Old Leigh, Leigh-on-Sea is a small fishing village in Essex, thirty miles east of London on the River Thames Estuary. It is known locally as, “The Old Town”. In the sixteenth century, it was a prosperous port capable of berthing large ships, but by the eighteenth century, Leigh’s deep water channel had silted up and the village reverted to fishing as its main income.
The arrival of the railway connecting it to London in the 1850s, changed the village dramatically. It was split in two and many timber-framed buildings, including the original Smack pub, were demolished. However, a new period of prosperity began as the fish and particularly cockles, could reach Billingsgate Fish Market much more quickly than by road or sea. The old railway station building is now used by Leigh Sailing Club.
Old Leigh, which is within walking distance of Southend Pier, is full of character. Old Leigh and particularly the High Street, is picturesque with old cottages, pubs, cockle sheds and excellent seafood restaurants, running alongside the water’s edge. This ancient fishing village is regarded as the centre for the supply of the world’s best cockles. Family fishing businesses still operate along the waters of the Thames Estuary and eighty percent of the harvest is exported to discerning restaurants around the world. Fortunately, enough cockles remain for visitors to enjoy, which are supplied fresh from the pubs, restaurants and cockle stalls, which line the High Street of Old Leigh.
The Boatyard Restaurant, famous for its fresh fish, has a dining area extending onto the quayside, with panoramic views across the Estuary to Kent. Simply Seafood, another renowned restaurant, is situated in a converted cockle shed. The Crooked Billet pub is a listed building, built in the early 16th century. It has a rendered brick frontage which covers the original timber frame. The Peterboat pub was destroyed by fire in 1982, but now completely rebuilt, is popular with families on sunny summer days. Ye Olde Smack is a traditional English pub, with a lovely terrace opening onto the Thames Estuary.
Bell Wharf Beach is a small sandy beach close to Old Leigh, ideal for younger children, or those wishing simply to relax. From here can be seen the working fishing vessels bringing in their catch.
In St. Clement’s Churchyard, set on a low cliff, is a memorial to the heroic fishermen of Leigh who went to rescue the British soldiers trapped on the Dunkirk beaches in June 1940. Four fishermen were killed and this memorial recognises the bravery and sacrifice of all the fishermen involved with this rescue.
The actress and Academy Award Winner, Dame Helen Mirren, grew up in Leigh-on-Sea.