A Beginner’s Guide…. Old Leigh, Leigh-On-Sea

This olde waterside Essex village is a hop from the capital - but feels a lot further

Age: Ooh, ancient. As its name suggests, this is the oldest part of Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, dating back to the Middle Ages. It was prosperous until the 18th century, but by the mid 19th much had been demolished to make way for the railways. Still, a longish, curving – and highly appealing – waterside swathe remains: clapboard houses line the cobbles, former storehouses and boatsheds are now bars and restaurants – the perfect mini coastal day out, in fact.

Where exactly is it? A few miles west from Southend. The train goes direct from Fenchurch Street (45 mins), or Londoners can go via Overground/Tube to Barking and change to the regional line, which takes less than half an hour.

Boathouse Leigh On Sea
Lunch at The Boathouse. Photo: SE

So what goes on there? From the moment you step off the train, the road, which snakes alongside the railway track, boasts eye-boggling scenery on the right, especially at low-tide: boats perched on the mudflats, mastheads rattling in the wind, industrial docks, marshes, creeks, the distant horizon. There’s the briny whiff of fishmongers open to the street, just-caught wares glistening, and cockle-sheds and seafood stalls where pots of shrimps or whelks are yours for a snip.

I’m hungry now. Where should I eat? There are lots of options, many of the pubby variety, most with direct estuary-facing views and terraces. A rather glam option is Simply Seafood (High St), the upscale dining room encountered on the outskirts and first one to see as you leave the train.

The Hatch cafe with its carriage. Photo: SE

Any bargains? The two-course set lunch at the Boathouse (£16.95). On a warm October day, the low sun was rather atmospherically shielded by persistent sea mists as we ate on the rickety wooden deck, gazing at the pools of water and the ships rocking on the flats beyond. The food was basic but did the job: a simple potted mackerel and toasted brioche (above), and seared salmon with an avocado and tomato salsa and crushed potatoes.

I want caffeine! Then head to The Hatch, a hipsterish café in an old boatshed on the High St, complete with bottle-green repurposed Southend pier train carriage. There are delicious brownies, croissants, ice cream and other treats, and decent Union-roasted coffee. Friendly service too, and outside terrace by the roadside means you can watch the people traffic meandering along.

Leigh on Sea
Old Leigh Studios. Photo: SE

How about a pub crawl? Well, you’re in the right place. Simply start at the first you encounter – the historic, weather-boarded Crooked Billet (51 High St) – with its cosy interior, wooden floors and, on the other side of the road, waterside terrace, before stopping at any one that tickles your fancy. Our fave, Ye Olde Smack (7 High St) is a cosy Greene King watering hole with secret terrace right on the water. Last pub on the stretch is the Mayflower (6 High St), which is also the place for fish and chips – and yes, more booze.

What else can I do? A gallery or museum, perhaps. Don’t miss the letterpress and gift store next to Hatch, local artists aplenty at Old Leigh Studios and, for history buffs, the Smithy, a heritage centre packed with facts. They’re all on the High Street.

Old Leigh
Many of the restaurants and pubs have terraces perched on the mudflats. Photo: SE

How about some further coastal walking? Not a problem. The area is a national nature reserve and the foreshore path is well-signed, with interesting flora and fauna plaques: you can follow it all the way to Southend, as we did, via the attractive beachside (sandy, please note) residential areas of Chalkwell and Westcliff. Look out for Brent geese in autumn, who fly in from northern Russia to feed on the mudflats. You might also see plovers, curlews and redshanks.

Where can I stay? We’ve only been day-tripping to Old Leigh, but you could try boutique hotel Hamiltons in nearby Southend.

For the latest on all things Leigh you could follow @leighonseacom or @loveleighonsea on Twitter. Like Essex? Read our guide to Mersea Island here.

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