I was brought up in Southend-on-Sea, that playground for Londoners. On the seafront there is a beach cafe and takeaway joint called the ‘Three Shells’. It has a roof made out of big artificial scallop shells. Yep you’ve guessed it, three of them. My cousins drive down from the big smoke, forty miles away, just to buy doughnuts. If you’re looking out the sea from ‘donut heaven’, Southend Pier is just to the right.
When we go back to see Mum and Dad it’s a place of pilgrimage for me, the town’s most iconic landmark. Or is that the roof of the Kursaal? I’ll let others decide. Maybe John Betjeman has decided for me. He wrote, ‘Southend is the pier, the pier is Southend’. There you go!
Southend Pier is the longest pleasure pier in the world. It juts out one and a third miles into the Thames estuary. Originally, in the 19th century, an unremarkable jetty stood there but this was gradually replaced and was elongated to its current length between the twentieth century arrived. It’s so long that some people need a train to get to its end. Cute old trams used to run to its end but nowadays they are two no nonsense diesel stock. My own personal tradition involves walking to the end of the pier and getting on board for the journey back.
The pier has been knocked around a bit. There’s been a number of fires, a couple in my living memory. One of these destroyed the bowling alley at the shore end, a favourite hangout of mine in teenage years. Many happy youth club nights out were held there. And the whole of the end of the pier experience has changed since I was wee. There used to be amusement arcades, rides, kiosks selling all sorts of stuff including shells. Today it is a much more sedate affair.
So here’s a favourite picture of my son from a couple of years ago, strolling down the pier. You wouldn’t recognise him these days. Here’s done that familiar act of teenage rebellion and grown his hair! It’s a place that he likes to return to again and again as well. We have to because my parents still live there. Back in Devon I have to make do with Brixham Breakwater. It’s an acceptable substitute but only half a mile long.