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Friday, 7 January 2011

Walk 17 South Benfleet to Southend-on-Sea

Walk 17 South Benfleet to Southend-on-Sea (Essex)

Map: L/R 178
Distance: About 8 miles (9 or 10 miles if the pier is included)
Difficulty: easy, mainly flat
Terrain: mostly paths and pavements, parts can be muddy
Access: Parking at both ends
Public transport – Rail stations at South Benfleet and Southend.

Leave South Benfleet Station and walk in an easterly direction along the road to join the shore path alongside Benfleet Creek.

Benfleet was a settlement in the 5th century when it was largely marshland. The name derives from a Saxon word meaning ‘tree stream’ – where creeks from the Thames join the woodland to the north. The Battle of Benfleet took place in 894 between the Vikings and Saxons, it was won by the army of Edmund the Elder who was one of King Alfred’s commanders. Local people are often known as ‘Bennies’ but don’t call them this as it is considered to be an insult!

A bit further along the path passes through a yacht club. If you are hungry or thirsty a converted vessel called ‘Barge Gladys’ is open to non-members. Soon you will enter Hadleigh Castle Country Park where the path follows the creek until it eventually widens into the Thames. The park was once a wooded royal hunting ground before being cleared in the 14th and 15th centuries. To the north of the riverside are the ruins of Hadleigh Castle. This was built in 1230 and rebuilt by Edward 111 in1360 before being sold to a lord in the 16th century. It was originally built to defend the Thames estuary.

The path passes a bridge which leads to Two Tree Island. This is now a 634 acre nature reserve and is worth a stroll around, particularly if you like bird watching. (I understand that local groups have successfully encouraged avocets on to the island).
The island was reclaimed from the sea in the 18th century and in more recent times (up until 1988) it was a council rubbish tip.

Leigh on Sea is a short distance from the island. The attractive and quaint front includes an anchor salvaged from a Norwegian vessel. The town has a long history of fishing and between the 16th and 18th century it was a ship building port. There are many shellfish merchants along the front with cockles featuring very strongly. Most of the fish are caught off the Maplin Sands to the east of Southend. John Fowles the author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman was born here. H G Wells bought a house in Marine Parade when he was having an affair with the author Rebecca West. In 2007 the town came second in a survey of the most desirable places to live in England.

The railway between Fenchurch Stree and Shoeburyness runs alongside part of the path between Leigh and Southend-on-Sea. The first part of Southend is the suburb of Westcliff on Sea. There is a mixture of architecture on the front including a parade of restaurants with brightly coloured tented awnings. Trevor Bailey the England cricketer and radio commentator came from here and the actress Helen Mirren went to a school in the town.

Southend-on-Sea has seven miles of seafront although it was originally a sleepy hamlet once known as the ‘south end’ of Prittlewell. It became a seaside resort during the Georgian era. Its nearness to London coupled with train access means that it has maintained its popularity as a day trip and holiday destination (notwithstanding the general decline of seaside resorts in the 1960s/70s). A number of personalities are associated with the town including the comedians Lee Evans and Phil Jupitus.

The approach to the west side of the town is attractive. The impressive Cliffs Pavilion, a venue for various events, looks down from the top of the cliffs. Further along are the Cliffside gardens topped by a terrace of Georgian houses. From August to October Southend is illuminated by 100,000 coloured lights and floodlights. Further along you will see the lift which saves the walk up the hill to
the town centre, the top level provides good views of the seafront and beaches. Opposite this is the pier and no visit to Southend is complete without a visit. It is the longest pleasure pier in the world.

I walked the approximate one and a third miles to the end and got the pier railway back. Over the years the pier has been ravaged by storms, ship collisions and fires. Various attractions, including a theatre, have been victims of these events. When I visited it was still suffering from a fire in 2005 which had curtailed the railway line. Things may have improved now but there was very little at the end of the pier. The tea shop was unaffected and the lifeboat station was still there but other facilities, including the toilets, had gone. Bizarrely the only amusements were a ‘speak your weight’ machine and a ‘talking telescope’. Good views in all directions are possible when there is good visibility – blighted a little by the dominance of the Grain Power Station opposite. (update - now closed)

Southend also boasts the first pier railway in the world. Originally there were electric cars followed by ex London Underground units – now there are diesel powered engines. One of the two trains is called ‘The Sir John Betjeman’ because this poet once said: Southend is the pier. The pier is Southend.

Pictures show: The Barge Gladys cafe at South Benfleet; Westcliff on Sea; Cliffs Pavilion, Southend; Georgian Terrace, Southend.

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