Essex has a decent-sized coastline running all the way from the Thames Estuary up to the shipping port of Harwich, but much of it is marshland — great for wildlife, not so good for day trippers. If it's beach huts, slot machines and candy floss you're after, read on, for a selection of destinations running from south-north up the Essex coast.
Right, we're just going to get this off our chest first. When we were little, we thought this was where the Thunderbirds lived. Turns out that's Tracy Island, which is sadly not within a day trip of London. Canvey Island, however, is, and is best accessed by car.
Despite its name, Canvey Island is connected to the mainland, albeit via marshland, meaning there are two roads in and out. It's surprisingly residential, although it's geared up for visitors with a smattering of hotels and caravan sites.
Seafront amusement park Fantasy Island is the predominant visitor attraction, although a more peaceful, less candy floss-drenched time can be hand wandering along the Eastern Esplanade — and just over the wall is Concord Beach, with a manmade shallow pool, ideal for the kiddies determined to take a dip.
In better times Canvey Island Transport Museum is worth a visit, located inside a former bus garage, as is the Canvey Island miniature railway but both are currently expected to be closed for the rest of 2020. Instead we're focusing on food with a side of history: round off your day with dinner at the Lobster Smack, a traditional pub right by the sea wall which featured in Dickens' Great Expectations.
If you're into boat-bothering head to Leigh-on-Sea, home to both Essex Yacht Club and Leigh-on-Sea Sailing Club, where many, many boats are usually moored up, just crying out to be photographed. For the best views, head up to the park at Leigh Cliffs East and gaze out over the River Thames estuary — it's prettier than it sounds, especially on a summer evening.
There's a spit of beach on the seafront, and a paddling pool for kiddies, but other places on this list have better beach offerings. Instead, wander the olde worlde fishing village type streets, pottering in and out of pubs, tea rooms and gift shops. If you find yourself further inland, stop off at Poco Gelato — it may be a small parlour, but it stocks several big London restaurants.
Sandwiched between Leigh-on-Sea and Southend, Chalkwell is lesser-known and more residential, so has less in the way of entertainment. What it does offer is a lovely — and at low tide, lengthy — beach, with a wide pedestrian esplanade running parallel. Look out for the fibreglass changing huts on the beach, which are narrower than beach huts and look a bit like Smeg fridges.
Bring your sturdy shoes to go hunting for crabs in the mudflats at low tide, or head to one of the cafes and wait for the water to return, before laying your towel out on the sand. Best of all, Chalkwell station is practically on the beach, making for an easy journey from Fenchurch Street.
Southend-on-Sea is to Essex what Margate is to Kent; an all-singing, all-dancing, traditional (and yes, slightly tacky, but gloriously so) seaside town which Londoners have flocked to for generations. (Alas, you can no longer take the tube to Southend as Londoners did in the past.)
It boasts the longest pier in the world at 1.34 miles, and technically it extends into the Thames Estuary rather than the sea, but this grandstanding comes at a price — you have to pay an admission charge just to get onto the pier. You can't currently ride the train out to the end — the Southend Pier Railway's yet to reopen after lockdown, but the walk is a pretty one.
If you're more about going upwards than outwards, the Cliff Lift is a funicular which runs up the cliff between the seafront Western Esplanade and Clifton Terrace at the top. For the real seaside experience though, we'd stick to the seafront with its beach, amusements, aquarium (with added meerkats...), and countless cafes, bars and restaurants.
Walk along the Western Esplanade all the way past Southend Cliff Gardens for the smaller but nicer beach at Westcliff on Sea.
Mersea Island covers an area of approximately seven square miles, and claims the title of the UK's most easterly inhabited island. It's only 10 miles from Colchester but feels a world away, with a very natural landscape on the uninhabited parts.
There's no station nearby, so you'll need a car if you're making this day trip (although there's also a ferry between Mersea and Brightlingsea, which you'll need to book seats in advance for), and you'll need to check the tide times before you set off to make sure your passage is unimpeded. The majority of the island's action happens to the south-west, in West Mersea, home to the main shops and restaurants, plus Mersea Island Museum.
But if you were to believe Instagram it'd seem that the only thing on the island is the famous pastel beach huts. You'll find plenty of them on the south of the island, lining the lovely beach by Victoria Esplanade and Seaview Holiday Park — and can even hire your own. If you opt for a dip, you're swimming where the mouth of the River Blackwater meets the sea.
Clacton on Sea
Another staple holiday destination for Londoners of previous generations, Clacton on Sea is a stereotypical British seaside town. Pier? Tick. Crazy golf? Tick. Annual air show? Yes, usually, though it's skipping a year for lockdown reasons — the next show will be in August 2021. And it's true that on blazing hot days, you really have to fight for your little patch of sand on the beach itself.
Seaside glitz is just a small part of Clacton though, and can be easily ignored if that's not what you're after. The Seafront Park up on Marine Parade is a chain of perfectly-manicured gardens, ideal for sitting and watching the world go by, or gazing at the wind turbines in the distance. The two Martello towers to the west of Clacton's centre are a reminder of the town's history, and for a touch of culture, visit the art hut on the seafront just west of the Pier — on busy days, a group of local artists sell their work at very reasonable prices.
Clacton's the last stop on the line out of Liverpool Street, a pleasant journey through the Essex countryside where falling asleep isn't a problem. Just don't be fooled by Tubby Isaacs fish van on the seafront — it's no relative of the beloved Aldgate jellied eel stall.
Frinton and Walton on the Naze
If you're into beach huts in any way — admiring them, Instagramming them, idly planning which one(s) you're going to buy when you win the lottery — we suggest starting at either Walton or Frinton, and walking the length of the promenade between them. There's a lifetime's fill of beach huts in every colour, pattern and design you could ever dream of.
There's more going on at Walton including the pier. It's not much of a looker from the outside, but head inside for amusements, cafes and the like.
If you're up for a bit of a walk, visit the Naze Tower, up the coast a bit from Walton proper. An impressive sight even from the outside (which you might have to satisfy yourself with this summer, as they've yet to announce reopening dates), the 26m high tower houses a gallery, museum, tea rooms and viewing platform. Climb the 111 spiral stairs for views over the entire coastline.
Where have we missed? Let us know in the comments.
We know, we know, we're Londonist and this isn't in London. Sometimes we like to show you interesting places to go and things to do that are a little further afield. For more things to do near London, take a look at our day trips from London page.