Now at the heart of an urban area with almost 300,000 inhabitants, Southend was just a cluster of fishing huts on the Thames Estuary at the end of the 18th century.
In the early 1800s Southend came to the attention of Georgian high society when Princess Caroline visited with her five-year-old daughter, Princess Charlotte.
Within decades the gigantic Southend Pier had been built, and the resort became a getaway of choice for Southeast England in the Victorian era and 20th century.
Domestic holidaymakers have declined since the 1970s, but Southend still has much to recommend it, from the rush of the theme park rides to the longest pleasure pier in the world, manicured parks, a vintage cliff funicular and theatres that welcome big names from the worlds of comedy and pop music.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Southend:
1. Southend Pier
The longest pleasure pier in the world, Southend Pier pushes out for 2,158 metres into the Thames Estuary.
The first wooden pier arrived in the 1830s and by 1848 had grown to something close to its present length.
This was replaced by an iron construction in the 1880s, which still stands today, even after a series of fires, most recently in 2005. Southend Pier is one of the few in the country still to have a railway, which runs on the hour and half past the hour from the station on the shore.
The Royal Pavilion opened in 2012, and puts on concerts, plays and exhibitions throughout the year, but especially in summer.
Also call in at the Southend Pier Museum, which documents almost 200 years of history, housing historic train cars, a toastack tram from 1890 and vintage penny slot machines.
2. Adventure Island
Where the pier joins to the coast, this theme park is central to the Southend experience for families and adults who are young at heart.
Adventure Island is free to enter, and you pay to for the rides and games.
There are 32 rides in all, among which are five rollercoasters, like Rage which has three inversions, a 97° drop and hits speeds of 43 mph.
Thrill-seekers can also get their adrenaline pumping at Archeon, a Wave Swinger by the Zierer company, the Time Machine, a giant swing that opened in 2012, and Sky Drop, which plunges 21 metres.
Smaller kids are well-catered for, with no fewer than 11 rides for youngsters, while go-karting, two adventure golf courses and dodgems are all in store.
3. Shoebury East Beach
If you’re an early bird you could set off first thing to watch the sun come up over the Estuary and North Sea from Shoebury East Beach.
This yearly Blue Flag winner has a tranche of golden sand backed by raised grassy foreshore lined with benches.
Typical for the estuary, you can see for miles when the tide goes out.
As the beach is oriented towards the open sea there can be boisterous winds here, and the Essex Kitesurfing Club is based near the shore.
Shoebury East Beach is only ten minutes on the train from Southend Central station but is a world away from the big lights of the resort.
4. Hadleigh Castle
In open countryside to the west of Southend, Hadleigh Castle is a former royal residence atop a London clay hill surveying the flat landscape to the south and east.
The castle was first constructed at the start of the 13th century in the reign of Henry III. In that time its role was mainly defensive, guarding the estuary.
Later, in the Hundred Years’ War Hadleigh Castle was remodelled as both a stronghold against the French and a home for King Edward III who spent a lot of time here during the last years of his reign in the 14th century.
The site is in the care of English Heritage, and big pieces of Edward’s III development remain, like the barbican and a pair of drum towers.
In the 18th century one of these towers was used by Riding Men, revenue officers trying to catch smugglers.
5. Old Leigh
From the Middle Ages, Leigh-on-Sea was one of the busiest ports on the Thames and its shipyards launched vessels as large as 340 tons.
This status was lost when the port silted up in the 18th century, and some of Leigh’s history was cleared out in the 19th century to make way for the railway.
But there’s an enticing reminder on the High Street in Old Leigh, where you’ll encounter quaint weatherboard houses, gaslights, cute brick cottages, exposed cobblestones and pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating on the estuary.
There are fish merchants based in Old Leigh, selling cod, shrimps, lobster, as well as shellfish like whelks, cockles and winkles, that you can enjoy on the spot, doused in vinegar.
6. Cliffs Pavilion
In the Westcliff-on-Sea suburb, Cliffs Pavilion is the largest purpose-built performing arts venue in Essex, seating more than 1,600. Construction started in the 1930s, but was halted by the Second World War and then abandoned altogether.
A new development finally opened in 1964 and this owes its current design to a redevelopment in the early-90s.
Some world-famous music artists have played the Cliffs Pavilion, like Oasis, Blur and, more recently, One Direction.
With more than 300 shows a year, there’s normally something for all-comers at the Cliffs Pavilion, and its smaller sister venue, the Palace Theatre.
This might be famous musicians (Elvis Costello and George Benson were on the programme in 2018), tribute acts, renowned comedians, movie screenings and talks with cultural figures and sports personalities.
7. Prittlewell Priory
One stop on the train from Southend Victoria Prittlewell Priory is a Cluniac monastery that was founded in the 12th century by monks from Lewes Priory in East Sussex.
As with all monastic sites in England, the priory was suppressed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.
But some of the buildings were unscathed as they became a private residence, which would be altered heavily up to the 20th century.
A two-year refurbishment was completed in 2013, and you can marvel at the half-timbered 12th-century refectory, and the Victorian wing, which has an exhibition on local wildlife and art belonging to the Scratton family, who lived here in the 19th century.
8. Priory Park
Prittlewell Priory is ensconced in a picturesque 45-acre park, which makes up a portion of the priory’s old grounds and is as an alternative to Southend’s seaside on sunny days.
There are formal flower gardens for a bit of repose, a spacious playground for youngsters, tennis courts and a bowling green frequented by Southend’s older residents.
The pretty Victorian bandstand in Priory Park used to stand in Southend’s Cliff Gardens, but was moved here in the early-2000s when the soil on the cliff became unstable.
The Prittle Brook flows through the park and feeds a fishing lake towards the south.
9. Chalkwell Beach
Starting just east of Chalkwell Station, this beach is the choice of people who value peace for winter walks or sunbathing hot summer days.
Chalkwell Beach is removed from Southend’s bustling arcades and entertainment, and has a vast belt of pebbles and sand tracked by a quiet, residential esplanade.
And even if Chalkwell Beach has a more restrained atmosphere, there are shops selling beach paraphernalia and amenities like cafes just behind.
When the tide is in you can swim in the sea, and when it withdraws there are tidal pools for kids to explore and paddle in.
10. Southend Cliff Railway
Another trademark of an old school English seaside resort is the cliff funicular, and this one in Southend guides you down from the panoramic Clifton Terrace, through the Cliff Gardens to the Western Esplanade.
This 40-metre railway opened in 2012 and is remarkable for its single track; the counterweight is actually on a track beneath the funicular car.
As you travel up or down this 43.4% gradient you can contemplate the Thames Estuary and Southend’s colossal pier.
Historic railways like this can close for maintenance at short notice, so it’s worth consulting Southend council’s website to see if the Cliff Railway is running on a particular day.
11. Sea Life Adventure
Southend has the most visited aquarium in the southeast of England, at Sea Life Adventure on the Eastern Esplanade.
There are 40 displays to take in, featuring clownfish, rays, sharks, starfish, sea snakes, otters, penguins, dwarf caiman, poison art frogs and giant snails.
Kids will have every chance to get involved at the Interactive Education Room, which has two rockpools where they’ll be able to touch a crab and starfish.
If they’re brave enough there are also lots of native and exotic reptiles and insects that they can handle, all under the supervision of an expert.
And when you arrive, check out which talks and feeding sessions are on the programme, as these vary by the day.
12. Chalkwell Park
An easy walk from Chalkwell Station, this park is in 27-acres and has extensive sports facilities, but also a mosaic of flower gardens and “The Ponds”, an environment with a string of pools and newly planted trees to attract wildlife to the park.
In the gardens you’ll come across a rose garden, recognised by the national rose society, a parterre-style sun garden and an aviary for peacocks.
In July Chalkwell Park hosts the Village Green Festival, a multi-disciplinary event, with music, art dance, theatre, comedy and food, all organised by the Metal Art School, which is based at converted stables in the park.
13. Southend Central Museum
The town museum opened in 1981 in a handsome Edwardian building that previously contained a library.
That library had an interesting story as its construction was partly funded by the Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
At the museum you can peruse collections of local social history and archaeology.
There’s an interior from a Victorian home, a capsule-like one-person air raid shelter from the Second World War, along with gas masks and helmets belonging to air raid wardens and police.
Maybe most absorbing of all is the array of vintage bakelite radios manufactured in the 1930s by the EKCO brand, which was based in Southend.
14. Belfairs Wood
Bordering Leigh-on-Sea, Belfairs Wood contains the oldest tract of woodland in Essex.
Some of this 1160-acre environment dates back a millennium, offering a habitat for threatened species like the song thrush and heath fritillary butterfly.
To underscore the value of the wood, the Belfairs Woodland Centre opened in a modern wood-clad building in 2013 and has interactive galleries on Belfairs’ wildlife, as well as a shop, cafe and sculpture trail.
From here you can begin the 5.5-mile Seven Woods Walk around the whole landscape .
15. Gunners Park
This 25-hectare nature reserve is on a parcel of land that protrudes slightly into the Thames Estuary.
Gunners Park is only ten minutes east of Southend proper, but feels remote for its grassland, remnant sand dunes and wetlands.
There are 12 different habitats in a quite a small area.
The park’s location on the estuary makes it a haven for migrating birds in the transitional seasons, so if you’re around in early-spring or autumn you may see ring ouzels, whinchats, wheatears, spotted flycatchers or yellow-browned warblers.
For 150 years Gunners Park was Ministry of Defence land and used as experimental range.
The terrain is still strewn with casemates, gun emplacements, magazines and batteries from the 19th and early-20th centuries.