In search of Southend's seaside for a British family holidayBy John Nichol Mail on Sunday
Last updated at 5:09 PM on 09th August 2009
Back in the olden days, children used to spend summer holidays enjoying simple pleasures - playing games in the street, riding bikes and, if they were lucky, going to the beach.
And because my childhood home was a few miles from the North East seaside town of Tynemouth, that's exactly what I did. Day after idyllic day, my mates and I would cycle the four miles to the coast and disappear for hours on end playing on the sand and fishing in rock pools.
There were no mobile phones, no one worried about the busy roads and the term 'stranger-danger' hadn't even been coined. And as long as you took a packet of sandwiches and a bottle of squash, it was largely free. It was innocent, timeless fun. And, most importantly, it was home-grown.
In stark contrast, the youth of today think it normal to jet all over the world to exotic locations in search of sun, sea and sand. Indeed, my four-year-old daughter, Sophie, has already frolicked on the beaches of the Cayman Islands, cruised - in considerable luxury - the French canal system and sailed around Honduras and Belize.
Obviously, then, she is immune to my endless lectures on vacation frugality and tired of the 'we used to live in a cardboard box' stories of Geordie life in the Seventies. But she has inherited my love of the old-fashioned British beach holiday and delights in visits to her grandmother's home in the North East.
It is entirely normal to see three generations of the Nichol clan, wrapped up in waterproofs, hats and scarves, leaning into the wind to build sandcastles and dipping toes into the icy seas of Tynemouth beach in midwinter.
Sadly, because we live in Hertfordshire, visits north are sporadic. So, in an effort to fulfil Sophie's desire for sand between her toes, I consulted my road map to find a suitable venue for a weekend break at the coast. I was confronted by the initially unpalatable fact that our nearest seaside resort was Southend.
My mind filled with stereotypical images of barely clothed bottle-blonde ladettes, tottering around in white, six-inch stilettos, pursued by dribbling youths displaying their dubious driving skills in souped-up Ford Escorts.
Indeed, one travel guide damns Southend thus: ' Pugnacious and brash . . . unless you're after tacky arcades, flash amusement rides or sleazy nightspots, there's not much to do.'
Not a resounding recommendation, then. But I cast my inhibitions aside and the Nichol family duly decamped from commuter suburbia to make the hour's drive to the Essex coast.
But my initial fears ( possibly prejudices?) were cast aside as we drove along the seafront to squeals of delight from the young back-seat passenger.
Yes, there were fish and chip shops every few yards. Yes, the amusement arcades rubbed shoulders with shops selling candy floss, rock and myriad cheap tat. Yes, OAPs dozed in deckchairs with hankies on their heads.
But that's the whole point, isn't it? This is the very essence of a family holiday by the sea - it's what makes Britain so great.
Southend-on-Sea gained popularity as a seaside resort after that good-time lover of excess, the Prince Regent (the future King George IV), took his wife Caroline there to enjoy the healthy climate.
The idea was that the sickly Caroline should bathe in the waters in an effort to improve her health. But, not least because the Princess was renowned for some 'personal hygiene issues', George used to abandon her in Southend while he indulged himself in more upmarket Brighton.
Today, Southend is Essex's largest town and the population of some 175,500 host nearly three million visitors each year.
Accommodation varies greatly in quality and price. An internet search found basic family rooms as expensive as £250 per night.
But then I discovered a gem. The Ilfracombe House Hotel, a five-minute saunter from the beach, offers twobedroom self-catering apartments from just £75 a night. And that included a sumptuous English breakfast for all three of us. OK, it may not have been five-star luxury but it had a well-equipped kitchen and the lounge and both bedrooms had TVs and DVD players. It was clean, comfortable and perfect for our family.
Still, the squeals of delight seemed to suggest that this didn't affect Sophie one iota as she built countless sandcastles and transported bucket after bucket of seawater to fill ever-leaking moats.
Once the sun went down, we relocated to Adventure Island and its multitude of, in my opinion, terrifying rides. But Sophie gets her courage from her mother's side of the family and she enjoyed stomach-churning rollercoasters, dodgems and waltzers.
We spent most of the weekend in the open but there were enough covered activities, such as Sealife Adventure or Kids Kingdom, to cater for rainy days.
It was an exhausting few days but the Nichol family loved it. We enjoyed old-fashioned seaside pleasures: sunhats, sand in our socks, melting ice creams drizzled in red goo and fish and chips laced with vinegar, washed down with fluorescent fizzy drinks.
Despite my initial reservations, Southend provided a magical family holiday.
We will certainly go back.
Medic: Saving Lives - From Dunkirk To Afghanistan, by John Nichol and Tony Rennell, will be published by Penguin in October, priced £20.