South Essex has unexpected charms, from upscale shopping to good bird-watching - and not a white stiletto in sight!
When I was a child we often went on family holidays to the Suffolk coast, where I developed a love of the wide open skies and gentle seafronts of Southwold, Aldeburgh and Orford. Sadly, the rest of the country soon followed, transforming a charmingly tranquil region into Islington-on-Sea and pushing the price of a humble beach hut into the stratosphere.
Luckily, paradise wasn’t lost, merely relocated. Older, if not wiser, I discovered the unexpected charms of South Essex. Beyond brash Southend’s determined jauntiness, the Thames estuary offers pockets of surprising class, while to the north the Dengie peninsular resembles pre-tourist Suffolk. And it’s much closer to London, for the perfect weekend break.
Barely 45 minutes from Fenchurch Street, and nestling between the white stiletto strongholds of Basildon and Southend, Leigh-on-Sea might seem an unlikely starting point. But this old-time fishing community is a survivor. The bustling old town, down on the waterfront, hosts a couple of charming pubs - complete with stalls selling freshly-caught local shellfish - and some interesting galleries and workshops from local artists. When I lived in the area it was my first port of call for unusual birthday presents for my family, and Richard Baxter’s pottery, largely inspired by the swelling tides outside his window, regularly fit the bill.
It’s not just about the seaside though - braving the stiff climb up to the High Street brings another shopping treat. Instead of the bland brands that leave too many of our towns interchangeable, Leigh is blessed with a wide range of distinctive boutiques and specialists. It was always the kind of town where it was easier to get a haircut than a loaf of bread, and it’s a great place for the fashion-conscious to browse. Even the local charity shops have a range that is some way above average.
But there’s more to the region than Leigh-on-Sea. A few miles north, rural East Anglia begins abruptly, and on a more impressive scale than the walk through green fields to the romantic ruins of Hadleigh Castle. The young-at-heart will love a quick stop at the Battlesbridge antiques village, with its small but charming collection of pre-electronic slot machines that baffle the PlayStation generation, but that’s merely a staging post on the way to the lowlands of the Dengie.
Sandwiched between the Crouch and Blackwater rivers, this has always been an isolated spot. Even a confirmed cynic like me was moved by the tiny Saxon chapel, established by 7th-century monks from Northumberland. Remote at any time, in the depths of the dark ages it must truly have felt like a mission to bring Christianity to the edge of the world. The beach isn’t one for sun-worshippers - these waters are too muddy - but it’s a wonderful, peaceful place to walk and shake off the stresses of urban life.
Suitably calmed, both Maldon and Burnham-on-Crouch are charming small towns, popular with day-trippers looking to soak up that waterfront vibe with a fishy feast outside a friendly pub on a warm evening. Maldon, the larger of the two, perhaps has a wider range of options for food and drink, but both are good for sailing, bird-watching and, at Burnham, trainspotting, thanks to the Mangapps Farm Railway Museum.
For all the region’s ‘jellied eels’ reputation, there’s a surprising selection of places to eat as well, particularly in and around Southend. The Bell at Horndon has earned a good reputation as a gastropub, while Southend High Street’s Pipe of Port is an atmospheric place to dine, even though it’s bafflingly closed on Sunday lunchtimes. Westcliff’s Kia, a small family-run spot on the London Road, has been a long-standing favourite as well.
Where to stay
If you're after the bright lights of Southend, the Westcliff Hotel, with its sea views, is probably the best bet. For more homely accommodation, The Swan at Maldon is a traditional inn combining the charm of a local pub with comfortable rooms.