Leigh-on-Sea shown within Essex
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Leigh-on-Sea (pronounced //), also referred to as Leigh, is a civil parish, in Essex, England. A district of Southend-on-Sea, with its own town council, it is currently the only civil parish within the borough.
The town of Leigh-on-Sea is situated on the northern side of the estuary of the river Thames, only a few miles from the open waters of the North Sea to the east, and a similar distance from the Kent coast to the south. The coastal environs of the town feature a nature reserve at Two Tree Island and a centrally located beach. At low tide, Leigh's forshore becomes characterised by a wide expanse of mud flats and creeks, extending out towards the deep water channel of the Thames, (Yantlet Channel).
Leigh-on-Sea is served by Leigh-on-Sea station on the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway. The town is accessible by bus with regular, daily services between Southend-on-Sea, Benfleet, Canvey Island, Basildon, Rayleigh and Chelmsford. Scheduled flights to and from national and European destinations are operated out of the nearby London-Southend airport.
From at least the Saxon period, a hilltop clearing amidst the woodland that covered much of the surrounding areas of Essex gave rise to human settlement and then came to be known as Leigh (alternatively given as 'Ley', 'Lee', or 'Lea', where shown on archaic maps). The place was of only very minor economic importance at the time of the Norman Conquest; a cursory reference to it is given in the Domesday Book survey of 1086, noted as Legra. This is a Norman-French literation of an Old English word meaning meadow or clearing, also a place-name element found in the nearby towns and villages of Hadleigh, Rayleigh, Hockley, and Thundersley. Although it was only a marginal community of homesteads at that time, the fact that five fishermen were recorded allows present-day Leigh to claim nearly a thousand years of activity as a centre of the fishing industry.
A medieval manor house, Leigh Hall (demolished in the early twentieth century), was once situated near the ancient manorial boundary of Prittlewell and Leigh. This manor house, and a trackway leading from it to a church on a nearby clifftop, predated what would grow to become the centre of modern-day Leigh-on-Sea and its primary, commercial thoroughfare (Broadway). The parish church, St. Clement's, dates from the 15th century, although its register of rectors refers to an earlier place of worship on the site in 1248. The fabric of the church is of Kentish ragstone, with a Tudor porch constructed of red brick. The medieval structure of the church was additionally added to and altered during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Leigh's formative, rural neighbourhood – agricultural hamlets, woods and pasture, situated among the crests and folds of hills which ultimately came to overlook a fishing and trading settlement on the shore of the estuary – gradually evolved from a rustic backwater, through eras of increasing and diminished maritime trade, to eventually form by the early twentieth century the western-most surburb of the borough of Southend-on-Sea.
History: Old Leigh
"[Leigh:] a proper fine little towne and verie full of stout and adventurous sailers."
-William Camden, (Elizabethan historian, 1551-1623).
The riverside settlement of 'Old Leigh', (also regarded colloquially as 'the old town'), was historically significant, situated as it was along the primary shipping route to London. From the Middle Ages until the turn of the twentieth-century, Old Leigh provided a market square and also hosted the village's earlier high street. Leigh had grown to become a prosperous port by the 16th century, ships as large as 340 tons were built here for fishing and other purposes. By the late 19th century however, Leigh's deep water access had become silted up, and the village began to decline in importance as an anchorage and port of call.
The main seafood catch from Leigh fishing boats has always been shellfish and whitebait. Many of the local trawlers were at one time bawleys, and two of Old Leigh's pubs - the Peter Boat and Ye Olde Smack- owe their names to types of local fishing boat, (peter boat, smack). Local fish merchants land, process and trade a wide range of supplies daily, including shrimps, lobster, crab, seabass, haddock, cod and mackerel, cockles, whelks, mussels and oysters.
With the advent of the railway line from London to Southend during the mid-19th century, much of 'the old town' was demolished to accommodate its passage, and new housing and streets began to be built upon the ridge of hills above the settlement. (The current railway station is situated near the western end of Old Leigh's cockle sheds and boat marina, replacing in 1936 the original station, which was situated opposite Bell Wharf.)
History: modern era
By the middle of the 20th century, Leigh had grown to become part of a larger, urban conurbation, extending further north, east and north-west, merging with the similar, residential areas of Eastwood, Chalkwell, as well as Hadleigh, a neighbouring town located in the adjacent borough of Castle Point. At this time, London Road and Leigh Road had also become established commercial thoroughfares, hosting a number of shops, workshops, industrial premises, and entertainment venues. (Broadway had transformed itself in the earlier Edwardian era, from a largely residential street into a commercial parade of shopfronts, as the town began to expand beyond the riverside activities of the quaysides and fishing community).
During the period of the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, Leigh-on-Sea experienced yet another period of marked change: the growing dominance of out-of-town, 24-hour supermarkets and similar retail parks, as well as the arrival and popularity of retail online shopping, brought a need for much local business to reinvent itself, either as venues for socialising, or to offer niche services and products to cater for the town's changing demographic. Bars, cafes and restaurants, boutiques, galleries and gift shops amongst other traders began to replace many of the traditional high street shops of the previous era.
In the wake of these changes, significant urban regeneration has followed and remains ongoing, attracting new residents to the town as well as helping accommodate a general increase in the population throughout the borough of Southend-on-Sea.
Festivals and activities
Several annual events are also well established: Leigh Regatta and The Leigh Folk Festival. The regatta is held over one weekend in September. It is organized by the three Sea Scout Groups based in the Old Town to raise funds for local Scouting and a nominated charity.
- Phil Cornwell, actor, comedian and impressionist
- Tina Cousins, singer
- John Fowles, author
- David Lloyd, tennis player and businessman
- John Lloyd, tennis player (brother of David)
- Helen Mirren, actress
- Peggy Mount, actress
- Vivian Stanshall, artist and musician. (Adolescent years spent in Leigh.)
- Michael Wilding, actor
- Amy Licence, author and historian.
- Phill Jupitus, comedian