Southend-on-Sea: The land of eastern promise

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For generations, Nick Coleman's family have visited the Thames estuary town. Now, with his own children in tow, he finds it is getting a facelift

Up the helter skelter, round the Ferris wheel, through the ghost train, down the water-slide – indeed, faster down the water-slide than a speeding bullet, small son wedged between my knees, death flashing before my eyes, until our vessel comes to an abrupt stop on a concrete runway and I am able to focus on what I am looking at, rising up, dark and forbidding in the middle distance on the far side of the giant green turtle. It isn't death. It's Southend.

Handsome.

This is life – and death – as it is viewed through the prism of Adventure Island, which covers the waterfront in Southend with a kind of creeping exultation; several hundred yards of it, stretching east and west of the landward end of the pier, a brightly coloured fun-reef dividing the town from the ancient muds of the Thames estuary.

I detach myself from my children's joy and saunter through the throng to a hot-dog stand. I quite like a hot-dog. And at this stand they sell hot-dogs so frightening in both their size and their implications that they don't quote a price for them. You just order one and then, when it arrives tooled up with onions and bright sauces, menacing in its sleeve of weightless, foamy dough, you gasp. How much?

The young chap in the kiosk takes it on the chin. Must happen several times a day.

"So, sir, you enjoying yourself today?"

I can't see the catch, I have to say. I've already trousered the smaller-than-expected amount of change from my fiver. The hot-dog guy's smile is genuine, I think.

"Oh well," I say, mustering a smirk. "The kids are."

He grins a bit more, then wipes down a surface. Looks away and then back.

"Come on, mate," he says. "You can do better than that."

I am very fond of Southend-on-Sea. Have been for years and for a variety of reasons. I'm fond of it now chiefly because my children love it. They are smitten by its vision of seaside fun for all – they sense somehow that, here in Southend, fun is a cultural thing almost as much as it's a commercial thing.

They do not remember the inter-war years when their great-great-grandparents trotted out here from the smoke for a day under knotted handkerchieves and/or brollies. They don't even remember the Nineties, when their mum and dad used to come here for a taste of Southend's flaking estuarine rock'n'roll sub-glam. To my children, Southend is what it is, not what it was.

Which is an issue facing the council, abidingly. Southend has its ups and downs, like any cultural/commercial nexus. Bad days follow good ones, and vice versa. At the moment... well, at the moment Southend is attempting to drag itself out of recession like the rest of us, and it is doing so with a fair bit of physical exertion. A brand new cycleway, black and sticky, has given the elbow to the kerbside parking west of the pier, and a small regiment of brand new palm trees is sinking tentative roots into the sand. The Edwardian funicular up the western cliff is back in service after some time out.

Most impressive of all, the whole of the seafront east of the pier is undergoing a comprehensive makeover. Where once traffic crawled and pedestrians dodged, while arcades spewed small change into the pockets of dangerous-looking youths, an entirely new traffic concept is being put in place at the cost of seven million quid. The youths, the arcades and the small change will remain, but the area separating them from the beach will be opened up as a "shared space" where pedestrians, cars, and cyclists will enjoy equal footing – but with cars less equal than the rest. There will also be concealed fountains springing straight out of paved areas and LED lights sending fancy illuminations tracering up and down masts. Cor. It's going to be something to see.

It's not what I used to come for though. I was a keen Dr Feelgood fan in my not-so-dangerous youth, and it became a habit to descend on Southend (and, more pertinently but less entertainingly, Canvey Island) to breathe the rockin' estuary air, just like Wilko, Brilleaux, Sparko and The Figure used to. Also, Southend somehow allowed me to maintain a slightly furtive connection with my family's deeper, not-so-middle-class past – the past before my time, before family holidays began to be taken in Wales, Devon, and Cornwall. By the time I came along, the century of social mobility had already had its wicked way with the family's self-image and Southend was off the leisure map. So coming here as an adult to gag on whelks and gawk at the Kursaal cupola made me feel plugged in to a family back-story I wished I'd known. I liked the flakiness, found glamour in the gaudy decay. Southend-on-Sea was my Coney Island, baby.

So whose leisure map is Southend on now? To talk to councillor John Lamb, you'd think they don't think like that here. Southend is for everyone.

Mr Lamb is responsible, to a large extent, for the town's regeneration and development. He is a retired manager of the London Underground. He won't be drawn on the subject of demographics. I ask him if the council wants to distance the town from its Cockney-on-Sea heritage or simply update the old vibe for new customers?

"We want to bring Southend upmarket as well as retain its old identity," he asserts, cagily. "We want to provide quality services throughout. Yes, you can come down and you can still enjoy your ice cream and your fish and chips – but we've also got quality restaurants and quality places to stay here now. Our water – we've been working very hard on our water quality on the beaches..." And he's off. "When I think about the black, oily, greasy mud I used to tread in when I was a boy, it seems hard to believe. But there it is. Now it is clean. Properly clean. We have seven miles of beaches, and all the beaches have green flags for cleanliness. Three of

them have got the European blue flag, and there's nothing above that. The blue flag is saying not only that the beaches are clean but they have facilities on them such as showers. But the water quality really is excellent – it's been said the Thames is cleaner than it's been for 200 years..."

This is only the beginning of a litany of virtues which takes in the nurture of Southend's bio-diversity, the arrival of extra bins, more toilets and better toilets, a programme of events and festivals rolling throughout the year, cycleways to be extended from Chalkwell to Shoeburyness, improved sewerage, a new museum to be built into the cliff-slip that will enable Southend to reclaim its Constable and its Anglo-Saxon relics from the Museum of London and, perhaps most important of all, further works on the pier head, so that when you get to the end after travelling its length for a mile and a quarter, there's something to see there apart from grey estuary waters and whatever's going on in Kent.

Mr Lamb tries not to sound miffed while he explains how the council felt let down by central government on the charred issue of pier restoration, following the fire of 2005. "We spent £60,000, at the government's suggestion, holding a design competition [for development of the pier head] and then, when it came to it, they turned us down. Phil Woolas [then a local government minister] said they'd put money into bringing the pier back, but they never did. We've had to draw on council taxes to keep it going." He shrugs. "But this year, money will go into putting a pavilion on the end, with a restaurant and areas for artists' workshops and so on. And an open-air theatre, one day."

Yet one issue burns more hotly than any other. The airport. There are plans afoot to extend the runway of this modest facility "to permit medium-sized modern aircraft to come in. Southend could then be an excellent hub, not only for domestic flights but to airports on the continent such as Schipol where you can get intercontinental flights..."

But that is the work of many years, many amendments to the current road plan, and many more millions of squid. And first the clamour of "real concerns expressed by significant opposition" has to be allayed. Some things are the same the world over. Mr Lamb has not yet got his cake.

He has his dream though.

My family is staying at the Park Inn Palace Hotel, the vast and creamy Victorian confection, once known simply as The Palace, which looms above the pier on the crest of the bluff that dominates Southend's landward horizon. We are installed in an enormous room with a magnificent "sea" view and a clashing seaside colour scheme, a balcony, and enough floor space to stage several wrestling matches. It costs a little more than £150 to sleep two kids and two adults and give us all free access to rides in Adventure Island at the foot of the bluff (which is not to be sniffed at – our receipt told us we'd been granted £68-worth of Adventure Island fun, including the giant green turtle).

This clearly isn't Dr Feelgood's vision of the Estuary Experience but it is most certainly part of Councillor Lamb's. Hugely blown-up photographs of Edwardian cockney beach frolics adorn every corridor. The airy yet decidedly red and orange restaurant and bar ("Offering a selection of high-end and local drinks in conjunction with a very warm welcome") give vast panoramic views over the water. Every door seals with a swish and the electronic whirr of keycard security. This is the very definition, as my wife puts it, of "budget posh". All they need to do is sort out the signage, finish building the top floor and fill the retail spaces beneath the hotel with something a little more imaginative than the chainstores which make the High Street duller than it ought to be. The old "Palace" sign up on the roof has now been replaced at last by a new one, making an important distinction. It now says "Park Inn Palace" up there.

And so we roll down to that rockin' Mecca, the Kursaal, to see what the deal is, now that Wilko, Brilleaux, Sparko and The Figure are a thing of another century.

There are, of course, no Telecasters to be seen. No flaking stucco. No queues of Essex assassins in pointy shoes having a fag and a moan while they wait for the spirit of Chuck Berry to descend. There is only a Tesco Express, the Rendez-Vous Casino, Ten-Pin Bowling and laminated photographs of all the food you can eat.

Compact facts

How to get there: Nick Coleman stayed in Southend courtesy of the Park Inn Palace Hotel (01702 455100; parkinn.co.uk/hotel-southendonsea). Double rooms cost from £59 per night. The Adventure Island Package costs from £142 per night for two adults and two children sharing a family room, including B&B and a one-day pass to Adventure Island.

Further information: visitsouthend.co.uk

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