A walk along the Essex coast to a historic pub: the Crooked Billet, Leigh-on-Sea | Essex holidays

Why is the Essex coast so underrated? Close to London, and arguably as pretty as any other, is it because there’s something unchanging about it – perhaps even conventional? And yet stepping off the train at Shoeburyness – the last stop on the capital to coast railway from Fenchurch Street – feels gently discombobulating.

There’s always a romantic quality about the end of the line, and just a few minutes’ walk away there is a vast estuary foreshore with rocky outcrops under an expansive Essex sky.

A second world war concrete listening device for incoming bombers in Gunners Park

It’s here, on a blustery Sunday, that my boyfriend and I survey the view at the start of our seven-mile coastal hike to the village of Old Leigh. To our left is a mile-long defence boom, built in the second world war to prevent submarines from accessing the Thames, now protected as a historical monument. To our right is Shoebury garrison, formerly owned by the Ministry of Defence, which sprang up during the Crimean war in the 1850s. We begin by strolling past its historic buildings, including the officers’ mess, now converted into prestigious housing, while an adjoining park is dotted with grassy mounds, once air-raid shelters.

A vantage point over the beach houses the imposing quick-firing battery, built in 1899 as a coastal artillery training facility. We learn from one of the many info plaques that a 1940-built machine-gun emplacement set into the seawall is the only second world war anti-invasion facility to have survived in the garrison. We read about the magnetic mine dropped on to the tidal flats in 1939 by German seaplanes, and the remains of the concrete Mulberry harbour, designed as a supply base for the allied invasion of Normandy.

At this point the 25-hectare (60-acre) Gunners Park and Shoebury Ranges nature reserve runs parallel to the coastal path. As well as containing structures built when it was key to MoD testing and training – such as the two brick powder magazines and the experimental casemate – it’s a site of special scientific interest. The relatively undisturbed habitat – which has been closed to the public for 150 years – is now home to migratory birds, rare plants and lakeside paths.

Pastel coloured beach huts line the Thorpe Esplanade east of Southend
Pastel coloured beach huts line the Thorpe Esplanade east of Southend Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Leaving the military ruins behind as gulls shriek above us, the path becomes Thorpe Esplanade, lined by pastel beach huts. At the water’s edge we spot dozens of sanderlings and turnstones; another plaque informs us that the Thames supports the fifth-largest total of wintering waterfowl of any estuary in the UK, including short, stocky grey wading knots and black-and-white oystercatchers. The light here is stunning: clouds part celestially, a flash of sun illuminating the mirror-flat turquoise water.

Southend pier is already visible, yet still deceptively far away. We’re now in a more built-up suburb, the housing an eclectic mix of seafront mansions and Edwardian piles, some more tasteful than others. We pass the Roslin Beach hotel, set in tropical gardens, where I’ve previously stayed, an inviting pit stop for a cocktail or lunch, but we persevere, instead breaking for coffee and carrot cake halfway, at the cute Dog & Co artisan cafe on Eastern Esplanade.

The traffic-heavy coastal thoroughfare of Southend promenade.
The traffic-heavy coastal thoroughfare of Southend promenade

Opposite are tapas bars Ocean Beach and Billy Hundreds, both with the inviting air of Spanish chiringuitos. But, caffeine-fuelled, we avoid the temptation of grilled sardines and crisp verdejo and continue along the traffic-heavy coastal thoroughfare. On our left, boats perch in the low-tide mud, surrounded by hazy pools of water, while on our right cars roar past, windows open, music pounding. And, just like that, we’re sucked into the blur of Southend. There are several demands now for our attention, from the sealife centre and Mediterranean-style park to flashing arcades with names like Monte Carlo or New York New York.

But it’s the grand dome of the Kursaal that holds our gaze: built in 1901, it mutated from amusement park to live-music venue, casino and bowling alley. Now derelict and decaying, it’s owned by the UK arm of an American investment firm with a 200-year lease and no break clause.

The coast at Westcliff, Southend.
The coast at Westcliff, Southend

This section is dominated by Southend pier. Opened in 1889, it’s the longest pleasure pier in the world – at 1.34 miles, a 25-minute walk each way, or a seven-minute ride on new electric trains, which last year replaced the old diesel engines. A bottleneck of daytrippers vie for tickets, while others head for the big wheel and Adventure Island rides. Opposite is newish arts space and cafe Twenty One, a welcome retreat from the crowds.

Here, too, we spy the elegant Regency terrace above Southend Cliff Gardens, where both the Royal hotel and Hamiltons boutique B&B are situated. We’re now on Western Esplanade, towering palms lining the pavement, walking towards the Cliffs Pavilion theatre, past a spate of seafront cafes and restaurants, including popular ice-cream parlour Rossi’s. At Chalkwell beach, walkers congregate around the Crowstone, a stone pillar on the mudflats which, until 1857, marked the seaward limit of the jurisdiction of the City of London over the River Thames.

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The beach at Leigh-on-Sea.
The beach at Leigh-on-Sea

As the afternoon wears on, the light on the watery pools shimmers, the path narrowing alongside Essex Yacht Club, mastheads rattling in the breeze. We finally reach Old Leigh, the oldest part of Leigh-on-Sea, up on a steep hill. Cottages and clapboard buildings line the cobbled streets, former industrial storehouses and boatsheds have become bars and restaurants, and the briny whiff of seafood stalls is pervasive, just-caught fish glistening.

Eagerly we stop for a pint at Ye Olde Smack, whose rear terrace enjoys views over the creek. A more spacious gastropub, the Peterboat, is a little further down, past the Boatyard restaurant and Old Leigh Art Studios, but our hungry eyes are on the strip’s oldest boozer, the Crooked Billet. At the threshold we pause to listen to the warbles emanating from the mudflats.

Google map of the route

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Start Shoeburyness station
Distance 7.5 miles
Time 3 hours
Total ascent 0 metres
Difficulty Easy

The pub

The Crooked Billet.
The Crooked Billet

The late 16th-century Crooked Billet is the tiniest pub in Old Leigh. It’s opposite Billet Wharf, home to the Osborne Brothers cockle sheds, and the pub’s own waterside terrace, where a handful of drinkers are nursing pints. The story behind the name is appealing: from the early 1850s, an organisation – which became known as the Billet Club – was formed here to help sick fishermen.

Nowadays, the cosy dining room is on the left, the lively bar on the right; both have roaring fires. Grabbing the last available table, we devour excellent calamari, chargrilled rose ribeye and a game suet pudding (from the seasonal menu), all washed down with a hearty Portuguese red.

Where to stay

Old Leigh’s accommodation comprises mostly Airbnb options, but if it’s an independent boutique hotel you’re after try Hamiltons in central Southend. Housed on the 1790s Regency parade known as Royal Terrace, which runs along the Cliff Gardens, it was fully restored in 2007. There are six rooms – a top tip is the balcony suite with its wrought-iron veranda, where you can drink in the lofty views over the park, promenade and estuary.
Doubles from £70 a night B&B, hamiltonsboutiquehotel.co.uk

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