First Holidays

Mike Neighbour

First holidays

In the summer of 1945 I was still less than two years old. However, a week after VE Day (Liberation Day minus one in the Channel Islands), and with the new freedom of peacetime ahead, Mother had written to a Miss White at Leigh on Sea, Essex, enquiring about accommodation. Although Miss White was unable to help she passed the letter on to Ann Moore. So that July the young family headed for the sea to stay at a modest little house in Carlton Drive for the princely sum of £8.1.0 full board.

Leigh was chosen as a holiday destination because Mother’s parents had holidayed there, often meeting up with another family; and because grandfather had cousins living at nearby Westcliff. Recommendations often provided a more secure foundation for holidays than those picked at random and so, for the next few years we returned to Leigh. Clearly though there is much in a name. All of the addresses we stayed at were at Leigh, and the beach we frequently played on was at Leigh. However, our parents always used the name Westcliff. I don’t remember Southend ever being mentioned.

We travelled by train, from St Albans to St Pancras. From there to Fenchurch Street might have been by Underground but it might well have been by bus or trolleybus. The Fenchurch Street line passes some spectacular estuary scenery on the approach to Leigh Station, before passing through Old Leigh and alighting at Chalkwell.

Soon after my brother was born we moved holiday accommodation and for the next few years enjoyed the hospitality of Mr and Mrs Westall and their children in Leighcliff Road. Mrs Westall made arrangements for Chris and I to sleep in the same room as the Westall boys. Although I think they were a little older I remember this arrangement being fun. The Westalls charged us fifteen guineas in 1949.

The recollections I have of these holidays could have been wildly inaccurate, a mix of memories from different places at different times, but my recent return to the town for the first time since I was nine years old, proved that I had been remarkably accurate.  I think it might have been at Leigh that I imagined that at certain times of day the sea disappeared altogether! Little boats of all colours were left high and dry and we sometimes played in their shadow among the mud pools, hanging on seaweed-infested ropes looking rather like dirty washing hanging out to dry. Colourful tin buckets were filled with amazing treasure, both animate and a selection of rusted artefacts: stones, smoothed wood and fraying lengths of line.  The cockle sheds and stalls of Old Leigh are still there. The colour and smell of their merchandise, and the banter of the stall holders, still excite people today. I found it difficult to understand then that all of those wondrous

creatures in various pink, cream, white and grey hues, came from the waters I had been paddling in, and I ventured to find my own.

Close by Old Leigh Station a wide concrete ramp thrust its length down through a small triangular area of sand and when the tide was in provided an immensely popular playground for us children, while behind us the trains clattered their way parallel to the promenade between London Fenchurch Street and Southend Central. It seems that all our childhood holidays involved crossing railway tracks to reach the beach!  We walked along the coastal and wooded paths between Westcliff and the town, passing Happy Valley, which I remember as a kind of grassed amphitheatre where concerts sometimes took place. I think you had to pay but we merely glimpsed the entertainment as we passed on the path above. We were usually on the way to Peter Pan’s Playground, the swings, rides and models; and of course the Crazy House, where little rooms had their walls and floors set at unusual angles. Near the town at Royal Terrace is a hedged footpath parallel to the pavement and I can recall playing dodging games with my parents as we came to the regular gaps. But the most elusive yet enduring memory is of Father buying a newspaper one morning along part of one of the roads where the footpath then ramped down to the promenade. While visiting the town recently I paused at the western end of Cliff Town Parade and looked across towards the top of the cliff lift. To its right was a footpath which ramped down towards the promenade. For a few moments I was eight years old again watching my father buy the morning paper, place a cigarette in his mouth and walk with me to join mother and my brother Chris on the beach below.

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