It was a cold day in late February. I stood opposite the Tower of London in the snow and took some photos before heading to Fenchurch Street station to catch the train to Southend.
The first part of the journey passed through the densely-built landscape of east London and places whose names I’d heard of but had never visited like West Ham, Upton Park and Barking. I noticed there were lots of buildings covered in cladding which was a worrying sight in the aftermath of the Grenfell tower fire.
East London accents filled the train carriage. Most people got off at Upminster, which marks the end of London’s urban sprawl to the east. Beyond Upminster the landscape becomes rural, vast and flat.
Of all the places I had passed through on my outward journey it was clear that Southend and the surrounding area had been the most affected by snow. Looking at a car roof I guessed there must have been about three inches of snowfall here. After arriving at Southend I had to tread carefully walking down from the station to the High Street.
I made my way down to the Esplanade. Ahead of me I could see the pier and the Adventure Island Fun Park. Amusement arcades and pubs lined the road to the Premier Inn. The weather was very cold but sunny.
After checking in to my hotel room I lay on the bed and fell asleep. Later on, after sunset, I headed back out in search of something to eat. There were a few other people out walking despite conditions being slippery underfoot. I noticed two ambulances parked at the side of the road. The compacted snow and ice glistened under the street lights.
In the town centre I passed The Last Post, a Wetherspoons pub. It is housed in a grand old Victorian stone building. Nearby was a bar called the Railway which I thought looked good. Posters of bands due to perform there were displayed in the windows.
I walked up a quiet, tree-lined road called Cambridge Avenue. The houses here are very nice and look expensive. I imagine this is the most desirable location to live in Southend. I passed a large church and then a car park, where some people were providing food for the homeless. The snow underfoot was covered in footprints and sledge tracks.
On the Esplanade the Electric Avenue and Monte Carlo amusement arcades were alive with flashing neon lights. And the sign on the Kursaal, once a concert venue where the band Dr Feelgood performed https://youtu.be/GzF0AETdRF8, was lit up. These days the Kursaal is a multi-use complex housing a bowling alley, a kids’ soft play area and a supermarket.
The pubs along the Esplanade look old-fashioned, the decor probably unchanged for many years. I couldn’t imagine feeling comfortable as a lone ‘outsider’ in one of them, although there aren’t many pubs I’d feel comfortable drinking in alone.
Back at the hotel, looking out the window I could see the lights of the pier leading all the way out into the estuary.
The next morning I set off on foot from the hotel towards the pier. The snow was thick and powdery. I think it had snowed again overnight. Most of the businesses I passed were closed, their shutters down. Some people were having a snowball fight by the estuary wall.
I arrived at the pier entrance but found the doors were locked. Looking through the glass I saw staff stood behind a reception desk, staring back at me and telling me the pier was closed.
I continued up the road, past the snow-covered rides of Adventure Island. There were a few other people out on foot, some friendly, some not making eye contact or saying anything. “You must be mad!” said a woman walking her dog. Seabirds were bobbing up and down on the water. The tide was in and waves were crashing against the shore wall. On a frozen lagoon, birds huddled together for warmth.
To my right some people were taking advantage of the snow to go sledging on a hill.
I passed one cafe which was open and looked busy. Most of the others I saw were closed. As too was the cliff railway lift.
I pressed on. In the distance I could see some large buildings that looked like hotels. This was Westcliff-on-Sea, the next town along from Southend. I continued towards a large boat that was docked by the Esplanade. On the way I passed Chalkwell train station. Thankfully the trains were still running as I had started to worry about how I was going to get back after having trudged so far already through the snow. I crossed a bridge over the railway and followed a path up a hill on which children were sledging. At the top I joined a road that took me back to the train station.
As I waited for the train to Southend Central I caught sight of a weasel. It was small and brown with a white belly. It leapt across the railway and then ran alongside it. It was fast. I didn’t have time to take a photo as it passed me and made its way up a bank and through a fence.
Once back in town I visited Southend Museum where I learnt about the wildlife that inhabits the estuary, as well as the history of cockling, oyster growing, and fishing in the region. I also read about Southend during World War One and how it was one of the places most badly hit by German bombs dropped from a zeppelin.
My final night in Southend was the coldest I’d been since my arrival. It was freezing, biting, the wind cutting. For extra warmth I put on my neck warmer and covered part of my face. I was already wearing a hat and scarf. The bus timetable told me there was a 25 minute wait for the bus I wanted. I decided it was too cold to hang around so I caught another bus which, although would involve a longer walk back to the hotel from where it dropped me off, was preferable to waiting in the freezing cold.
The next day I caught the train from Southend Victoria to London Liverpool Street. On the way it was delayed at Shenfield station due to the doors being frozen shut. I’d never known this to happen before. The train driver told passengers needing to get off to give the doors a kick but even this didn’t work. Station staff on the platform poured warm water on the doors to melt the ice.
Eventually I arrived at a crowded Liverpool Street station. I walked through the main concourse and found my way down some stairs to the Underground where I ended up getting a train in the wrong direction. I got off at Aldgate, where it terminated. Here I was stuck for about fifteen minutes. Eventually a train arrived which was heading to Baker Street, where I needed to alight to get another train to Marylebone. Arriving at Baker Street I ran to get my connecting train. At Marylebone I strode up the escalator with all my bags and then raced to the platform. Luckily the Chiltern train back to Solihull had been delayed so I was able to catch it. But the stress and energy involved in rushing had taken its toll. I was exhausted.
I’m pleased that I was able to visit Southend. And even though, due to the weather, I didn’t get to walk along the pier or visit the local nature reserves, it was good to visit the coast and see somewhere new.