Half way through my interview with Iain Keenan of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) we paused for a coffee. We walked a short distance from the station house to Rebecca’s Cafe in the small parade of archway shops opposite the pier head. As the man was making our drinks Iain commented offhand that for a seaside town Southend’s community was not very connected to the sea. No-one looks outward much here.
I agreed with Iain on this statement. You get no strong sense of maritime history in Southend, it’s more about all the fun you can have on land. I think this occurs because Southend is a relatively new place and has never relied on the estuary for it’s food and livelihood, other than the beachside fun for day trippers. Southend was named in the middle ages because it was the ‘south end’ of Prittlewell, the Saxon village which is now simply a large crossroads to the north of the town and a suburb of Southend town centre. When Southend developed in the nineteenth century it, like many of its kind, became a destination resort for Londoners not a working fishing town. If you go further along the coast by a couple of miles, to Leigh-on-Sea, you get more of a sense of a maritime town. This is where Paul Gilson, the Dover Sole fisherman I interviewed for the episode lives and works. There are a few boat chandlers still and the cockle trade is still extent there but this too does not define Leigh as it once did. This is all now commuter town. I wonder with the pandemic and the potential for people to travel less to London less whether this area will change once more.
Iain had a wealth of information about other topics I didn’t include in the episode. I’m naturally curious and will route out any hidden story I can but I felt it important to focus on the modern day role of the RNLI. I wanted to give the listener a break from my own personal obsessions about the town.
One of the stories Ian told me was how the Palace Hotel, which is a grand white Victorian edifice that sits on the cliff overlooking the main seafront, was used to house wounded soldiers during the Second World War. He pondered openly about how those men had spent days, months even on boats and ships and when they were finally home they had to endure watching the sea while they recuperated. He supplied me this photo of men standing on one of the balconies. You can still see this balcony today and barely twenty metres from here, on the seafaring side of the hotel, Laurel and Hardy had their pictures taken….but that is another episode to come.
The Palace Hotel could tell a few stories I am sure. Since starting the podcast I have walked past it many times as directly behind it sits St John the Baptist’s Church where, in its graveyard, lay a number of people I will visit in forthcoming episodes. It overlooks the pier where I met Iain and where the Olympia, the building on the front cover of my album is. It’s this interconnectedness that calls me. This is but one piece of ground but layers and layers of human experience lie on top of each other. The buildings hold ghosts while the air forever changes.
The most enjoyable aspect of this episode for me was another of Iain’s discoveries, that of the Chapman Lighhouse. An isolated tripod lighthouse which, as Paul Gilson told me, protected boats from a submerged ‘sea cliff’ that could pitch a boat over. The solemn ringing of a bell across the desolate Canvey marsh was something straight out of ‘The Heart of Darkness’ or ‘Great Expectations’ (both of which start in the boggy ethereal Victoriana of the Thames Estuary). I relished looking into the lighthouse and there is a bonus episode out there on it, which I am very proud of. In a story I uncovered for the bonus episode there was the start reminder that the tides here can creep in and take a man unawares, the water gathering around you before you yourself know you have been cut off from the main land. Thankfully we have Iain and his colleagues at the RNLI to help us in those times of need.