Pier we go ~ Southend’s iconic landmark
With his family in tow, Matt Thompson takes a rickety train ride to the end of Southend’s record-breaking pier. A genuinely iconic landmark on the Essex coastline, Southend Pier has attracted visitors to the town for decades. Opened in the late nineteenth century, it’s a symbol of the town’s extended ambition, stretching an incredible 1.3 miles out towards the North Sea.
Visit Southend and you won’t need to look hard to find it. The structure dominates the entire attraction-filled seafront. Thrill rides and shops bursting with candyfloss and ‘kiss me quick’ hats can’t distract your eyes from this stretched-out sea structure. It really is quite vast.
This construction is the longest pleasure pier in the world, so it’s a good thing it has its own train to carry people to the end. A service runs out and back twice every hour, with ticket options to travel either return or single for those visitors that prefer to be ferried one way and take a stroll the other. With our two young kids joining us on this jaunt, we decide the almost three-mile round trip is one best taken by train in both directions and sit and wait for the next departure.
Creaking and clattering
Taking the train to the end of the pier is a fun experience. But it’s certainly not a luxurious one. Rattling along, bouncing up and down on wood slat benches, the journey is rickety in the extreme.
If Eurostar’s high speed trains are thoroughbred stallions, this is more of a seaside donkey. Creaking and clattering, it’s like a fairground ride. But the kids are in their element; giggling and exaggerating their bounces as we’re continually bumped along in our carriages.
For them it’s like an adventure on the high seas. So, as we chug out and away from the shoreline, our journey’s filled with youthful calls of “aha me hearties” and “shiver me timbers”. Funny how a bit of sea air immediately turns them into petite pirates…
A great view
On a clear day like today, the view stretches for miles.
As the train trundles along you can spot freight carriers loaded up with shipping containers, wind farms, haulers and gulls, gulls, gulls.
Looking back towards shore you get a full panorama of the promenade, too, with the aquarium, mini golf and Adventure Island all clearly visible.
In fact, from midway along the pier there’s a great view of the pleasure park’s free-drop rollercoaster, with the distance offering you the perfect vantage point to watch tourist daredevils slowly creep further and further upwards before hurtling downwards at breakneck pace.
After a ten minute journey, when the train grinds to a halt and we arrive at the end of the pier, the destination is, well, a little disappointing to be honest.
If you want action, bustle and choice, you’re best off staying on the promenade, because there’s none of that here.
There’s a lifeboat museum, which is closed today, and a café serving coffee, tea, cakes and homemade sandwiches. And that’s about it.
Aside from that, you could maybe have a wander around. Or a sit and a stare out to sea. Perhaps take some photos or use coin-operated binoculars to see further into the distance…
Simple pleasures. Certainly nothing more exciting than that.
Itching to get on
There was once a pub and an ice cream shop out here, but both were destroyed by a devastating fire in 2005.
Today, there are plans to do more to entice visitors, with talk of construction and extensive investment. Until that work’s completed, though, the view is the only real attraction. That and the novelty of taking a shaky old train out to sea.
On this trip, with not much to keep them occupied, the kids soon complain of being bored. It’s understandable. Even the windswept couple sat on a bench, daydreaming and munching sandwiches look jaded, so it’s no surprise these two are itching to get on.
After not long at all we get the train back to the seafront – accompanied again to a chorus of pirate cheers and bouncing on benches – and head into the nearest penny arcade.
In here the bright lights and promise of prizes are far more in line with what the little ones are after. It’s like a casino for kids, and after working up an appetite on the 2p slots, we round out the trip with seafront fish and chips and watch as the sun slowly sets over that enormous pier.
It’s not a trip we’d do again in a hurry – certainly not until they’ve built more attractions. But it’s been an experience. And an adventure of sorts. And if you’re ever in Southend, it’s worth considering – even if only to say you’ve travelled to the end of the world’s longest pleasure pier.
About Matt Thompson
Having started out as a student music journalist back in the late 90s, today Matt spends his days writing, editing and talking about reporting styles for a variety of publications and organisations. He’s keen on Britpop and photography, and wears out running shoes more frequently than his wallet would prefer.