One year ago on the evening of Monday 23rd March 2020, I made a getaway from London. To say I escaped to Basildon doesn’t quite sound right; but that’s what happened. I’d first travelled over on the Friday 20th, not sure for how long, and as the weekend progressed I realised this might be a longer evacuation. So Steve and I both travelled to mine on Monday to grab as much of my stuff as possible. We arrived in Brockley as Boris was giving his ‘We’re going into a National Lockdown tonight’ speech. I took my bicycle, bike pump, laptop, loads of clothes and basil plant for what could be months.
I had never thought I would want to live in this brexit/ukip hinterland. After 4 and a half years together however, I’d been starting to spend more time at Steve’s in the last few months. We’d discovered some favourite local walking places and quirky pubs. Like Barge Gladys in Benfleet – a pub on a boat, firmly entrenched in the mud, and the 1980s. And just since the Autumn of 2019, our new top hang-out was The Railway pub in Southend. This is a place with a community we could belong with; lots of live alternative music, vegan food, environmentalist activists… Finding it accidentally one evening on our way back to Southend station, was like catching sight of an oasis in Mali. What one had imagined might be a rough dive of punch-up posturing, past the next bronze dune was a cool spot.
In an area where I have seen tourist gift shops unashamedly displaying golliwog dolls in their shop windows, the faded seaside glamour of the beachfront arcades and fast food smells are reassuring only because their commitment to existence suggests gentrification will upcycle its way into other areas first, before it manages to gain a beard trim round there. I like my non-dairy chai latte don’t get me wrong, but in a fibre optic speed changing world, some places staying the same since my childhood can feel oddly grounding. It suggests old communities are probably still intact too.
I exaggerate for there have been changes – pretty lit-up fountains with changing colours by the pavement, and bright beach hut-like smoking shelters along with all the public loos catering for junkies. And the Summer seaside crowds are multi-cultural families of every shade splashing in the sun from Shoeburyness to Chalkwell. I don’t know what they think about those dated gift shop relics, or what it’s like in school. But their colours, fabrics and international head pieces are gloriously taking up space next to us, whoever we are. I’ve seen people who are not white in The Railway too, as it is a pub where intergenerational everyone is welcome who respects our togetherness.
We’d seen the tall black Victorian facade of The Railway, from Southend station platform on our way home from walks. One day we passed in front of the building and saw the sign above its door; ‘Fuck Boris – Migrants Welcome’; the vegan menu on the wall, and notices for live music gigs. This was a promising sign I had not expected, like finding a new place to call home sometimes. Quickly we became devotees, wondering how we hadn’t known about it before. In a way like other parts of Southend, it can seem in a time warp. Both Steve and I used to love going to indie and alternative music gigs in small venues in the early 90s. We didn’t know each other then though our paths could have crossed in the London scene. This Railway place looks and feels like that; unchanged in a good way. It may be the only place like it for miles, so some of its clientele probably travel a way to be there.
Ever since we made that discovery, I had given up a portion of resistance to moving in with Steve or living in that direction. The lockdown getaway therefore came at a time when I was ready. Even if we couldn’t go to The Railway for a few months, I now had faith there were people I’d like to be friends with a bit closer by, and a place where they can gather when lockdown passes. And during the last year that I’ve spent Much more time in the area, each walk venturing in a slightly new direction reveals more curiosities, where I’ll want to delve and uncover. It can take a while to properly see what lies beneath the surface sometimes, and that’s what keeps this South Essex coast and riverbank way appealing and exciting. There is treasure in the marshland; under the pier, behind the theme park and in the backstreets of town. A place which keeps surprising, and where what at first may look ugly, could be in transition.