With its pier, amusements and sandy beach, Clacton-on-Sea is the epitome of the British seaside resort. Here's why you should consider it for your next beach trip from London.
Things to do in Clacton
Clacton's main attraction is its pier, affectionately given the address One North Sea, and the amusements which surround it. Head down the slope from the town centre, under the charming if idiosyncratic Venetian bridge and into the twin towers marking the pier's entrance. Inside, slots ring out, fruit machines sing, and neon lights vie for your attention. There's even a Seaquarium for those who want to see marine life without getting wet.
Outside in the open air, the splash of the log flume and the screams of rollercoaster thrill seekers reign, but peace and quiet can be found at the far end of the 360m pier, an area mainly given over to fishermen, ideal for looking back towards the coast, or out towards the Gunfleet Sands Offshore Wind Farm.
Though Clacton is a fairly small town, tourists are offered several ways to get around. In peak season, a land train runs from outside the pier, to Holland-on-Sea and back, every 20 minutes. Alternatively, the Clacton Breeze open top bus has 24 stops along the coast, and day tickets mean you can hop-on and hop-off as often as you like. There was also talk of the world's last seafaring, passenger-carrying paddle steamer returning to Clacton's seas in 2020. Covid scuppered that plan, and the PS Waveley is currently residing in Scotland, but it may return to the Essex coast some day.
Clacton is blessed with beautiful sand, and plenty of it. On a warm day, the area around the pier gets predictably packed, but things quieten out as you head south-west, towards the Martello tower. Even if you're not looking for a spot to plonk your towel, it's worth taking the walk along the promenade.
Beach huts and ice cream shops line the seafront, with a couple of murals by street artist Silent Hobo to be seen. Sadly for street art fans, Tendring Council erased all evidence of Banksy's 2014 visit to the town. In November 2020, a Banksy-style work appeared on a beach hut towards neighbouring Holland-on-Sea, but Banksy hasn't yet claimed responsibility, so its authenticity remains in doubt.
The RNLI station and (closed) Martello tower mark the southern end of the Clacton action, but those willing to walk a little further along the coastline are treated to the Jaywick Martello Tower. It's one of several of the foreboding concrete structures built as defences along the Essex and Kent coastline, but this one is open to the public as a cafe and museum, with access to the rooftop for views along the beach.
Further views along the beach can be had from the cluster of curated gardens at the top of the cliff to the west of the pier. Even on warm days when the beach below is bustling, the gardens offer a spot of calmness and tranquility.
Like many towns in the UK, Clacton's town centre has been financially ravaged by Covid-19, leaving it with limited shopping options. If it's souvenirs you're after, we're huge fans of the art hut located on the promenade. From the pier, walk west along the seafront for a couple of minutes, until you come to a white washed concrete hut. Opening hours are sporadic, but a summer weekend is a good bet to catch it open, and selling works from local artists, ranging from small postcards and greeting cards, up to larger prints and canvasses.
A short walk outside the town, Hasty's Adventure Farm is a chance for families to meet sheep, goats, chickens and other farmyard animals, and let off steam on go karts, adventure playgrounds and sand pits. Those looking for a bigger adventure can hop next door to Clacton Airport and learn to fly a plane. The airport is also the base for the annual Clacton Airshow, and light aircraft can often be seen in the skies over Clacton as hobby pilots stretch their wings.
Clacton-on-Sea is home to a couple of lesser-known but charming attractions too, both located on Tower Road. The first house on the left is eye-catching for the volume of paraphernalia in its garden — animal statues, old phone boxes and post boxes, ship figureheads mounted to the wall — and while you can't go inside, it can be viewed from the road. The owners just ask for a donation to Clacton National Animal Welfare Trust in exchange.
Cross over the road and continue walking away from the seafront. Opposite the hospital car park is Clacton's (unofficial) model village and miniature railway. A resident has buried their front garden underneath models and miniature buildings, with that all important miniature railway track carved through the middle. The train wasn't running on our visit, but you might get lucky. Again, a charity donation is encouraged.
In its heyday, like all great British seaside resorts, Clacton was home to a wealth of beautiful, historic buildings. Alas, unlike other resorts, which polish the jewels in their crowns regularly, Clacton brought in the wrecking ball and tore many of them down.
The beautiful Art Deco Odeon cinema on West Avenue was demolished in 1984, and the Warwick Castle Pub — complete with turrets and battlements — was once on the site where Aldi now sits. The pier's Ocean Revue Theatre no longer exists. Even the Royal Hotel, built in 1872 as one of the founding pillars of Clacton-on-Sea, has survived rather than thrived — the ground floor opposite the pier which was once the Royal Bar has been given over to a Wetherspoons pub. Thankfully, Clacton's Grand Hotel building remains, albeit converted into apartments.
Probably the most famous Clacton site to have been demolished was the Butlins holiday camp, which opened in 1938, was requisitioned for the war effort a year later, and remained in situ until 1983 when it briefly became a theme park, and was then removed to make way for a housing estate.
These are all gone now, knocked down to make way for newer, less characterful buildings. One which does remain is the former Coastguard lookout, which juts out above Marine Parade West, perched on top of a Martello tower. It's now one of the most remarkable pieces of architecture in town, looking something like the haphazard holiday home of Admiral Boom. Doubling up as a meteorological station in Edwardian times, it was used as a children's zoo and tea room for a few years, until it closed in around 2016. It currently sits empty, but we hope its next owners restore it to its former glory.
While the bulk of Clacton’s historic structures have been swept aside without a thought, there are still a few sights to get a historian’s juices flowing, if you know where to look. As soon as you step out of Clacton-on-Sea station, at the corner of Skelmersdale Road and Chapman Road there is, what appears to our untrained but insatiably curious eye, a Victorian stinkpipe. Clacton's first electric street lights are now listed, and a row of street lights made by the London Electric Firm, Croydon, are also listed.
Walk in Winston Churchill’s footsteps in Clacton
Enough of the historic buildings and structures, what of the people of Clacton past? Perhaps its most famous, if brief, past resident was Winston Churchill, who made an emergency landing in his sea plane close to Clacton in April 1914. The event is commemorated by a plaque outside Greensward Cafe, and Churchill ended up having a fortifying drink in the Royal Hotel (now the Wetherspoons mentioned above) after the experience. Churchill wasn't the only one to have plane problems in the area — a plaque in the town's gardens commemorates Flight Officer R F King, who died after crashing into the sea nearby in 1945. Sadly, Clacton-on-Sea can also claim the first civilian victims of the second world war on British mainland — a memorial bench on Victoria Road marks the crashing of a German bomber plane in April 1940, killing local couple Mr and Mrs Gill, as well as its German crew.
Clacton-on-Sea has earned a place in the cultural history books too. Jennifer Worth, the real-life midwife behind Call The Midwife was born in the town in 1935. In 1987, The Pet Shop Boys chose the town to film their music video Always on my Mind, with the pier making an appearance in the background of a few shots. And although Quadrophenia is set in Brighton, Clacton saw its own Mods-vs-Rockers situation, known locally as the Battle of Pier Gap, in 1964.
Clacton-on-Sea turns 150
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2021 marked the 150th anniversary of Clacton-on-Sea as a seaside resort, founded in 1871 when the pier and Royal Hotel were built. Named after the existing town of Great Clacton a little way inland, the resort's existence has a lot to do with London. The Woolwich Steam Packet company, which owned the PS Waverley, mentioned above, invested in the development of the resort, and ran paddle steamers from Tower Pier in London to Clacton Pier to allow Londoners to holiday there, in much the same way that Londoners could once catch the tube to Southend.
Clacton celebrated its 150th anniversary with the installation of a new observation wheel on the seafront. It'll initially be installed out the front of the pier, before being relocated to a permanent spot on the pier. An even more recent addition to the seafront is the Upside Down House, a trippy experience from the same people as the one in Brighton, and at other locations around the country.
Clacton-on-Sea is approximately a two-hour train ride from Liverpool Street station. Take a look at these other seaside towns and islands to visit in Essex (including neighbouring Walton-on-the-Naze), and castles in Essex.
Our map of day trips from London has more than 100 ideas for things to do outside the capital.