A postcard from Shoeburyness

Yesterday I went to Shoeburyness in Essex. I’d never been there before and was inspired to go by a dream I had not long ago. In the dream, a man came up to me and said, quite crossly, “I’ve come all the way from Shoeburyness.”

His tone was accusing, as though I’d somehow forced him to come from Essex to London. That was the beginning and end of the dream. I never did discover why he’d come or what he wanted. He voice reminded me of my harp repairer, Nigel Tree, although Nigel has never been anything but charming to me.

Drawn by curosity

The dream got me wondering. Did it have some kind of meaning? What happens in Shoeburyness? Should I visit? I knew vaguely that it was somewhere in Essex, but nothing more than that. I pictured a grey, raggedy, down-at-heel seaside town. I didn’t expect much from the place. But the dream called me to visit.

I was also inspired to go by Street Wisdom, a social enterprise set up by David Pearl that encourages people to look at everyday places in a different way. And by sheer curiosity. It’s good to shake things up and visit new places for no reason. Who knows what you might discover?

Colourful beach huts with flowers in the foreground and the sea in the background

The meaning of Shoeburyness

What of the name Shoeburyness? Is it a place where people disposed of old shoes in ancient times? There’s no evidence for this theory. The internet tells me the name originated in Saxon times, when it was written as Schoebirig. Frankly, this raises more questions than it answers.

Perhaps it’s better to consult Douglas Adams’ book, The Meaning of Liff. This dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet” defines ‘Shoeburyness’ as “that uncomfortable feeling one experiences when sitting in a chair that is still warm from the last occupant”. That’ll do for me.

The Shoebury-ness of Shoeburyness

My friend and fellow word wrangler, Rob Self-Pierson, gamely agreed to accompany me on my trip to see what the Shoebury-ness of Shoeburyness was all about.

From London, you start at Fenchurch Street station, avoiding the crowds of tourists jostling to reach the Tower of London. The train travels through Limehouse and Barking before trickling along the coast through Leigh-on-Sea, Chalkwell and Southend. This is all very picturesque, with fishing boats beached on estuaries, waiting for the tide to come in.

Shoeburyness was the opposite of what I’d imagined. There were no sad streets or half-hearted arcades. Instead, a winding path full of excitable spaniels led us through tall grasses to the beach. A few people sat under bright red parasols at a cafe that looked out across a tranquil North Sea. Reggae floated across the water from a fishing boat painted in the colours of the Jamaican flag. A few children paddled in the clean, clear water, next to sand fringed with cockle and oyster shells.

Unusual beach huts

Stones and shells visible behind perspex

Stones and shells are visible inside the walls of the beach hut

A line of beach huts featured unusual Perspex walls filled with stones and shells. And everywhere, a riot of flowers alongside the beach path, evidence of careful, considered planting.

On a field next to the beach stood a concrete ‘Hello’ sculpture by artist Katrina Palmer. It was inspired by a sound-mirror, an early warning system used during WW1 and WW2 to detect the approach of enemy planes and ships.

Shoeburyness is surrounded by past and present military sites. To the east, a Ministry of Defence site. To the west, the former Shoeburyness Artillery Barracks. As you wander west towards Thorpe Bay, you come across abandoned military look-out posts. Next to Iron Age ramparts, stunning umbrella pines give the area a Mediterranean feel.

Usual beach huts

Beach huts by the sea

Walking from Shoeburyness to Thorpe Bay, you pass by hundreds of beach huts. On this stretch, you’ll also encounter a huge variety of bossy signs, telling you ‘Don’t dig for bait here’, ‘Don’t park here’, ‘Watch out for mudflats’, ‘Sharp stones – wear shoes’, ‘Don’t walk / fish / kite surf / paddleboard here’, ‘Don’t touch the molluscs’, ‘Keep your windbreaker tidy’. (I may have invented one or two of those.)

When you leave behind the edge-of-the-world tranquillity of Shoeburyness, you move into the not-quite-bustling Thorpe Bay, with its cafes on the beach and fascinating tidal pool, and eventually come into Southend-on-Sea. Here you can try your luck in a penny arcade, visit a casino, buy a frozen Coca Cola drink and ride a train 1.33 miles along the world’s longest leisure pier.

Or you can just climb up the hill and go back to London from Southend Central station.

Follow your dreams

I still have no idea what that dream was about, but I’m so glad I followed my instinct and went to Shoeburyness for the day. It was inspiring and invigorating. It took me somewhere I knew nothing about and led me to discover an idyllic beach at the English seaside.

Perhaps the dream man will come back and summon me somewhere else. Next stop, Skegness? Watch this space.



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