Given my love for all things coastal; you’d think I’d be delighted by a place with four pubs each of which boasts a maritime name; a place with an award-winning beach; and a place with a reputation for the quality of its seafood (no, not plaice!)
A place where sailboats rest between tides as they do in Norfolk or Northumberland. A place with charming seaside dwellings old and new.
What’s not to like?
Well, in truth nothing, yet I need to be careful where I tread here, for lovely as this location is I had my reservations when I visited , and it is the birthplace of my friend and follower of this blog, Bee.
The Saxons loved it enough to establish a settlement here (though if you’re arriving from the continent it’s an easy option) and the Normans seemed to like it too as the Domesday Book records. There may even have been people here before the Romans arrived so Leigh has a long history. Somehow I was still unmoved. Even writing this piece has proved a struggle, and for a long time I couldn’t understand quite why.
And then it hit me. It was no single thing. It was the cumulative toll of a number of “close but no cigar” moments.
I didn’t try all of those pubs, but opted for the Peterboat, named after a small vessel once common on the Thames and originally designed for ferrying passengers across the river, most notably to Westminster Abbey. I’ve no idea how many such a boat could hold, but the pub that bears the name might have sunk from overcrowding. Seeking to capitalise on a prime location on the prom it had even converted the car park into an outside dining area. Quantity took precedence over quantity, and the extensive menu featured only one fish dish.
Then there was the “award-winning beach”. I know I’ve been spoilt by growing up with the sandy beaches of my home town, and the beautiful coastline of Northumberland at hand. Consequently this didn’t look like an award winner to me…
So how about the famous seafood. Both of my daughters worked in a seafood deli so of course I had high expectations. The old High Street, a narrow lane squeezed between railway and shore, is lined with cockle sheds, an Essex characteristic according to Bee. This is a major industry for the town, producing mountains of shells in the process.
They are served in small pots seasoned with vinegar; a far cry from the spaghetti alle vongole I enjoyed on my first day in Venice so once again I was disappointed.
I started to take issue even with the name; Leigh on Sea. This isn’t the sea. At least not as I know it, a place of ever-changing moods, textures, colours and sounds. This is an estuary. The River Thames… and a healthy supply of mud.
Leigh is apparently the happiest place to live in the UK, so they were probably glad to see me leave before I brought their scores down, but then I got it. I should stop griping about what it wasn’t, and capture the opportunity of what it is…