Southend-on-Sea – A Great Little Railway and a Bit of Rock History

When Lucy Harrison invited us to the launch of the Thames Delta exhibition at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea, we could not resist the temptation to get reacquainted with the town that, for those of us living on London’s north-eastern verges, was the nearest place for a bit of seaside fun.

Pier train Southend-on-Sea

The walk from Southend’s Victoria Station through the town’s main shopping drag is pretty unremarkable, aside from the fact that you pass three branches of Greggs on the way to the seafront, but once you emerge from the urban centre you get a magnificent view of the Victorian pier that extends 1.34 miles over the mudflats of the Thames Estuary. It is the longest seaside pier in the world.

Southend’s pier extends nearly one and a half miles into the Thames Estuary

As tourism developed in the early 19th century, before the arrival of the London Tilbury and Southend Railway Company in the 1850s, the mudflats prevented the landing of London steamer passengers, much to the advantage of the rival Kent resort of Margate. To cash in on this boom Southend Council decided to build a pier and in 1829 the first length opened. Aside from landing the steamer passengers, it soon became the fashionable place for holidaymakers to hang out, and by the time the railways arrived bringing even more visitors, the original wooden pier was buckling under the strain.

The narrow gauge train Sir William Heygate pulls in at the Southend Pier Shore Station

Work began on the present iron pier in 1887 under the architect James Brunlees. It was extended further out to sea in 1897 and again in 1927 to cope with the number of visitors. The original wooden pier had a horse powered tram to move people from one end to the other, not to be outdone the new pier had an electric railway which by 1891 ran the full length of the track. In 1978 the railway closed down, a victim of years of under investment and the decline of the British seaside resort. However in 1986 it was reopened with two diesel locomotives; the Sir William Heygate named after the Lord Mayor of London and Southend resident, who campaigned for the original pier and Sir John Betjemen after the poet.

The trip to the pierhead takes about five minutes and costs £3.60 return. Once you get to end of the line, there isn’t much to see other than the chemical plants on the Kent side of the estuary and the lifeboat station but then trains are quite fun so long as you are not going to work on them! You can save 40p and take a bracing walk back along the pier if you fancy.

A grim facade of amusement arcades and rough pubs, note the abandoned skateboard on the pavement, like the child’s shoe at a war torn jungle village!

Back on dry land we decided to run the gauntlet of amusement arcades and grim-looking pubs along the seafront to another Southend landmark the Kursaal.

The Kursaal, classic Southend music venue amongst other things.

The Kursaal first opened its doors in 1901 and was one of the first theme parks in the world (after Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, but before New York’s Coney Island). Designed by Campbell Sherrin, who also designed London’s Brompton Oratory it contained a circus, zoo, fun fair, cinema and ballroom amongst other attractions. The name comes from the German for Cure Hall as it was a place of healthy amusement. In 2011 the Kursaal was featured in Royal Mail’s in the A to Z of the UK stamp series and it caused a lot of media interest, probably because it was seen as bit down-market by the likes of the Daily Mail, but I thought it was a pretty worthy selection given how many people have enjoyed visiting this people’s fun palace. Today most of the amusements are long gone leaving only a bowling alley, some function rooms and a Tesco!

During the 1950s, 60s and 70s however the ballroom hosted gigs by many of the world’s top artists as well as nurturing local bands like Dr Feelgood and the legendary Kursaal Flyers so what better way to end .

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