With a wave of London commuters discovering Southend’s many assets, this traditional Essex estuary resort is moving up-market. Words: Lesley Gillilan
So you’ve written off Southend: it’s not, after all, everyone’s slice of seaside heaven. But you could be missing a trick, as there’s more to this Essex town than bingo and bling. Not only is it the closest seaside resort to London, it offers speedy rail links, good schools and lovely houses at relatively affordable prices.
With its funicular cliff lift, gaudy fairground rides and crazy golf on the pier, Southend does live up to the stereotype (and if you are into bingo, it has one of the biggest halls in the country). But you can also add yacht clubs, green spaces, cliff-top gardens, conservation areas, beach huts and big skies, as well as six miles of waterfront – stretching east from Leigh-on-Sea’s teeny Bell Wharf (London’s nearest beach) to the wild lonely sands of East Beach at Shoeburyness.
With talk of ‘creative hubs’ and cultural quarters, this town is moving up-market. Travel to the end of the long pleasure pier and instead of amusement arcades, you’ll find a glassy, contemporary Royal Pavilion housing an arty event space and the Salt Café. Southend has just got its first proper boutique hotel (Seven opened in February). And boaty Leigh-on-Sea, only three miles to the west, is already looking very Hoxton (think craft ales, art galleries and artisan bakeries).
According to Paul Wigmore, director of local estate agent Hunt Roche, the flow of London-to-Southend migrants now includes young families as well as retirement buyers. ‘Southend is losing its old kiss-me-quick image,’ he says.
WHERE TO BUY
The prevailing Southend house style is high-end 1930s and Edwardian semis, but there are some fine Georgian and Victorian terraces, too, particularly in the seafront conservation areas around Clifftown and Prittlewell Square (elegant, Grade II-listed Royal Terrace). The big-money houses overlook the Thames estuary in Thorpe Bay (to the east of the pier); and there are some lovely properties on the shores of Westcliff and Chalkwell (to the west). Or head to nearby Leigh-on-Sea with its cobbled streets, clapper-board cockle sheds and quaint cottages.
The most expensive area is Leigh-on-Sea (it’s just that tiny bit closer to London); a four-bed Georgian semi with estuary views is for sale at £775,000. Thorpe Bay’s larger detached houses sell for £750,000 to £950,000 (and often fetch over £1m). In Southchurch, or almost anywhere within a few streets of the seafront, you can buy a four- or five-bedroom Victorian townhouse for around £350,000-£400,000. A two-bed pier-view apartment on, say, Clifton Terrace, sells for £280,000-£300,000 – or you can rent one on Royal Terrace for £925 per month.
Southend’s brilliant seafront cycle path, the Estuary Trail, is part of the National Cycling Network (Thorpe Bay to Leigh by bike takes about half an hour). For fun family days out, there’s the seafront theme park, Adventure Island and the Sea Life aquarium. For live music, head for East Coast Social or the boho bar at The Railway Hotel among other lively venues. Local art galleries include Focal Point and Beecroft; there’s an artists’ residence (Metal Southend) and a host of events (Leigh Folk Festival in June, Southend Comedy Festival in July and Essex Book Festival in March). The town’s Cliffs Pavilion is the largest performing arts venue in Essex. For more details, see visitsouthend.co.uk
Southend to London takes just over an hour by road or just under an hour by rail. The town has three stations: Central and East connect to the City via Fenchurch Street, while Victoria runs services into Liverpool Street. Other local stations (Leigh-on-Sea, Chalkwell, Westcliff and Thorpe Bay) are also served by London trains. The District Line tube station at Upminster is a 20-minute drive. The nearest international airport is London Southend (three miles to the north of the town).
Local secondaries include Shoeburyness High, St Bernard’s High and Eastwood Academy in Leigh-on-Sea – all three are rated Good by Ofsted.
The name Southend-on-Sea is a bit of a misnomer: this is a Thames Gateway town and while the views are of the estuary the beaches are more mud than sand when the tide’s out. However, they are family-friendly, clean and, in the case of Shoeburyness, largely empty.
Southend’s seafront has a new artificial seawater lagoon by Three Shells Beach. As part of a £50m town-centre scheme, a former ice cream factory is to be redeveloped to create a multiplex cinema, new restaurants and a hotel. The growth of London Southend airport has helped put the place on the map: passenger numbers increased by over 25 per cent last year.
PAY A VISIT
This glitzy, new, boutique hotel on Clifton Terrace opened earlier this year – a breath of fresh air for Southend. Stay in a bright contemporary room or suite, most with floor-to-ceiling estuary views. Downstairs in Aurum restaurant try inventive, seasonal dishes courtesy of executive chef Simon Webb, repair to the cosy bar for premium gins and native oysters or hang out on the terrace. From £93 per night (plus £10pp for continental breakfast).
CAN YOU AFFORD IT?