3b – Leigh-on-Sea to Two Tree Island

Leigh-on-Sea has existed as a centre for many, many years.  It was around long before Southend-on-Sea, but became a suburb of the larger town when Southend grew rapidly as a tourist resort.  Leigh is in fact recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, as “Legra”, although it had become known as “Leye” by 1254.  The name probably comes from the Old English “leah”, which means “meadow”.  Leigh became Leigh-on-Sea in the 19th Century, the suffix being added to make the area sound more attractive as a tourist resort.

In the Middle Ages Leigh was a large port, in fact the largest between Harwich and Gravesend, and it was a centre for shipbuilding.  There is evidence that the Mayflower, the Founding Fathers’ ship, was either built, kept, or docked there before setting off for the Americas.  However, Leigh Creek slowly became silted up over the years, causing a slow decline in the shipbuilding activity there.  By 1650 it was no longer the shipping port it had once been.  Today, only small boats are able to navigate the tidal creek in order to reach the harbour.

Leigh-on-Sea at low tide – all silted up!

As well as shipbuilding, Leigh was also a major centre in the oyster trade, and there were many oyster beds in the area.  In 1724 a group of approximately 500 fishermen came over to Leigh from Kent, raiding the town and taking as many oysters as they could.  These they took to London and sold.  These men were eventually taken to court and fined £7,000, a huge sum of money in those days.  As a result of the raid and the subsequent glut of oysters on the market a sharp fall in prices was recorded.

Given its age, Leigh-on-Sea has a number of historic buildings, many of them pubs.  The Crooked Billet dates from the 16th Century and is one of the oldest buildings in the town, although I have to say I was expecting a far quainter and more rickety building than the flat and flat walled and smooth finished pub that greeted us.  When the Peter Boat Inn was burned down in 1892, secret smuggling rooms and tunnels were discovered underneath.

We stopped in Leigh to get the kids a chocolate ice cream each (how children are happy to eat ice cream in cold weather I’ll never comprehend).  I looked longingly at the ale pumps through the windows of the pubs we passed, but we had to head on and finish the walk before our parking ticket ran out back in Southend.

At the western end of Leigh the old town comes to an end at the station.  Here, a path leads south and then west, leading along Leigh Creek to Two Tree Island.  The creek at this point effectively becomes a marsh, home to boats in various states of dereliction.  One boat in particular caught our eye.  Its timbers had shed their paint and plants were reclaiming the vessel which was slowly being accepted back into the wild.  It was a strangely beautiful sight.

Two Tree Island itself is accessed via a bridge which is strong enough to support small vehicles, and with a couple of large car parks it seemed to us to be a dog walkers’ haven.

Two Tree Island was reclaimed from the sea in about 1640, and is divided into eastern and western halves by a central road which slices it down the middle.  The two halves are believed to have been owned by different farmers, as each has its own link to the mainland.  The western half was known as Haughness and the eastern half Oxfleet.  It is just over 1.5 miles in length, and got its name from two elm trees which stood at its eastern end until they fell victim to a storm in 1965.  They were the only tall trees on the island, and today most of the vegetation remains at low level.  From its northern side there are good views north to the ruins of Hadleigh Castle which dates back to 1230.

The island was bought by the Salvation Army in 1890, but they sold it to Southend-on-Sea Borough Council in 1936.  The Council used it as a rubbish tip, the effect being that the ground level was raised by some 15 feet.  By 1965 Oxfleet was full, and was capped off with a layer of earth.  By 1985 Haughness was also full and capped off.  In 1968, as the vegetation began to grow back on Oxfleet, a small wildlife reserve was established, growing into what is today part of the Leigh National Nature Reserve.

We finished our walk around Two Tree Island and picked up a taxi at Leigh-on-Sea station to take us back to our car.  The children had walked 8 miles today, a record for them, and they both said they could have happily gone further.  We were proud!  The next stage of our walk will begin at Two Tree Island car park where, I am pleased to say after the expense of parking at Southend, there is no parking charge!

Points on this walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • Peter Boat Inn:  N 51° 32.410 E 000° 39.000
  • Two Tree Island Car Park:  N 51° 32.246 E 000° 37.775
  • Hadleigh Castle:  N 51° 32.659 E 000° 36.535

Walk #3 Statistics:

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