Its landmark pleasure pier the backdrop for the closing credits of TV series ‘Minder’, there’s always been something crafty and cheeky about Southend, stuck out on the mudflats of the Thames Estuary.
Part of the Tube network until 1939, this Essex resort has long provided Londoners with boozy merriment. Founded in a pub in 1906, flagship football club Southend United have shared grounds with an amusement park and greyhound track. Current home Roots Hall still hosts a down-at-heel market every Thursday.
United have long provided refuge for old muckers who made their names at London clubs. Essex boy David Webb was manager three times at Roots Hall, over a period of 15 years. Barking-born Bobby Moore ran aground here in the mid-1980s.
An hour by train from the East End, Southend has long struggled to persuade young supporters to stick with United rather than stray to West Ham or Tottenham. Spurs still run a smart club shop right on Southend High Street, close to Central station – United’s is a rather tatty affair at the tucked-away entrance to Roots Hall, north of the town’s other station, Southend Victoria.
The closer rail stop is one up the line at Prittlewell, where the club – and, in fact, the town – first developed.
Whereas the town, originally the ‘south end’ of Prittlewell, shifted focus from this once bucolic village to the brasher seafront, football, in the shape of Southend-on-Sea FC, was played at waterside Marine Park.
Renamed Athletic, the club was one of several to spring up here in the late Victorian era. Marine Park having been chosen as the site of the Kursaal amusement park, unveiled in 1894, Athletic were forced to vacate. A new pitch at Roots Hall, near Prittlewell parish church and priory, proved ideal.
Unpopular with the landlord and regulars of the Blue Boar, still beside the ground today, Athletic were then squeezed out by a new club formed at the pub, Southend United, in May 1906. A plaque marking the foundation is displayed outside.
Soon playing Southern League and FA Cup games at Roots Hall, United quicly became established – until 1914. Stripped and requisitioned for war, their ground was unplayable by 1918 and even when rebuilt and reopened in the 1950s, had severe drainage problems.
United moved to the seafront and the multipurpose entertainment complex the Kursaal had since become. As a Southern League club, Southend were granted admission to the new Third Division in 1920, not changing rank for 45 years.
Home grounds were a different matter. With greyhound racing relocating from the Kursaal to the new Southend Stadium on Grainger Road, halfway between Roots Hall and town, United followed suit and upped sticks to the larger, newer venue in 1934.
It proved an unpopular choice. After World War II, mainly with money raised from supporters, the club relandscaped the Roots Hall site, a long and near thankless task given that it had been used for landfill.
A part-finished ground staged its first match in 1955 and, defiantly old-school, remains Southend’s home today. A move to a new-build Fossetts Farm, all the talk in 2006, was shunted under a morass of six-figure tax bills that all but buried the club, the consequences dragging on through the 2009-10 season and beyond.
Though the plan remains to relocate close to the club’s training ground on the other side of Prittlewell station, when this will happen is open to debate.
Southend Airport is conveniently close to the town centre 6.5km (four miles) away. From its rail terminus alongside, a train every 20min runs one stop to Prittlewell (3min, £3), close to the football ground, and Southend Victoria (7min, £3.10), at the northern edge of the town centre and bottom of Victoria Avenue that leads directly to Roots Hall. Victoria is served by regular trains from London Liverpool Street (1hr, £17).
It’s cheaper to go from London Fenchurch Street to Southend Central (1hr 10min, £12 online), right in the pedestrianised town centre – Southend Victoria is a 7min walk away.
The seafront is a 7min walk in the opposite direction.
The walk from town to ground is on the long side of an easy stroll, perhaps 25min – from this bus terminus, several services run up Victoria Avenue.
Southend-based AC Radio Cabs (01702 33 44 55) quotes for all major arrival and departure points in and around London.
Hotels and lodgings line the seafront – there’s nothing much in town or near the ground. If convenience is the priority over a sea view, then the Wetherspoon pub The Last Post, directly opposite Southend Central station, was recently converted into an adjoining 14-room hotel, with restaurant and beer garden, live sport shown in the bar.
All is otherwise concentrated on the waterfront. Prime digs are to be found in the landmark Park Inn by Radisson Palace, accurately described as ‘regal’ in the brochure. A casino, gym and grill restaurant complement 137 rooms.
Also close to Southend Pier, Hamiltons Boutique Hotel is similarly upscale, a restored Grade 2 Georgian building where minor celebrities have stayed.
Further down the seafront, a couple of pubs double up as hotels, starting with The Hope, a refurbished 18th-century coaching inn with comfortable guestrooms and a 50-inch HD-screen TV in the pub for sports action.
The Castle is a similar idea, though the large and lively pub plays a more prominent role than the cheap-and-cheerful rooms.
Between the two, the Premier Inn Southend On Sea (Eastern Esplanade) is set back from the sea, though some of its upper rooms should have views. You’re a fair walk from the town, here, so the chain restaurant alongside might come in handy in a pinch.
Hands down best pub in town is The Alex, a lively and imaginative destination halfway between Southend Central station and the seafront. Regular TV sport, pub games, pool tables, live music and comedy combine – with clientele on the younger side.
It also doesn’t have that seafront rowdiness that other places might have.
If TV football is your prime focus, then nearer Central station Saks does plenty of that, with mod, northern soul and al kinds of club nights, too.
Amid the arcades, chip shops and tattoo parlours, pubs line Marine Parade, most showing football. These include the Borough Hotel, which also lays on reggae, rock and ska nights, pre-club Papillon with its seven screens for sport, and The Hope, a lovely little pub and sleeperie (see Bed) in a historic building.
Alongside, The Cornucopia is as small as its sign suggests, just big enough to display a collection of arty photos of the bar inside. The Falcon offers TV football, Greene King beers and regular events nights.
Quite a way further down on Eastern Esplanade, The Castle makes best use of its seafront location with TV football, party nights, pool and a decent menu.