Sunday, 20 February 2011

Down by the jetty

Despite the mist, rain and vagaries of trying to get to the c2c line on a Saturday from north London, I’ve persuaded my family and dog to take a day trip to Leigh-on-Sea. Normally it’s only 35 minute from Stratford and it's the closest beach to London.

Beyond Upminster we travel over the flooded Essex marshes and discuss the times when you could catch malaria by the Thames.

Old Leigh is a proper working seaside town with boatyards, cobbled streets, stalls selling seafood and a fine history of smuggling and fishing. Nell and Lola take a particular interest in the mini-octopuses on sale. And here are the hangover-curing cockles as advocated by Dr Feelgood legend Lee Brilleaux.

The first thing we need is food and to escape the rain. The listed Crooked Billet doesn’t allow dogs, but the front bar of the Peter Boat does. Here we eat fish and chips and fine fish chowder plus a fine drop of Crouch Vale Brewery Gold.

Crouch Vale is a small independent brewery based in South Woodham Ferrers. Its Brewery Gold won the CAMRA Champion beer award in 2005 and 2006. Other Crouch Vale beers include Willie Warmer (named in honour of William de Ferrers) and Essex Boys.

Boats bob in the choppy waters and the girls see a shark, only it turns out to be a sunken wreck. When we emerge from the pub the rain has lessened and the tide has departed astonishingly quickly.

You can’t see Kent, but suddenly a vast expanse of oozing mud and sand has appeared and the channel of Leigh Creek. And there are moored boats everywhere.

Leigh is well served for boozers with the Olde Smack Inn the Mayflower and The Ship coming into view, as well as a chippy and lots of seafood restaurants such as the Boatyard and Simply Seafood.

This being Essex we encounter a small boat with a name of There’s Klingons on the Starboard Bow emblazoned on it. There’s giant iron hulk that is Essex Sailing Club.

Our dog Vulcan (aptly named after Mr Spock with all those Klingons about) has never seen seawater before and rushes up to it and tries to drink it. (Dogs are not allowed on the beach from May to September). Then he chases seagulls in non-RSPB-approved fashion and runs madly over the flats before encountering another Border Terrier.

Nell is excited to find oyster shells, groynes, paddling pools, a dead seagull and much more. Nicola enthuses about turnstones and Brent geese.

We walk out to the Crow Stone, a mysterious monolith rising from the water. A green plaque on it reveals that it was erected in 1837, replacing an earlier stone from 1755. The line between the Crow Stone and the London Stone at Yantlet Creek marked the end of the City of London's authority over the River Thames and it’s believed a marker has stood here since 1285. There’s a London Stone on the opposite bank of the Estuary on the Isle of Grain.

We pass Chalkwell station, right on the beach. And after a couple of miles we’re emerging to a promenade of balconied hotels, grand green public toilets, white bathing cabins and closed ice cream kiosks. We pass someone on a bike singing Yellow Submarine — only the sky is not so much green as grey in our yellow submarine.

At Westcliff we divert up an avenue towards the c2c station. It’s been so misty that we can’t see the pier, let alone Kent, just the odd ship’s light in the estuary, but even on a day like this it makes a great atmospheric afternoon walk.

Crouch Vale beer, fish and chips, cockles and mussels, sea wind and shells all within easy reach of London. Who needs Cornwall, eh, when you’ve got the Essex mudflats and Foulness Island to come?