You have spent part of a day at Southend on Sea in SE Essex. You have strolled along the promenade, chewed on a stick of candy floss, lost a few pounds sterling in the slot machines and avoided the drunks and boy racers. Having "done" the pier, enjoyed the beach and admired the pretty cliffs, "What now?". To the north and west are attractive villages, country lanes, woods and river valleys, but you don't know about that and anyway you only have a short while before you return home. So take a walk along the seafront for a couple of miles to Chalkwell Beach and follow the footpath, or drive along Chalkwell Esplanade, turn right into Chalkwell Avenue then left into The Ridgeway. Keep going and as you pass Leigh Station you will follow the curving road to the left and look down on a hidden gem. You are about to enter Old Leigh. You do not have to be a sailor or a lover of coast scenery to enjoy this ancient fishing village. Still home to generations of the original cockle fishing families, the first thing you will notice is the smell of salt air and seaweed and shellfish. Take in the atmosphere as you join other strollers in the narrow High Street or sit for a while on a jetty or the sea wall and gaze out at sailing boats, fishing vessels, mud flats and sparkling water. The sky reflected in the water here seems to have a special light of its own which may explain why artists have been attracted here forever and why a painting of Old Leigh is easily recognisable. Behind the sounds of chatter from other visitors or laughter from old established pubs you will hear the music of the wind in a hundred riggings and relax. This is a tiny part of Old Essex; the Essex of smugglers and ghosts and river craft and marshes. Leigh was known in Domesday times as Legra and later became a busy port useful for the navy when threatened by the French, Dutch and Spanish navies. Since then, as the river silted up
, trade diminished and Old Leigh settled back to a timeless backwater. I was there at 6am this morning during an 18 mile round trip. The things I do for a review! I parked my car in a bay off the High Street which is too narrow for 2 cars to pass and does not offer much in the way of parking. I walked for a few yards until the pavement became cobbles, soon ending in a minute beach of deep, soft sand and the Leigh Sailing Club in what was originally the old railway station. Further along is HMS Wilton undergoing conversion to the HQ of the Essex Yacht Club. I returned past two waterfront pubs, The Peterboat and The Smack, both of which have tables outside and from where you can look across the wide creek on which bright sailing boats of all types bob on the clear water or relax at the end of their chains when the tide is out. Between the shops and cafes and restaurants and pubs and ancient cottages are wharves and ramps for launching boats. For this is a working village for the Leigh cockle fishermen and boat builders, not forgetting the chandlery. On the side of the street opposite the sea (really the Thames Estuary) I passed galleries and souvenir shops, as well as The Crooked Billet which, along with The Ship, has featured in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. Later the the public houses would be open all day, generally from 11am and the Osborne cockle stall and Mayflower fish and chip restaurant would add to the eateries available for tourists. Since there is no through road and I had Old Leigh more or less to myself I was able to let my little jack russell terrier run free and do her own thing. A perfect summer morning. "So", you ask. "Sounds nice, but is it worth a review?" It will be later in the day and in the evening that Old Leigh comes into its own. For this waterside hamlet has Atmosphere with a capital "A". It bustles with tourists and fishermen and sailing enth
usiasts. Every nook and cranny has a boat laid up and the pubs have a life which spills out beside the water. The largest free annual Folk Festival in the county has recently been held, The Old Leigh Regatta will take place on the weekend 13/14 september this year and I saw a banner advertising jazz nights every wednesday. For those who like shellfish, you have come to the right place. I can't comment on this as I am veggie and even before then did not eat fish which came within their own shells. When eating out with my husband the fact that I spent part of the meal gazing into his eyes was less romance and more not wanting to look at the mussells on his plate. My favourite time to visit Old Leigh is sunday lunchtime off season. It will still be busy with strollers taking the air and the beer will flow, but relaxation is the keyword here. Sit on the edge of a jetty or lean on the top of the sea wall behind the Peterboat, glass of beer in hand, and gaze across the creek and the marshes to Canvey Island or far in the distance the Kent coast. Hear the splash of clear water, the high lonely sound of the gulls and the clang of a bell on a bhoy. Let the other sounds around you drift away and you can forget that you are in a few acres behind a railway station. Old Leigh is not smart or geared to frenetic entertainment and I would not suggest that you take a journey to this corner of Essex especially. However, if you are nearby and have an hour to spare, or a little more or if you choose to try one of the cafe's or restaurants, do pop in. Some years ago, before I remarried, I was lucky enough to have some good friends who enjoyed taking me out to dine or lunch (one at a time of course). I would repay by suggesting sunday lunch, my treat, at Old Leigh. Surprised to find it there, they were always enchanted by the ambience of this tiny remnant of the Essex Waterside as it used to be. Note:
Car parking is limited and I paid 50p for an hour.