At the Village Green arts and music festival in Southend-on-Sea earlier this month, festivalgoers were pictured waving placards reading “Southend is not a shit hole”. I thought this was a bit odd, until I learned it was in response to a recent outburst by presenter Paul O’Grady – during filming for an episode of Blind Date, no less – in which he branded the Essex seaside town a shit hole, and “full of single mothers”. Harsh, Paul.
Like generations of Londoners before me, I had my first taste of the seaside at Southend. No matter that the beach was more mud than golden sand, or that the water – where the Thames meets the North Sea – was a murky brown. I have fond memories of making “sand” castles in the silty sludge, riding the roller coasters at Adventure Island until I felt sick, and then walking to the end of the (world’s longest) pier for an ice-cream and to watch the container ships sliding in and out of the estuary.
But nostalgia is not the reason I keep going back. Like many British seaside towns, Southend has had its period in the doldrums but there’s been a definite sea change in recent years, with young Londoners moving into the area, and a revival of the local arts scene.
Much of the impetus for this revival has come from arts organisations such as Metal, which hosts artist residencies and workshops at its base in the town’s Chalkwell Park. It is also behind the Village Green festival and the biennial Estuary Festival – a celebration of the art, music, sub-cultures and landscape of the Thames estuary – which had its first outing last year and returns in September 2018.
Another key player is the Focal Point Gallery in the town centre, which runs an innovative programme of exhibitions and events year round. Next week it will open Twenty One, a cultural venue, cafe, bar, gallery and events space right opposite Southend Pier. This will be followed in 2018 by the conversion of an old Victorian hotel into studios for up to 30 artists and a public gallery and workshop space offering art classes to locals and visitors.
“What we’ve seen over the past 10 years is this huge burgeoning of the artistic scene in Southend,” says Joe Hill of the Focal Point Gallery. “You’ve got a lot of creative people coming out of London and looking for new, affordable spots. Southend has such an opportunity to be a thriving place for the creative industries, but you need that underlying structure to support it. This is only the starting point.”
During the recent heatwave, I took my daughter to cool off in the fountains on the promenade and afterwards we walked along the seafront into Old Leigh, where we found ourselves in the thick of the annual Leigh Folk Festival . The narrow cobbled streets of this former fishing village were heaving with people enjoying the live music.
We sat on the sea wall outside Osborne’s seafood cafe eating vinegar-drenched cockles from a polystyrene tub, listening to the music and watching a rabble of children launching themselves gleefully into the water below.
There’s nothing genteel about Southend. Although the elegant Georgian villas on the clifftop tell of a slightly grander past, its character has been shaped in more recent decades by waves of working-class Londoners coming here to let off steam. So yes, there are prettier seaside resorts, sandier beaches, bluer seas, but if you can’t have a good time here, there’s something wrong with you.
In Thorpe Bay, Sueños Guesthouse (doubles from £85 BB) is a five-star BB with contemporary rooms, some with sea views. The Trinity Hotel (doubles from £69 BB) is a short walk from the seafront at Westcliff and has six stylish, light and airy bedrooms and great cooked breakfasts.
The Pipe of Port is a cosy candlelit basement bar and dining room with homemade pies and a great wine list. Good for lunch and tea is La Petite Petanque, a sweet wisteria-covered cafe in a former bowling green pavilion.
The Railway Hotel is an old favourite, known for its live music and vegan food. The Royal Hotel, in a Georgian building on the waterfront, reopened last year as a cocktail bar and restaurant, and this summer will open a basement absinthe bar. Southend got its first micro-pub 18 months ago when Mawson’s opened on Southchurch Road. It stocks a huge range of local ales and craft beers, including some made in George’s Brewery, the owner’s micro-brewery.