Sunday, 19 October 2008

The southern end of Prittlewell

The history of medicine is a fascinating study showing that medicinal cures, like so many other things, have gone through phases. At one time it was believed that the root cause of disease was having too much blood, hence the application of leeches to remove some. During the Georgian period in England (1760-1830) the medicinal benefits of bathing in and drinking seawater was “discovered” and consequently fashionable society, searching for a cure for anything from gout to gonorrhoea, took to the seaside. It was during that period that many of England’s seaside resorts grew in prominence and, even today, there is still something in the English psyche which seems to desire a life by the beach.

Along side this view of bathing for health there was also a growing vogue for recreational travel which came about with improvements in the roads which people traversed and the means by which they travelled. Seaside conditions were so different to those of cities like London and also to the country towns and villages in which so many people lived. Alongside this, the roads to and from major seaside resorts developed their own facilities to accommodate travellers. These were chosen to be at points which they would be most likely to reach after a particular period of travel.

This morning we bundled the boys in the car with our current favourite method of taking them on trips, not telling them where we were going. Brock had mentioned wanting to go to Southend-on-Sea a couple of months earlier and it was a good distance to travel, being just over an hour from home. As usually happens, the boys were full of questions about our destination which we refused to answer. From the moment we turned off the M25 all the road signs had Southend very prominently marked upon them so we guessed that it would not be long until they worked it out. We were wrong!

After about half an hour we reached Half Way House, so called because it is approximately half way between London and Southend (an example of the phenomenon mentioned earlier). As Meg and Wayne commented on this Brock, very frustrated by now, demanded to be told. We suggested that if they really wanted to know where we were going then they only needed to look at the road signs. Amazingly, the next five or six signs didn’t mention Southend at all. By the time we got to the turn off to Hayleigh and Radleigh everything had been worked out and the boys were quite pleased (despite the fact we have never taken them anywhere they didn’t enjoy, they always doubt that we will take them somewhere good).

When we arrived in Southend we headed straight for the seafront. Given that it was not quite 10am on a chilly October morning there were spaces available to park for free so we took advantage of that unexpected fortune. From our parking spot we marvelled at the boardwalk (or ‘bowl of water’ as Brock used to think the song was about) and all the shops along the main drag. For Meg and Wayne the sight was much as they had expected from years of reading about seaside resorts in England.

We walked up to the pier, which was amazing, extending 2,158 m (1.341 miles) into the Thames Estuary, it is the longest pleasure pier in the world. Sir John Betjeman (after whom one of the trains which travels the length of the pier is named) apparently said that “the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier”. The pier had to be so long because the coast at Southend is full of mud flats, a fact which is apparent from our photos, so if Southend wished to attract visiting pleasure craft and other shipping they needed to go a long way out. The campaign to build the pier was led by the former Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Heygate (after whom the other train is named) and in 1829 Parliament passed an act permitting the pier to be built.

Southend Pier featured in the end credits of the British television series Minder. The sequence showed unscrupulous businessman Arthur Daley and his bodyguard (or "minder") walking down the pier. When they reach the end Arthur realises he has left his lighter at the far end and they proceed to walk the return journey. Obviously this implies that he was too mean to pay for the train, a shame because the train wasn’t that expensive. ‘The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy’ (which Wayne was teaching to his Year 9 students at the beginning of the term) also refers to the pier. After Ford and Arthur were thrown off a Vogon Construction ship and were picked up by the Improbability drive, on the starship Heart of Gold, Arthur remarks that it looks like they're standing "on the seafront at Southend". In the 1981 BBC TV adaptation however, neither the set used for the pier nor the view of the buildings on the shore look anything like Southend.

We did catch the train down to the far end of the pier which is still in somewhat of a state of disarray after a fire which destroyed much of that end in October 2005. The train ride was relatively quick but otherwise comfortable and we enjoyed the opportunity to be inside (because the breeze blowing was very chilly). You can still see the remnants of the fire; which destroyed funfairs, restaurants, cafes and information areas; with linoleum tiles which have turned up at the corners and some piles that are still charred, however much is in the process of being rebuilt.

There are one or two open eating spots at the end of the pier, however the main attraction now is the Royal National Lifesaving Institute exhibition which is in the first of the buildings to have been rebuilt. This was fascinating as it covered the history of the use of Life Boats, not just at Southend but all around the country. It also showed the way the equipment used has changed over the years and there were lots of little toys and other souveniers available in the shop. From the end of the pier the other side of the Thames Estuary looks to be almost closer than Southend and you can see power stations and other major industry. Looking down toward the sea it was possible to see lots of parasails being operated, hopefully all the users were wearing wetsuits for their own sake.

As well as the 2005 fire, Southend Pier has not been particularly lucky in relation to fires. In 1959 a fire destroyed the pavilion located at the shore end of the pier and over 500 people were trapped on the other side of the fire. These people had to be rescued by boats. Another fire broke out at the far end of the pier in 1976, destroying much of the pier head, and was fought by a crop-spraying aircraft as well as from boats and the pier itself. In 1977, the bowling alley which now occupied the end of the pier was damaged in another fire and the following year the railway was declared unsafe. In 1980 the pier was scheduled to be closed but, after much protest, funds were instead granted to rebuild it and it was reopened by Princess Anne in 1986. A few months later the MV Kingsabbey crashed into the pier, severing the new pier head from the rest of the pier, destroying the boathouse used by the lifeboat service and causing major structural damage due to the destruction of iron piles and supporting girders, leaving a 70 foot gap in the pier. After this was repaired the bowling alley was completely destroyed by a fire on June 7, 1995. Meg and Wayne decided not to tell the boys the details of this history until we had reached the end of our trip.

It seems that the people of Southend are determined to keep their pier (unlike some other towns along the coast) because as well as developing the far end, the shoreward end of the pier has been redeveloped in a similarly modern style with lots of glass and metal. The pier bridge was raised to enable taller vehicles to pass under it (a recurring problem had been double decker buses getting stuck under the bridge) and a visitor centre/tourist information centre was built. This connects with the new Cliff Lift and redevelopment of Pier Hill that was constructed the in 2004, and to which we journeyed after finishing our tour of the pier.

The town centre of Southend-on-Sea seems also to have undergone some remodelling in the last decade or so. Since the 1960’s most of the seaside towns have been in decline as more and more British travellers look to travel overseas. The mall at the top of the Cliff Lift has managed to maintain the most of the old buildings but given a modern look to the pedestrian areas. We journeyed into the major shopping centre vaguely looking for a handbag for Meg but mostly just wanting to check out what was there.

From the shopping district we ventured back down to the seafront to walk back to Kylie. This gave us a good view of the various theme parks that still line the seaside. ‘Adventure Island’ straddles the pier entrance and because the weather had cleared slightly we were able to listen to the happy cries of children enjoying the almost 50 rides. This was nice, because earlier (before the park was opened) there had been children very upset because they wanted to go on the rides but unable to do so. As well as these theme parks there were also lots of indoor funfairs of the type where you get to put pennies into a machine and try and knock prizes (or at least other pennies) down. Brock and Quinn were certain that they could win at these games with just a small investment, so Meg and Wayne left them with a pound each and walked back down.

This gave them a chance to see a group of bikies who seemed to be out on some sort of fundraising trip because they were wearing extravagant costumes, ranging from sumo suits to fairy tutus and wings. By now the weather was starting to become more inclement so Meg climbed into Kylie to unpack the picnic lunch we had brought with us. Wayne walked a little further to take a photo of the Kursaal. This was one of the earliest theme parks, built at the start of the 20th century. However, with the decline in Southend’s fortunes it closed in the 1970’s and much of the land was developed as housing. The entrance hall, a listed building, is now a bowling alley arcade and casino and the whole thing still takes a prominent place.

For what is comparatively a small town, Southend-on-Sea has had its fair share of celebrities associated with it. These include the members of Procol Harum, who originated in the town; Daniel Jones, former member of Savage Garden; Lee Evans, a very popular comedian and a number of cast members of soap operas such as Hollyoaks and EastEnders. Perhaps the best known, however, is Helen Mirren who recently won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in the feature film ‘The Queen’. Brock and Quinn were more interested in the fact that Emma Chambers, who played Alice in the television series ‘The Vicar of Dibley’, also hails from Southend.

As the boys returned, surprisingly(!) having lost all of their money (Meg had tried to explain that, if it was that easy, then nobody would have the games to make money from them, but to no avail) we decided to make the journey home. We took a slightly different route, travelling via Leigh-on-Sea, Hadleigh and Thundersley before jumping back on to the M25 back around to Hertfordshire. Brock and Quinn would still like to go to Southend with their friends and spend time (and money) at the theme parks. Wayne and Meg would be interested in travelling there when the weather was warmer and there were more things open to see what impact that had. All round it was a good day out.

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