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As Time Goes By: On The Pier

....She was in a dream. At the end of the pier life was transformed.

On the pier a mile and a half from the shore, there was freedom, fresh air, ice creams and sixpenny deck chairs to lounge in, listening to the orchestra playing selections from Noel Coward and Ivor Novello, with Jack Upton on the piano and Mr Seagrave the conductor in his white gloves. What bliss!...

Eileen Perrin recalls delicious 1930s holiday days in Westcliffe-on-Sea,

Eileen has the gift of being able to bring the past to life. To read more of her life story please click on As Time Goes By in the menu on this page.

In the summers of the 1930s Mum and I often used to go down to Westcliff-on-Sea for carnival week, to visit Auntie Lou my godmother. While they caught up with the news, I would sit in the garden, knitting, and admiring Uncle Valís roses.

The days of carnival week were filled with flower shows, baby shows, dancing displays, cricket matches, bands on the cliffs, water polo matches and a swimming gala in the sea-front salt-water swimming bath.

It started with the crowning of the carnival queen in Prittlewell Park. Then the procession passed down to the Kursaal on the front, and along the promenade as far as the white shelter near where we would be standing, and up the hill to end in Chalkwell Park.

The queen would be seated on a flower-decked float with her pastel-dressed ladies-in-waiting around her. Then came decorated lorries disguised as Neptune's court, a pirate ship, or a fairy dell with tots from a local dancing school, with flag-decked commercial vehicles from Howards Dairies, Garons Restaurant, local breweries, coal and bus companies bringing up the rear, accompanied by followers in every imaginable fancy dress, shaking collecting boxes and tin buckets or proferring shrimping nets to collect piles of pennies for the local hospitals.

During the week, we would go for a cockle tea in J Goingís shop near the pier. Soft white rolls and cups of tea were set alongside the small white china bowls of cockles on which we sprinkled chilli vinegar from the cruet on the marble-topped table. We watched other customers chewing on whelks, shelling big pink prawns, or topping and tailing plates of small brown shrimp. If you wanted to buy anything to take home, small woven straw bags fastened with a wooden skewer were available, but although I coveted a straw bag, I never had one.

In mid-week, Auntie Louís niece Margaret had come to stay. After lunch, we took a bus ride into Southend, and walked through to the Cliff Gardens to listen to the band. It was always hot sunny weather, The best seats were round the edge of the bandstand under the trees. We sat in striped deckchairs with tea on a tray, and I looked at the tight high collar of the band conductor, wondering how he felt in that serge uniform, remembering the old joke about the boy sucking a lemon in view of the tuba player.

On the day ending Carnival week the girls had been allowed to come down late to the pier to see the fireworks. Earlier they had pushed through the turnstile, hearing the sharp clacks as the man reversed the seat-backs on the little electric train before its return to the pier-head.
The hot day faded to a sunset fit for the Bay of Naples.

Margaret didn't say much. Eileen's heart was bursting with excitement and her imagination, free to blossom inside her head, opened to the possibility of romance. Over the Tannoy came the romantic songs of the thirties. Blue Moon, I Only Have Eyes for You...

As a young teenager she was in love with the idea of love, her dreams regularly topped up by frequent visits to the cinema with Mum, an equally ardent fan. On the pierís upper-most deck immediately above them the flags whip-cracked crazily in the sea breeze.

She looked along the rail and then back behind her. In the shadows between the block of stacked deckchairs a match flared, illuminating for a moment the face of a young man.

Now in the gloaming they had been waiting for well over an hour for the fireworks to commence, pressed tightly against the iron rail, as side by side they stood looking down at the flood-lit landing-stage. The black water beyond glittered in the moonlight and the shore lights so far away gave the impression they were together on an island. Sore feet meant nothing, nor the hard rail pressing on her ribs, as more people began crowding in behind. Discomfort was ignored in the mounting hope that some young man might come to stand nearby.
Margaret was several years older. Looking at her in the reflected lights Eileen envied the sophistication of those pierced ears, the row of pearls and dress of flowery chiffon, unsuitable for the cooling evening air, but thought essentially romantic for this occasion.

A shout went up. At the side of the pierhead a Verey light shot from the Lifeboat station bursting in the sky to announce the start of the Fireworks. Forgetting all notion of looking for boys Eileen was caught up in a child's enthusiasm as each bang, coloured flare, rainburst of stars followed as the display continued. Her heart soared with the rockets until she too felt like bursting with the joy of life itself.

"It's lovely, Margaret, isn't it lovely?"

It was all so beautiful, unreal and so many miles from her small bedroom in Islington which looked out on to the back of a fur factory. The only way she could see the stars at home was to press close to the window-pane to look up sideways at the oblong of night sky between the high walls.

She looked at Margaret whose head was turned away. A boy in an open-necked shirt and tweed jacket had appeared beside her. As they leaned over to see the Catherine wheels nailed to the framework on an extension of the landing place below them, a strident voice came from somewhere behind them.

"Can't you see, Ducks ?" and a small boy was pushed in front of them.

Then the last rocket and falling stars as a record played the National Anthem. The crowd started to move and the boy next to Margaret was called over to his mother. Reluctantly Eileen and Margaret walked along the board-walk, down the stairs to the waiting train.

Thrilled to be sitting on the wooden seat farthest away from those walking back down the pier in the moonlight, they seemed riding on the air itself. Eileen and Margaret glanced down over the rails at the dark sea below, savouring the moments, until through the turnstile once more they were walking away along the promenade to the bus stop, past darkened charabancs parked ready for tomorrow's Mystery Tours.

The gold, purple and red of the floodlit trees in the Never-Never-Land on the Cliffs shone through the windows of the bus as they drove along the front.

"There's the white shelter," said Margaret stifling a yawn."Next stop's ours - Chalkwell Park."

Eileen touched the cool brown arm next to her. "Margaret, I hope we go on the pier again tomorrow. It's my last day."

She was in a dream. At the end of the pier life was transformed.
On the pier a mile and a half from the shore, there was freedom, fresh air, ice creams and sixpenny deck chairs to lounge in, listening to the orchestra playing selections from Noel Coward and Ivor Novello, with Jack Upton on the piano and Mr Seagrave the conductor in his white gloves. What bliss!

A bell rang and the conductor called - "Chalkwell Park!" As they alighted the pavement was harsh to her feet. It looked unreal like a path on another planet.


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