used by many ‘new’ EastEnders. We spot families who are black, Bangladeshi and orthodox Jewish in 100 metres on the seafront.
The listed domed front of the Kursaal — the world's first theme park — is still there, which brings back memories of Rod Stewart and the Faces and Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel gigs in the 1970s. Today it’s full of fail-to-grab a soft toy machines, ten-pin bowling and staff in electronic illuminated bunny ears.
Nell loves Adventure Island, the fun fair by the Pier. We avoid the chuck a ball at something for two quid stalls and my daughter enjoys the high windmill slide and crooked house. It’s staffed by friendly studenty types and obviously hugely popular with families.
But the real highlight of any trip is Southend Pier — although sadly the nearby Pier Bar where my mate Nick used to bop in his Teddy Boy days appears to have disappeared.
There’s a newly rebuilt glass and wood entrance hall with Matrix-style futuristic lifts. We buy walk there/get the train back tickets (£3 adults, £1.60 kids). The Pier appears to stretch into the sea forever. Nell decides to walk only a little way because she says she’ll be scared walking over water and even more scared on the train. She tackles her fear by crawling on the planks and looking through the gaps at the water below. A splinter in her finger puts a halt to this but at least takes her mind off being scared. I entice her onwards by revealing it’s the longest pleasure pier in the world at 1.33 miles.
Southend Pier has had a battered history, but it refuses to die. It’s suffered devastating fires in 1959, 1976, 1995 and 2005, plus in 1986 the MV Kingsabbey sliced through the pier and left it with a 70 feet gap. But as Sir John Betjeman said “The pier is Southend. Southend is the Pier”. And they just keep on rebuilding it.
It’s calm out at sea after the busy promenade. We wave at the passing train named the Sir John Betjeman. And stopping at the shelters on the way, fortified by a shared Mars Bar at the vending machine half way out, we find ourselves edging towards the pierhead and sensing just how wide the mouth of the Thames is.
“Look, we’ve come a really long way. You can’t see the name of Adventure Island anymore!” says Nell.
It reminds me of my own childish excitement when our family first ventured down the Pier. The Isle of Grain and the Isle of Sheppey are vivid and enticing across the estuary. The sea is flat and on a hot day there’s a pleasing breeze. Boats sail past, tantalizingly close.
END OF THE PIER SHOW
Finally we reach the rectangular platform at the end of the pier. There aren’t many places where you can stand 1.33 miles out to sea. It’s much better than say Brighton pier. The tacky amusements have gone and there’s just a reasonably priced café and a new lifeboat station with a RNLI shop and the lifeboats on display through glass windows.
From the café Nell rings her sister: “Lola, I’m 1.33 miles out in the sea!”
People fish from the end of the pier, or sit and gaze at Kent and Cooling Marshes and the mouth of the Thames in the distance. Nell looks through a pay and display telescope and watches the cargo ships heading towards Tilbury.
It’s all rather splendid. There aren’t many places that have a world record anything, yet so close to London we have the world’s longest pleasure pier. And for children and dads it’s a great day trip. Perhaps we should succumb to pier pressure a bit more.