As a coastal resort Clacton-on-Sea is relatively new, and it was primarily the vision of one man – Peter Bruff – that led to its development. Before the mid-19th century the spot was marked by just a beach, known locally as Clacton Beach – after the village of Great Clacton a mile or so inland – from where a few fisherman set sail. Bruff was engineer and manager of the Eastern Union Railway working nearby on the line connecting Colchester to Walton-on-the-Naze, and he realised that Clacton Beach was the ideal distance for a boat trip from London and, as the fashion for excursions grew, and the number of paddle boats in the area increased, the need for a landing pier to bring passengers ashore was clear. When land came up for sale in 1864, he bought it and his plan to build a seaside resort was underway. Under Bruff’s supervision, a wooden pier four yards wide and 160 yards long was constructed to act as a landing stage for goods and passengers. Opening in July 1871 it has been the most important feature of the town ever since.
The next part of Bruff’s scheme was to build a branch railway line to connect Clacton with the main line at Thorpe (now Thorpe-le-Soken), five miles inland and this duly opened in 1882. The town developed to Bruff’s master plan for a retreat for the ‘better off’ at the same time, with well-spaced buildings and wide roads, which fanned out from the new railway station towards the pier and the sea. Thus, within minutes of arriving in the town, visitors could experience refreshing coastal breezes and extensive views along the coastline.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were prosperous times for Clacton and the developments and architecture of this era, many catering for the needs for holidaymakers, has given the town its unique and pleasant character that can still be enjoyed by visitors today.
The Town Hall is also the home of The Princes Theatre, a traditional proscenium arch theatre built in 1931. Free behind the scenes tours, revealing aspects of theatre heritage, are available to visitors and these can be tailor made to suit the interests of groups. Amongst the fascinating information that Kai Aberdeen, general manager of the theatre, reveals is how some of the technical terms are derived from the parlance of sailors, for example the phrases ‘learning the rope’ and ‘crew’. The Princes Theatre has a fly tower and an impressive counter weighted system for raising and lowering backdrops; traditionally signals for scene changes were given by whistles by the technical crew, and for this reason an actor never whistles on stage in case it leads to an unexpected scene change with potentially unfortunate results.
Leaving the TIC and turning right you walk along Station Road towards the town centre, passing a selection of independent shops and cafes and more nationally known stores. Strolling, without stopping, this will take no more than five minutes, and leads directly to the Town Square where free events such as musical and theatre performances take place during the summer. Turning left into Pier Avenue, the sea is straight ahead, and amusement arcades, in Edwardian buildings on either side of the road, provide traditional seaside entertainment. If you are feeling a little peckish why not stop for a seafood snack from Tubby Isaacs seafood stall! You also walk past the former late 19th century Royal Hotel building on the left, an elegant Edwardian building that’s now being converted into luxury apartments for holiday lets.
Walk down a gentle slope through the Pier Gap and under the Venetian Bridge and Clacton Pier faces you, whilst amazing views along the coast are revealed by looking left and right. If you’d like to see more of the coast line, take a ride on a land train to Little Holland,
a couple of miles away, the return fare is £2.50 and the journey takes around 10 minutes.
It’s now a good time to explore Clacton’s famous pier, with its evocative address of No 1 North Sea. The pier was extended in 1893 to include a polygonal pier head to allow more steamers to land and this was complemented by a matching pavilion for musical performances, refreshment rooms and a waiting room. During the 1920s the Pier was expanded again gaining attractions such as an Olympic sized swimming pool and the Blue Lagoon Dance Hall. It’s still home to a funfair – some rides are covered and others, including a Helter Skelter and other traditional rides, are in the open air. The current owners of the pier, Elliot and Billy Ball, have invested considerable sums into improving its fabric and are redeveloping it sympathetically to include attractions now of appeal to a 21st century audience. The dance hall, for example, has become a popular diner, bowling alley and entertainment centre.
Promenading along the pier is free – attractions further down include a seaquarium and a fortune teller whilst at the far end the Jolly Roger restaurant overlooks the sea and makes a fine place to stop for refreshments, either inside or outside relaxing on free deckchairs (hired for a refundable deposit). Amazingly, the original wooden structure of the pavilion survives, and is preserved beneath a protective metal wrap. It is here that the author’s great grandfather, Henry Baynton, was musical director from 1895 to 1910, and the Balls hope to revitalise this old building in some way in the not too distant future. From the pier end, visitors can look back at Clacton, with its coastline stretching east and west. A £30 million sea defence regeneration scheme due to be implemented over the next couple of years will enable more sandy beaches to be created to the East of the Pier and this will be a real draw for visitors. Four miles out at sea a wind farm is a modern development – which provokes many differing comments from visitors.
Returning to the pier entrance, turn left to walk along the west seafront. Buildings along the lower Kings Promenade are being renovated, fully accessible changing rooms are being built and a beach front café, serving a range of drinks from coffees to cocktails has recently opened. Continue along the beach front walk for about five minutes to get to the Blue Flag designated Martello Beach, which is very popular for bathing and there’s a crazy golf game and the Beach Diner cafe. At regular intervals paths run up to the top of the cliffs so at any point you can decide to swap your beachside view to a more elevated one. The beach takes its name from one of three Martello towers in the town. The town’s long stay coach park is just beyond Martello beach and this is also a convenient starting and ending point for your group’s visit to Clacton.
When you are ready to return to the town centre, walk towards the pier along the Greensward, a lovely meandering grass lined promenade with lookout points over the sea and plenty of benches for a rest. The route takes you past another Martello Tower. Known as Tower F, it was built in 1810 as part of the defences along the east coast against the potential invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte. Since the mid-19th century the tower has had a variety of uses both military and civilian, and, uniquely amongst Martello Towers, its original draw-bridge and moat survive. Nowadays it’s a popular children’s petting zoo and also has attractive tearooms offering a selection of homemade cakes. It’s open every day during the summer season.
The upper promenade leads to Clacton’s Memorial Gardens. These beautiful gardens have been awarded a Green Flag, which is only awarded to gardens and parks that fulfil stringent criteria covering conservation and sustainability as well as having fabulous displays. The gardens, with its many benches and covered areas, make a good spot for enjoying some local seafood or a fish and chip lunch or a picnic. See the panel below for more information about the Gardens.
You can also take a ten minute detour away from the seafront, crossing Marine Parade West to Tower Road to visit the West Cliff Theatre and Arts Centre on Freeland Road, (a ten minute walk from the railway station.) The theatre dates back to 1894, with the present building opening in May 1928. The programme is varied with evening and matinee performances throughout the year.
Returning to the Memorial Gardens walk across the Venetian Bridge to the East Cliff. This bridge was built to link both East and West promenades in 1913 as part of a ‘General Beautifying programme’, which saw shops lining the Pier Gap being swept way and replaced by landscaped gardens.
Overlooking the Pier on East Cliff is a small fun fair on the upper level with steps down to Armstrong’s restaurant. This was the site of the town’s first bandstand, dating back to 1899, which eventually became the covered Band Pavilion. Post war it was the venue for many shows as it was capable of accommodating audiences of up to 3,000. Now owned by Billy Peak, the Band Pavilion has been converted into an indoor entertainments centre that includes ten-pin bowling and other games, and a waited service restaurant overlooking the sea that serves a wide choice of food including locally caught fish and chips. Sunday lunch concerts are a regular feature. Armstrongs takes its name from a former American heavyweight boxer who held featherweight, lightweight and heavyweight titles at the same time, and stayed in Clacton in 1936 training in the building. Groups are welcome to book in for all types of meals from morning coffee to high teas.
The upper promenade continues along the East Cliff, running alongside Marine Parade East, where there are many eateries. After about 10 minutes you come to the former Life Boat House, designed by Charles Cooke and opened in 1878. Initially boats were drawn from the boat house to the beach by horses, but by the 1890s lifeboats were kept on the pier and were launched from a special slipway. The quirky building is now a pub and has won the Tendring district real ale award two years running. Cross down to the lower beachside walk to return to Pier Gap and from there walk back through the town to the station and your coach at the pick up point.