Having spent four years in landlocked Moscow, a trip to the sea was one of my priorities. On this densely-populated island, you and sixty million other people are never very far from the sea. I’ve heard the north of Scotland still has some lovely deserted bays, but I’m in a bit of a hurry so I’m settling for the Thames Estuary. The fabulous c2c service takes just 40 minutes from Fenchurch St Station to Benfleet, where you first scent that briney tang and set off along the creek towards distant Southend. Simply turn left out of the south side of the station and follow the road closest to the water without crossing it and you soon come to the Hadleigh Castle Country Park, the arena for the 2012 Olympic mountain biking. A broad grassy embankment beside the creek keeps you out of the marshy lowlands. It’s the perfect route for a sociable walk: a wide track with open views and no chance of getting lost.
Away to the left, you can see the ruins of Hadleigh castle… Skylarks startle from the tussocky grass, singing as they rise and as you approach the end of the causeway, there are increasing numbers of birds: waders and marsh birds, ducks and egrets. The island on the right, known as ‘Two tree island’ is a nature reserve with lapwings, dunlins, redshanks and turnstones. The Thames Estuary (according to the info board) has the UK’s 5th largest population of overwintering birds. In summer, there will be sea lavender and thrift. In early April, there are banks of pink dead nettles and wind swept daffodils.
As you approach the old fishing village of Leigh on Sea, the estuarine marshes seem increasingly eerie, like the opening scenes of Great Expectations. Rusting hulks and rotten fishing boats decompose into the overgrown mud banks and the curlews cry over the salty flats. Cross the railway line by the station and back as soon as you can to the row of cockle sheds.
The pubs, cafes and galleries by the harbour seem a world away from the desolate marshes, which seem already like a strange dream. For maximum contrast, I checked out Sara’s Tea Garden, the only café in town not serving seafood and had a frothy cappuccino in a conservatory full of kitsch.
The world’s largest collection of naff notices that say things like:‘Dance as if no one is watching, Love as if you’ve never been hurt, Sing as if no one can hear you, Live as though heaven is on earth’… Suitably buoyed up and/or depressed by new age exhortations, it’s time to move on.
The next stretch, along an urban beach between the metal fence of the railway line and a view across the brown water to a refinery may not be everyone’s idea of seaside heaven, but to me it seems perfect. There are clapboard cottages renting out boats; there are moored yachts whose ropes twanging on the metal masts make a weird symphony with the calling gulls; there are small boats bobbing on the waves and piles of green and orange netting.
I buy a pot of cockles from the Fishermen’s Coop, a hut full of still-wriggling whelks in twisted shells, russet crabs and shining mackerel. There is actual sand, enough to walk along if the tide were lower. Now with a high tide and onshore wind, the waves are booming against the seawall, sending spray arcing over the cobbles. There are pebbly stretches too, producing the sound I came all this way to hear: the sliding shift and shock of surf on shingle.
There are plenty of little cafes along the seafront once you reach the outskirts of Southend. The pier, famously the longest in the world, stretches out into the sea ahead of you. When the seafront road becomes a dual carriageway, cross over and walk up through the Cliffton Gardens. At the top there are some great flower beds, full of psychedelic colour combinations, like pink tulips with orange and yellow pansies, and – beyond them – victorian hotels and mansions, avenues of ornamental cherries in blossom and benches in ornate shelters for looking out across the sea.
Towards the far end of the gardens, there is a war memorial flanked by manicured topiary and flower beds, including a floral clock. Another clock hangs from the iron entrance to another garden with fountains and there is a late 19th century statue of Queen Victoria, looking suitably regal. It is all quite far from my image of Southend, which I can see way down at the foot of the cliff in the form of giant luminous fairground rides. To reach the pier, you need to climb down one of the flights of steps or take the lift. A modern lift has been installed under a round tower, but there is also an old cliff railway which you can use for 50p.
There is not much except a lifeboat station at the end of the pier, which costs £3.60 return on the little railway. There is that sense of abandonment that you get on a crumbling old pier, the lost glory of a long-forgotten age etc… Heading back to the modern lift, go up the High Street, smart enough, but full of wearisomely familiar brands, to reach Southend Central Station.