The Sunshine Coast

I grew up and went to school in a medium-sized city in the west of Germany, located roughly halfway between Cologne and Frankfurt. When I was around 16, we went on a school trip to England. We did not go to London. We did not go to Oxford, Cambridge, or maybe Brighton. We did go to Clacton-on-Sea, on the Essex coast. More specifically, we went to a caravan park on the outskirts of Clacton.

This did not seem so strange at the time. Looking back, however, Clacton strikes as me as a very unusual destination for the school trip of a German school. Who decided on the Essex coast, and for what reason? Was the experiment repeated? In recent years I have often wondered about this, but doubt that I will ever know the answers.  The only clear connection between my hometown and Clacton I have been able to ascertain is related to a fried chicken restaurant which I will call FC. In Britain, FC can be found in many cities. In Germany, there is exactly one branch Рwhich happens to be located where I grew up. It is legendary for being open until very late at night, thus providing food to partying teenagers. This striking fact raises questions of its own Рwhy is there only this one branch, why is it here? Рbut it hardly answers the puzzle of how I ended up at a Clacton caravan park for a week.

I still have some distinct memories of the trip. We travelled by coach, taking the ferry to Harwich, and on arrival at the caravan park the coach stopped next to a football field. While waiting for the doors to open, we watched two boys involved in a fight rolling around on the ground outside. I remember plenty of tinned ravioli and creatively seasoned pasta. I do not recall any day trips for sightseeing, but I do remember a trip to a big Tesco supermarket.

Some years ago I identified the exact location of the caravan park from my youth, and had been meaning to go on a trip down the memory lane ever since. On a very fine day in early January 2023 I finally implanted this plan and headed to Essex’s sunshine coast, starting in Walton-on-the-Naze and heading south towards Clacton, Jaywick, and St Osyth.

Walton-on-the-Naze has a pier, but one’s attention is quickly drawn away from it by the large number of colourful beach huts. I have been on many coastal walks, but I had never seen this many beach huts of all shapes and varieties before.

While they exist in other countries, to me beach huts feel like a very British, or maybe even English, phenomenon. This feeling might have been influence by R. C. Sherriff’s 1931 novel¬†The Fortnight in September. It follows the Stevens family from Dulwich in south London on their annual two-week holiday to Bognor Regis. There is little discernible action, but Sherriff excels at empathically describing the hopes, dreams, anxieties, and annoyances of everyday life. Among the various trials and tribulations the Stevenses face, one concerns the¬†‚Äúthe booking of the bathing hut” which “was always done on their first evening walk‚ÄĚ. For a long time they are on the fence about which type of hut to rent: an ordinary, plain one or a more upscale – and hence more expensive – model with a small balcony. Finally the decision to indulge in the more luxurious hut is made – but then none of that type turns out to be available! Luckily the disappointment doesn’t last long, since they are able to rent one that becomes available on the following day. General contentment results:

It could not possibly have worked out better: they would not only save five shillings, but they would enjoy the hut much more through having to wait for it. It was theirs now, to all intents and purposes: they would stroll by and look at it tomorrow: they would picture themselves grouped round it‚ÄĒsitting on the balcony, hanging their bathing dresses over the rails‚ÄĒand then on Tuesday night they would unlock the door and go in: they would sit just inside and look out over the¬†moonlit sea, and the soft music of the band would come to them faintly on the wind.

Beach huts are not popular in Germany. Instead, we have Strandk√∂rbe – “beach baskets”, so-called because they are weaved, similarly to actual baskets. They are meant to provide shelter from sun and wind while sitting on the beach.¬†Strandk√∂rbe¬†were invented in Rostock in the late 19th century, and to this day they are extremely popular on both the North Sea and the Baltic Sea coasts.

Outside of Germany, on the other hand, Strandkörbe are virtually non-existent, and hence there is not even an English term for it. One feels that their popularity must reveal something about the nature of Germanness. But it is hard to say what exactly. One salient stereotype is that Germans like to reserve spaces at the pool by putting down towels early in the morning, so a desire for securing a basecamp close to the water looks like a promising explanation. But this could arguably be fulfilled by beach huts rather than Strandkörbe as well, and so the German preference for the latter options remains mysterious to me. (A related but equally tricky question: If Austria had access to the sea, would Austrian beaches have Strandkörbe?)

To the south Walton is bordered by Frinton-on-Sea, which has no pier, and, until 2000 didn’t even have a pub. A large share of the population is retired, giving the place a quiet, conservative, and genteel character. Less flatteringly, a saying has it that while the aforementioned and nearby Harwich is for the continent, Frinton is for the incontinent.

Much of Frinton lies between the sea and the railway line. There is only one access road, and when the barriers at the railway crossings close Frinton is thus temporarily isolated from the rest of Britain, similarly to Mersea Island with its Strood. Until 2009 the railway crossing was operated manually, with a person opening and closing the “Gates” when trains approached and left. Living “within the Gates” is a status symbol, and Frintonians are passionate about them. When a plan by Network Rail to replace the manually operated barriers with an automatic system became known, fierce opposition ensued. The thought that some “lunatic in Colchester” would remotely operate the Frinton barriers shocked many residents, and a representative of Network Rail was booed at a public meeting. At a rally, slogans like “What do we want? The Gates!” were shouted. Intimated by such a forceful showing, Network Rail resorted to sneakily removing the old gates in the “cover of darkness” at 2.00am in the morning, when everyone was asleep. The whole saga is recounted in an excellent BBC documentary, which features a several interesting Frinton personalities.

Clacton, on the other hand, is flashy, with a massive pier, a ferris wheel, amusement arcades, and an upside-down house.

I did not have much time to explore Clacton proper as I was still quite far away from the sought-after caravan park, but I spent some time playing on a penny pusher in one of the arcades. I wrote about my passion for these machines on two previous occasions, and it is now appropriate to elaborate on the origins of this fascination. On the last day of the Essex school trip, I had still around ¬£20 in cash. Since I didn’t want to take them back to Germany I looked for ways to spend money, and stumbled across a tiny arcade that was part of the caravan park. It had a coin pushing machine, and I had plenty of fun with the approximately 1000 2p coins I threw into the machine.

Heading further south from the centre of Clacton I soon reached the coastal village of Jaywick. It is somewhat notorious for having been named the most deprived area in England several times. Until the 1930s this area was just marshland, but then developers started to encourage people to buy land at affordable rates in order to build holiday homes on it. Many made use of this opportunity, but the houses that resulted were often of poor quality and not very suitable for living in them all year round – which became more and more common nevertheless. Despite some redevelopment efforts many properties in Jaywick are in bad shape even today, and I walked past more than one boarded-up prefab along the seafront.

Given its remote location unemployment is also high, which together with the poor housing conditions leads to various other social problems. In recent years life in Jaywick has been covered in a number of documentaries, some better than others. Without such prior priming, to a casual visitor Jaywick will probably not appear more badly off than many other towns on the East coast though.

Past Jaywick the big moment has finally come: the caravan park I stayed at around 15 years ago.

When I visited my parents last Christmas I rummaged around the attic in order to see whether any picture taken on the school trip have been preserved. Sadly I did not find anything – it might well be that I had not taken a camera at all – and so I only have my vague memories to compare the current impression with. While the caravan park itself looks pretty much like any other, I do quite vividly recall the dark stone groynes from solitary walks along the sea wall.

Beyond the caravans the salt marshes begin, and my visit to the past ends under a wide and open sky.

Thames Estuary

Writing about the Thames Estuary is not easy, because so much has been said already: The Thames Estuary Library, for instance, lists no less than 21 topical books (one very good example of the genre is Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary), and that isn’t even exhaustive, since arguably Pete May’s The Joy of Essex also qualifies. Recently I was also browsing in a second-hand bookshop with a well-stocked local history section, and found yet another example from 1981, which appears to be largely forgotten:¬†Estuary: Land and Water in the Lower Thames Basin¬†by A.¬†K. Astbury, which I immediately¬†bought because it’s preface is amazingly grumpy:

In the face of this vast amount of existing literature, all I can offer here are some notes on the Essex side of the Estuary, which are largely based on a walk along parts of the Thames Estuary Path this summer. While some stretches of this path are probably more to the liking of enthusiasts, the four miles from Leigh-on-Sea to Benfleet should be able to please everyone, as they are beautiful in a traditional sense, and include the ruins of castle on the way:

Train fans can be satisfied as well, since the footpath runs parallel to the c2c-line to Shoeburyness, and the more industrial parts of Essex are visible in the distance:

Soon I arrived in Benfleet, the gateway to Canvey Island. For some reason my feeling was that Canvey is an exciting and mysterious place, although at the time, apart from having heard the name and looking it up on a map before, I did not know anything in particular about this Estuary island. Unfortunately my plans for the day did not allow me tome for an actual visit and I continued to walk towards Pitsea, but later I did some research, and was not disappointed. I came across the film Oil City Confidential, which tells the story of the band Dr. Feelgood, whose founding members were from Canvey Island. The film contains many great shots of the area and also tells the history of Canvey, which includes event such as the flood of 1953. I can highly recommend checking it out, and hope to explore Canvey Island in real life soon.

During this research I also looked into other Estuary islands, and learned some surprising facts about the Isle of Sheppey on the Kent side. In 1974 the writer Uwe Johnson, who was originally from East Germany but eventually fled to the West, moved – to the surprise of his friends, apparently – to Sheerness-on-Sea, in order to overcome writer’s block while working on his novel Jahrestage. He lived there until his death in 1984, and wrote a couple of essays on the people and their lives on Sheppey. The most memorable one is about the SS Richard Montgomery, an American war ship which sank near Sheerness in 1944 while carrying 1,400 tons of explosives, which – until this day! – are lying on the bottom of the Thames, since recovering the explosives was judged to be more dangerous than leaving them there.

A couple of years ago the BBC produced a radio feature about Johnson in Sheerness which includes translated excerpts from these writings, otherwise they are available in German.¬†One reason I enjoyed learning about this story is that I always like to hear about Germans with an unexpected connection to this part of England, even if, to be fair, Kent is not exactly East Anglia anymore. (The absolute hero in this field is of course W. G. Sebald, about whom I might write more in the future.) As it happens I have never read any of Johnson’s novels, but will probably do so in the new year.

Back to Essex: Remnants of the second world war can be found here too, such as these bunkers (between East Tilbury and Tilbury) and a number of concrete barges (near Rainham):

As I approached Tilbury, the atmosphere changed. Industrial smells became noticeable, and a strange humming noise could be heard, the source of which turned out to be this gigantic ship, which, so I learn later, does deep offshore drilling:

I also paid¬†Tilbury Fort a visit, but couldn’t enjoy as much as I would have liked since by that I was very hungry, and unfortunately there is no caf√©. After quite a long day of walking I was then pleased to be back on a train, which brought me to London Fenchurch Street – for the first time ever, since in the morning I had used one of the (few) c2c trains that start at Liverpool Street. Now I had to walk to the latter station to get back to Cambridge, which meant navigating the City of London. I found this very difficult, since the street layout is confusing, Google Maps mysteriously didn’t work properly, and walking in the shadows of various skyscrapers while all the shops are deserted because of to the weekend make for a strange and creepy atmosphere. (So far I have yet to see the City in action on a weekday). I eventually made it, and happily boarded the train back home.

A Pier with a Train

In February, Greater Anglia announced the following special offer: For a limited time, they would sell day return tickets on their network for weekday off-peak trains at a rate of¬†¬£5-¬£15. This was an opportunity for relatively cheap travel I didn’t want to miss, and since Norfolk and Suffolk are already covered by the Anglia Plus ticket, the obvious thing to do was going to Essex. The most exciting destination on the Greater Anglia network seemed to be Southend-on-Sea, and so I booked a day trip there in late March.

The trip started with taking the train from Cambridge to London Liverpool street, which I don’t usually use. I think the route is much more scenic than that to King’s Cross though, since it runs through the Lea Valley, and as you approach London you get a great view of the skyline of the City.

Liverpool Street is the third busiest station in the UK, but during the weekend and at off-peak times it always strikes me as being surprisingly quiet. I did have the doubtful pleasure of experiencing the rush hour there though, when at the end of our UK tour C. and I caught the train to Harwich there some years ago. Although most commuters had left the train by the time it passed Colchester and we thus were able to sit down, an unpleasant surprise expected us at Harwich International: The evening ferry we had planned to take was fully booked, and so so we needed to spent the night in the town of Harwich somehow.

Harwich (right) from afar.

Luckily we found a pub that rented out rooms with very comfortable beds; sleeping was difficult though since the pub below us was very lively. This unplanned stay in Harwich is also memorable for being the occasion where I had the soggiest chips of my life (so far) at a local chippy!

Coming back to the less remote past, I changed to the train to Southend Victoria, one of the two stations in central Southend. On the (very pleasant) way there we stopped in Billericay, of which I had never heard before, but which for some reason made me feel like knowing more about the place. In a strange way this desire was satisfied a couple of weeks later, when I was looking for a new TV series to watch, and friends recommended Gavin & Stacey  Рnot only very entertaining, but about a family from Billericay (although the scenes supposedly taking place there were actually filmed in Cardiff).

Having arrived in Southend, I made my way to the most famous local attraction: the largest pleasure pier in the world, as seen in the title image. It is so long it even has its own train, which is named after Sir John Betjemen:

The train was just about to leave as I arrived at the pier, so taking the ride was both convenient and enjoyable. At the end of the line I could then enjoy the Tabes Estuary in all its glory:

I walked the 1.3 miles of the pier and sauntered along the sea front. Southend offers many places of amusement, such as the Kursaal:

As already mentioned in the post about Great Yarmouth  I am somewhat of an arcade enthusiast, so there was plenty for me to see. As usual I played the penny pushers, but also one of the crane games caught my attention since it featured cube-shaped stuffed animals:

I tried my luck, and managed two win not one but two of the cube-cows, since they were stuck together!

Overall I don’t have much experience with British crane games though, so it was a case of beginner’s luck. A few years ago I played them quite a lot on a holiday to Japan, and there are certain strategies you can apply, but I am not sure whether they would work here.

After this success I walked along the seafront some more in the direction of Westcliff-on-Sea. I have seen Starter for 10, a film whose protagonist is from Westcliff, and I distinctly remembered a scene in which he and his friends are hanging out on a concrete platform at the seafront, so I wanted to see whether I could spot this location. I was unable to find anything fitting this description though, and eventually gave up. Later I learned from the Wikipedia article that these scenes were actually shot in Jaywick (near Clacton).

By that time I was very hungry, and thought fish and chips would be an appropriate dinner. I didn’t want to go to some random chippy though (presumably the soggy chips from Harwich were unconsciously guiding me here), and luckily came across this very helpful list of the 10 best fish and chips-shops in Southend created by c2c – the railway company which runs the trains to Southend Central instead of Southend Victoria.

I was very happy with the one I chose, so the day ended well.

On a Winter’s Day

December can be a grim month. The many hours of darkness between sunset at 4pm and sunrise at 8am can wear down the best of us, and me in particular. What is one to do then on a cold, drizzly Saturday in winter to lift one’s spirits? Visit a railway museum, of course.¬†I don’t remember how I first heard about the East Anglian Railway Museum, but it cannot have been long since I moved to Cambridge in October. I thus decided to seize the day and make my way to the village of Wakes Colne, where the museum is located.

Fortunately, one can reach it by train. It is not that convenient, however, and we will soon learn why. Although Wakes Colne is only about 40 miles away from Cambridge, it takes nearly two and a half hours, and four different trains, to reach it. I didn’t mind this though, since I was new to the region and thus very keen to use as many different lines as possible. After changing at Ipswich and Colchester, I reached Marks Tey, where the branch line to Sudbury starts and terminates. This is an especially cute line, since there is a single carriage train that goes back and forth between Marks Tey and Sudbury, via Chappel and Wakes Colne and Bures (the latter has only very recently, after I visited, been made a request stop). The very last train of each day goes all the way back to Colchester, in order to go to sleep in the depot.

Just for the sake of completing this line, I didn’t alight at Chappel and Wakes Colne first, but stayed on the train until Sudbury and then got out when the train was on its way back to Marks Tey. One notable feature of this line is the Chappel Viaduct, of which stunning pictures can be found on Twitter. One less good feature of this viaduct, however, is that it is on a completely straight stretch of track, so that it is not possible to observe its beauty while on the train. In this respect, the famous¬†Glenfinnan Viaduct in the Scottish Highlands is much preferable, since it is on a curve:

Be that as it may, after all this travelling I had finally arrived at the actual museum, and could enjoy the sight of even more trains:

The museum is not big, but has everything one would expect: Locomotives and carriages, sheds and and a signal box, model trains, lots of signs and other railway memorabilia. At the far end of the premises are some unspectacular looking buildings, and a sign informs me that they used to be army barracks, which were donated to the museum some years back. Here a small exhibition about the history of railways in East Anglia is housed, and this brings us back to the topic of how arduous the journey from Cambridge to Chappel and Wakes Colne is nowadays.

As it turns out, there used to be a direct line, the so-called Stour Valley railway. Here are the former stations from Sudbury onwards:

Sadly, this stretch was closed in 1967, and since then only the short branch line from Sudbury to Marks Tey remains. Remarkably, someone made a film of the last train from Cambridge to Haverhill, which in the meantime found its way to YouTube:

It is regrettable for many reasons that this line is no more. For once, it would have been much easier for me to get to the museum if it were still in operation. Furthermore, it would make visiting the village of Linton more convenient, which is famously the home of Linton Travel Tavern – equidistant between London and Norwich!

I started to mourn the closure of the Stour Valley railway even more when, a couple of month after this trip, I learned about the TV series Lovejoy,¬†which portrays the adventures of an East Anglian antique dealer. Many episodes of this show, which apparently “put East Anglia on the map”, are set and were filmed in and around the attractive-looking villages of Long Melford and Lavenham. This naturally made me curious and I would like to explore this area, but nowadays it is quite difficult to get there by public transport, so I haven’t been able to make the trip yet. (Now that I have a bike this has become more feasible though).

Having wandered through the ground and the exhibition of the museum to my satisfaction,  I went to have coffee and cake, which can be consumed in a comfortable old railway carriage:

Pleased with the trip, I then went to the platform to wait for the first of many trains that would bring me back to Cambridge. ¬†One surprising fact that I only learned about after I returned is that the britpop band Blur – which I really like –¬† played their first concert in 1989 in the goods shed of the Railway Museum! There is even a plaque to remember this important event, which I failed to spot on my visit. (They also came back for a concert in 2009). One should keep in mind that Blur are from nearby Colchester though, so this coincidence¬†is not quite as strange as it may seem at first.