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What does Southend have which Sheerness doesn't? Well...

By John Nurden

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.

Welcome to Sheerness - but the sign is no more

Welcome to Sheerness - but the sign is no more

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.

Sheerness the golden days when the beach was packed

Sheerness: the golden days when the beach was packed

There was a miniature golf course, tennis courts, bandstand and boating lake. There was a seafront cafe and pleasure boats offering trips around the “bomb ship”.

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.

 

Southend The entrance to Adventure Isalnd

Southend: The entrance to Adventure Isalnd

Southend Thrills on the £3 million Rage ride at Adventure Island

Southend: Thrills on the £3 million Rage ride at Adventure Island

Sheerness Amusement arcade with mural depicting the Richard Montgomery bomb ship.

Sheerness: Amusement arcade with mural depicting the Richard Montgomery bomb ship.

The frightening red and yellow £3m Rage ride flicks passengers round its 1,184ft track at speeds of up to 43mph with three inversions and a 72ft drop.

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.

Southend Outside shower to remove sand and row of public toilets on the beach

Southend: Outside shower to remove sand and row of public toilets on the beach

Southend Packed beaches with plenty of deckchairs to hire

Southend: Packed beaches with plenty of deckchairs to hire

Sheerness Award-winning beach with strips of sand and steps to promenade but no lighting at night, no public lavatories or showers.

Sheerness: Award-winning beach with strips of sand and steps to promenade but no lighting at night, no public lavatories or showers.

Like Sheerness, and many other seaside towns, Southend hit the doldrums with the advent of cheap flights abroad.

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.

Southend Every other shop sells ice cream

Southend: Every other shop sells ice cream

Sheerness One of two places we found selling ice cream

Sheerness: One of two places we found selling 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.

Southend Postcard of the seafront

Southend: Postcard of the seafront

Sheerness Postcard of a church

Sheerness: Postcard of a church

Last month the first passenger ferry for almost a generation linked the two towns and allowed curious Islanders to see what was across the water. It was an eye-opener.

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.

The Jetstream ferry which made the link between Sheppey and Southend

The Jetstream ferry which made the link between Sheppey and Southend

Both councils have expressed support for a new ferry service although it remains to be seen if any cash is forthcoming.

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.”

Southend Selection of seafront cafes

Southend: Selection of seafront cafes

Southend New seafront restaurant and artificial lagoon for safe paddling when the tide is out

Southend: New seafront restaurant and artificial lagoon for safe paddling when the tide is out

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.

Southend Car-free pedestrianised high street with Royals Arcade makes shopping a pleasure.

Southend: Car-free pedestrianised high street with Royals Arcade makes shopping a pleasure.

Sheerness Pedestrians still have to compete with cars, buses and lorries.

Sheerness: Pedestrians still have to compete with cars, buses and lorries.

Sheerness The underused Clock Tower plaza

Sheerness: The underused Clock Tower plaza

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.

Sheerness The sandpit - popular with many. Used to be a boating lake.

Sheerness: The sandpit - popular with many. Used to be a boating lake.

Suggestions include luxury flats, a leisure complex with inside and outside swimming pools, seafront restaurants, shops, a lagoon, marina, amusement park, fun fountains and a concert hall.

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.

Sheerness We found some Sheppey rock!

Sheerness: We found some Sheppey rock!

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