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A Walk From Shoeburyness to Chalkwell

September 2, 2013
by the gentle author

At Westcliff

At the end of August, I always feel the need to leave the city and go to the sea, taking advantage of the last days of sunshine before the season changes. Admitting that I have spent too much of these last months at my desk in neglect of summer, I found myself on the train out of Fenchurch St Station with the East End receding like a dream.

At Shoeburyness, the ocean lay before me gleaming like a tin roof beneath a flawless azure sky. Surely no-one fails to be surprised by the sea, always more expansive than the image you carry in your mind. I sat upon the warm buttery-yellow sand of East Beach to assimilate this vast landscape before me, humbled by the open space after too long in narrow streets.

Military fences obstructed my intention of walking east across open land towards the River Roach, so instead I turned west, following the coast path through a wildlife reserve embellished with abandoned structures of warfare now being appropriated by nature. Local myth speaks of an ancient settlement lost beneath the sands and archaeology has revealed an Iron Age camp, confirming the strategic importance of this site overlooking the estuary where Shoebury Garrison was established in 1854. Wild fennel, sea holly, coltstfoot and stonecrop grow freely upon the sea wall, where the works of man are sublimated by greater forces. It came as no surprise to encounter a religious service enacted upon the shingle here, with priests in white robes and red sashes presiding, like their Celtic predecessors, upon unyielding waves lapping at the beach.

Then, in a sudden change of atmosphere, leaving the reserve and crossing a road brought me to Thorpe Bay with its regimented lines of cabins that serve to domesticate the shoreline. Yet even on this baking Saturday in August, just a few lone sun worshippers were setting out their deck chairs and upholding their secular rituals beneath the glassy sky. Meanwhile, an equal languor prevailed below the tideline where yachts sat marooned and inert upon the glistening mud.

The long pier and white towers upon the horizon led me on, absorbed now in walking, even if the featureless esplanade offered no sense of progress until, turning a shallow corner, I found myself in the midst of the throng of Southend with its endless diversions and hullabaloo. Extended family groups clung together, laden with bags and babies, and huddling as if they were refugees caught in the middle of a battle, while my own attention danced and darted, drawn by amusement arcades, crazy golf, souvenir and novelty shops, and pleasure parks. In the event, I took a nap in the shade of a pine tree upon the cliff overlooking Adventure Island, where fellow day-trippers were screaming in terror while being flung around on white-knuckle rides that looped and twisted for their enjoyment.

Walking on, the frenzied action relented as the sedate charms of Westcliff made themselves apparent in the form of elaborate nineteenth-century balconied villas. The tide had retreated still further and the declining sun reflected golden off the pools where lonely beach-comers strayed. A stone obelisk upon the strand indicated the boundary of the Thames and its estuary, and beyond lay a causeway across the mud banks where a long procession of curious ramblers were walking out to the horizon.

In overt contrast to the demonstrative thrill-seekers of Southend, I spied bowls played upon lawns discreetly screened by well-kept privet hedges in Chalkwell. Here my walk ended and I took the opportunity of reflection upon the day’s journey, stringing together the disparate locations that comprise this stretch of coast. Dozing on the train, I awoke in Fenchurch St Station and as I wandered back through the familiar deserted City, it could have been as if my adventure had been but a fantasy – if it were not for the residual sensation of sunshine and wind upon my skin that was evidence I had been somewhere else.

You may like to read about my previous trips beyond Spitalfields at this time of year

A Walk Along the Ridgeway 2012

At Walton on the Naze 2011

At Canvey Island 2010

At Broadstairs 2009

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Paul Kelly permalink
    September 2, 2013

    Welcome back Gentle Author , we missed you! Whenever I get the train out to Southend way and find the sea I do feel as if I’m on a small holiday. Thalassa , Thalassa , here we come!!!

  2. Paul permalink
    September 2, 2013

    Great to see the old home town looking good under the summer sun

  3. Jean clements permalink
    September 2, 2013

    Absolutely brilliant photos, thank you

  4. September 2, 2013

    What a wonderful journey you had beautifully described and joyous photos to illustrate. You have captured the seaside of my childhood! Thank you.

  5. Christine Carder permalink
    September 2, 2013

    More childhood memories for me.Rossi icecream the Kursal and fish and chips in newspaper ,seeing the “lights” before we got the last bus home to Chelmsford.
    A big treat ,Gentle Author ,thank you.

  6. Sal Shuel permalink
    September 2, 2013

    Your daily pieces give me as much pleasure as anything else that I come upon. Turning on my laptop every morning and knowing there will be a treat waiting there makes it worth while getting up in the morning. You came here once – to look at drawings by James Boswell which were stored in the spare room wardrobe. They now have a room of their own and have expanded somewhat. You remarked in the piece that you wrote that you were surprised that they were in the wardrobe and it struck me at the time that he deserved better.

    Thank you for giving me so much pleasure. I know there must be thousands of people who think the same.

  7. SBW permalink
    September 2, 2013

    Thank you; I’m so homesick.

  8. Donald Carlton Burns permalink
    September 2, 2013

    Lovely, sweetened prose spiced with the colour of carnival life, then drifting softly back again to home’s sweet reality.

  9. Min the Merciless permalink
    September 3, 2013

    Lovely writing Gentle Author, thank you. Although ‘Shoeburyness’ was the name given by the poet Ogden Nash to the uncomfortable feeling of sitting in an (unusually) warm tube seat after someone else had just got up from it. Serves you right for leaping in their grave, so to speak.
    He gave place names to all London situations. There was one for the smell of the sulphurous wave of warm air before the tube came up the tunnel.

    I really enjoy your writing – I’ve linked it in to friends in Toronto, Karachi, Oz.

  10. September 3, 2013

    I live in Westcliff but my family originated in Spitalfields, which I why I follow your blog. I commute through Fenchurch Street and Aldgate every day so it’s interesting to read about your your ‘reverse’ journey 😉 – great stuff!

  11. Cherub permalink
    September 4, 2013

    There are few things I miss about the life I had in Essex, but the one thing I do miss is a trip down to Southend to “blow the cobwebs out” as my husband always used to say. We used to love a trip down there on Boxing Day, a bracing walk along the front did wonders for the getting rid of the excess from Christmas Day!

  12. September 4, 2013

    I grew up in Essex but Shoeburyness is not a seaside town I used to go to. After seeing your photos, I think I will have to go now.

    I do like the traditional British seaside. It is comforting to know that it hasn’t changed much since my childhood.

  13. September 1, 2015

    I love to photograph this area – because it’s a short drive away from where I live now and on the doorstep of where I used to live it makes it easy to keep returning to capture the ever changing light – no two days are ever the same.

  14. Graham Caleno permalink
    September 1, 2015

    a few times each year I drive down to Southend and run one way between Shoeburyness Station (East Beach) & Leigh on Sea station (Belton Hills) 8 miles along the Nature reserve/Seafront/Strand/Prom. Always making use of a Tail Wind, I travel back from either end on the C2C train, then have a River Swim & Pool swim/shower at Belfairs pool.

  15. September 7, 2017

    I used to live in Westcliff , attended Southend College of Art, in the late 1940’s, commuted to London to work in art studio’s, moved to Canada in the late 1950’s. later to California to work
    in the Motion Picture Industry. After all of that moving around, the walk from Shoburyness to
    Chalkwell which I did many times, is still top of my list of memories, and you surely bought
    that back to me in your charming writing. This piece was sent to me from my cousin in New Zealand, it does show where ever we go, we love so dearly these beautiful memories of our
    true home.
    Thank you

    Maurice Harvey.

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