Published: 00:00, 09 September 2017 |
Updated: 10:50, 09 September 2017
It is hard to imagine that less than 50 years ago Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey could give Southend a run for its money.
The two seaside towns are on opposite sides of the Thames Estuary, one in Essex and one in Kent, and in full view of each other.
They are both about 50 miles from London and have train services to the capital.
But where Southend has moved with the times, Sheerness is still locked in the past.
Back in the 1960s visitors arrived by the trainload and headed straight for the beach under the Welcome to Sheerness sign, long since taken down.
Armed with buckets and spades they made for the funfair to ride the rickety but exciting wooden Scenic Railway, the big wheel, ghost train, go-karts and giant slide.
Much of that is now gone, though a sandpit, paddling pool and solitary amusement arcade remains – as does the wreck of the Richard Montgomery.
But 10 miles away across the Thames the spirit of the seaside is still alive. The first thing you notice are the squeals of delight from the award-winning Adventure Island fun park.
It is the stuff of nightmares but it keeps people coming back for more. It also boasts an indoor play area when the inevitable rain comes.
The seafront is lined with amusement arcades. Sheerness only has one and that doubles as a bowling alley and night club.
But unlike Sheerness, it has fought back. A £50 million seafront regeneration programme led by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council has breathed new life into the area.
Little shops line the seafront selling postcards, souvenir tea towels, trinkets, buckets and spades, Southend rock and Rossi’s famous ice cream.
There are only two places in Sheerness selling 99-style cones and only one shop which stocks Sheppey postcards and sticks of rock. There do not appear to be any Sheppey tea towels for sale.
Among them was Swale borough councillor Cameron Beart who linked up with Cllr Ann Holland, Southend’s deputy leader and cabinet member for culture, tourism and economy.
Cllr Beart admitted: “Sheerness has lost its seaside feel.
"The first thing you notice at the end of Southend Pier is the number of restaurants, cafes and shops aimed at the tourist economy.”
There is a roaring trade in deckchair hire (£3 a day). There are no deckchairs for hire in Sheerness.
Next to the world’s longest pleasure pier – at more than a mile it needs its own train – the council has created an artificial lagoon to retain the sea as the tide goes out so youngsters can paddle in safety.
A man-made beach of sand has been added and there are toilets and open-air showers. There is also a restaurant with sea views.
There are no public toilets or showers on the beach at Sheerness. Or, indeed, a restaurant with a sea view. And there is no lighting along the promenade at night.
Southend shoppers have not been forgotten, either. The Royals Arcade and its pedestrianised precints boast a Debenhams, Primark and TK Maxx – all chains which have so far been immune to the lure of Kent's own holiday isle.
Pedestrians in Sheerness still have to dodge cars, buses and lorries despite a bypass - the Millennium Way - being just yards away.
In June, Southend announced an ambitious 10-year blueprint to make the town even better.
In Swale, consultants have been exploring ways to revive Sheerness, Blue Town and Queenborough since the start of the year. They have yet to present their report to councillors.
But a complete redevelopment of Beachfields between Tesco and the Catholic Church could be on the cards.
Of course, Sheppey is also steeped in history. Leysdown, now a holiday destination of its own with sandy beaches and acres of caravan homes, was the birthplace of British aviation where the likes of Winston Churchill learned to fly.
The former Royal Navy dockyard at Sheerness boasts the world's first skyscraper.
And Queenborough, which was once so important it had two MPs, holds the dubious distinction of surrendering to the Dutch.
It remains to be seen if the Island's past can catch up with its future.
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