Culture isn't necessarily the first thing you would associate with a seaside resort like Southend-on-Sea. But the town has plenty to offer in the form of galleries, festivals and museums if you're looking for more than just ice cream cones and deckchairs.
Culture in Southend
If you're interested in fine art or costume design, your first point of call should be the Beecroft Art Gallery, which is now in its new home on Victoria Avenue next to the Central Museum. The gallery – one of five venues run by Southend Museums – was previously located in a quirky Edwardian building originally donated to the people of the town by art collector Walter Beecroft. It has a permanent collection of over 2,000 pieces of art, ranging from 17th-century Dutch paintings to 19th-century artists, such as Constable and Edward Lear. The Beecroft also plays host to fascinating exhibitions, such as Construction, which explores ideas around the creation and projection of personal identity through garments and paintings, and has assembled impressive social history collections of bathing costumes throughout the ages.
Handily positioned next to Southend Central Train Station is the Focal Point Gallery within The Forum, a venue geared towards contemporary visual art which also hosts film screenings, talks and other performances. The gallery commissions solo exhibitions by artists such as photographer Catherine Hyland, who documents Essex’s modernist architecture. It also puts on shows such as Get Out and Push! looking at the British Free Cinema film movement of the late 1950s.
One of the most unusual galleries you'll find in Southend – or indeed anywhere – is the Estuary Gallery Barge in Leigh Marina. A floating art gallery run by Ian and Josephine James, it's generally open on Saturdays and bank holidays by arrangement and also when Leigh Art Trail is on. You can see exhibitions of Ian's fine art photography and Josephine's watercolour and mixed media paintings, as well as other works by guest artists. Regarded as a hidden gem, the barge also runs portrait sessions and photographic workshops.
Focal Point Gallery
Village Green Festival
Southend Central Museum
The whole of the summer season is an event in itself in Southend-on-Sea but for something a bit more cultural, you could do worse than plan your visit to coincide with the town's annual film festival taking place in May. Southend-on-Sea Film Festival has been going since 2009 and has had stars such as Paul Barber, Kevin McNally, Karl Howman, John Otway, Gillian Taylforth and Craig Fairbrass as guests in previous years. The festival's parton is none other than Ray Winstone, whose film credits include Sexy Beast and Last Orders, and it hosts screenings at various locations throughout the town. If you miss the main festival, there's a season of scary films in January as well, called Horror-on-Sea.
The Village Green Art & Music Festival will be back in 2019 promising a spectacular 10th-anniversary event. It pulls in audiences of around 25,000 to the idyllic grounds of Chalkwell Park and offers a vast range of events, from music, arts and comedy to poetry, food and dance. Previous events have attracted performers of the calibre of Kate Nash and Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly.
The most enduring of annual events in the town is Southend Carnival, which was first held as long ago as 1906 as part of a regatta to raise money for a local hospital. The Southend Carnival Association was formed in 1926 to further develop the event, which by then featured a procession of horse-drawn floats.
The carnival takes place in August, with the procession setting out from Southchurch Park and finishing on the seafront at Shorefield Road. Its 60 floats and acts make it one of the biggest of its kind in the UK, attracting around 20,000 people to Southend seafront – and the carnival now also runs other events throughout the year, such as a steam fair and beer festival.
It's no surprise that Southend Pier Museum is a popular attraction seeing as the town's pier is such an iconic landmark in the town. Find out more about this nostalgic trip down memory lane on our dedicated Southend Pier page.
However, there's more than just maritime history to keep you occupied on a rainy day. Southend Central Museum & Planetarium is well worth a visit. The museum – just around the corner from Southend Victoria station – houses numerous displays of local history items, including toys, games, photographs and WWII artefacts, as well as specialist exhibitions. Museum staff also run seafront walks during the summer uncovering the history of the Southend seafront.
The Planetarium is located on the first floor of the Central Museum and gives a fascinating insight into the night sky which will intrigue young and old alike. The 40-minute shows are suitable for most children aged seven and upwards but under fives are not admitted. Please note, there's no disabled access.
Leigh Heritage Centre is another recommended destination for culture vultures. Run by volunteers, it contains a mine of information about old Leigh-on-Sea and has a restored 19th-century fisherman's cottage adjoining it, which is a hidden treasure trove for history buffs. The heritage centre is based in a centuries-old smithy building in the centre of old Leigh, which was saved from the threat of demolition in the 1970s by the Leigh Society, earning it first prize in the Essex County Council Amenity Societies Scheme for conservation work.
In the beautiful surroundings of Priory Park, you'll find Prittlewell Priory, a medieval monastery with splendid grounds and a tranquil walled garden. There's also a lake with ducks and a Victorian bandstand where there are afternoon concerts at weekends in the summer. Add to that the priory's own museum and a children’s play area, and you've got all the makings of a wonderful family excursion. Originally founded in the 12th century and inhabited by Cluniac monks, it later became a private home in the Victorian era, before being bought by jeweller and philanthropist RA Jones, who donated it to the town.