Pier to Peer: a tale of two weekends

Glorious Southend on Sea

In June this year our planned stay at Breedon Hall luxury B&B in Derbyshire fell victim to Covid; the host’s son had tested positive. Long-lost friends Charles and Charlotte were forced to cancel a full hotel – far worse for them than for us. For while they had no option but to isolate at home without guests, we were lucky enough to find a last-minute, albeit starkly contrasting option … Southend on Sea.

Being a Brighton Girl, a weekend at the seaside with pier, funfair, rolling waves and ice cream more than compensated for the disappointment; hotel options fell to an independent Boutique establishment or the Radisson Park Inn. Seduced by elegant images on the website of an assumedly more reliable Radisson, the latter won the day …. more on this later, but – in short – our choice was not a good one.

Southend itself is nothing short of a joy; an honest seaside town presenting all that one expects with aplomb and great cheer. Having asked via Italian Ice Cream in the UK Facebook page if any Families were serving in Southend, recommendations were duly made. On Friday evening our walk from station to hotel took us directly to Tomassi’s, where traditional Italian-Seaside fare is served in a swish interior. Here I virtually inhaled my first Chicken Kiev and Chips in about 30 years; BB enjoyed their house lasagne… all washed down with Chianti, of course. Too full to focus, we neglected to pick up a small bag and calling in the next day to retrieve it, met owners Antony and Giovanna Tomassi, whose warm welcome involved a portion of their contrastingly frozen signature ice cream. We were in heaven.

Saturday took us to Southend Pier, at 1.33miles (2.14km) it is the longest in the world; buffeted by British breezes we made our way to the end and celebrated with chips and mayonnaise. Making friends with Arthur, an elderly gentleman we heard about his colourful career in engineering and how his late wife loved their retirement home by the sea; now alone, he walks to the end of the pier and back every day the weather allows, to think of her as well as to keep himself fit and well. Arthur suggested a walk along the prom to Westcliff and having booked lunch there, we concured it was time to set of and returned to shore by way of the rather dinky pier train. Bathed in sun, sea-shore sounds and scents, the two-mile walk to lunch took no time at all.

The Oyster Creek Kitchen came recommended by Mr Tomassi, for it is owned by his sister and her daughter. Overlooking the sea, the fresh, chic interior and friendly welcome augured well. Moules for me and Wild Sea Bass for BB were both juicy, flavourful and well worth the walk … we were very very happy. It was good enough to book for Sunday lunch … but alas, they were of course, fully booked.

Meandering back to the Radisson we took a late afternoon catnap, for we had been walking for almost eight hours and despite the respite of lunch, were in need of a horizontal pause. The evening’s culinary treat would anyway require a brand new burst of energy.

At 7:30pm, refreshed and dressed for dinner we visited the hotel bar for a swifty before setting out; my need for a vodka martini was unfulfilled. It transpired that the bar manager had not appeared for work; cocktails did not feature in the untrained repertoire of an apologetic stand-in, so vodka tonic it was.

Duly sated, we stepped out for San Fairie Ann, a pretty and bohemian restaurant highly recommended by those locals to whom we mentioned it, but booked because BB’s favourite Beef Wellington was on the menu. It did not disappoint. Chatting with our cheeful server we learned that during the week she works in our neighbouring Shoreditch, and with two restaurant shifts every weekend she is saving for her own home. The smart and sassy owner, delighted to hear how happy we were with her restaurant and its glorious food, told us it was her first venture … and a very full one that night too.

Almost at our hotel, the jolly sounds of an Abba tribute band drew us to the bar across the road; sadly we were denied entry due to C19 restrictions so we plumped for Very Second Best in the Radisson bar where a surly DJ played a CD of 70s classics, with said bands performing on a screen in front of his deck. His audience demurred from dancing preferring instead to engage with their phones. For us one was enough and we retired upstairs.

Just an hour from East London, a Southend Day Trip is on the cards; for despite our Radisson Blues, the town’s own warm hospitality will certainly tempt us back for some seaside lunches.

During our earlier lives, one of the many Almost-Meetings between BB and me was set in Cambridge, for in the year I was learning how to be an Executive Assistant at a smart college on Bateman Street he was across the road, working through his last sixth-form year at The Leys. He at 17 a sweet-faced schoolboy and I, a pixie-haired newly liberated 19-year-old were not destined to get together just then.

Many moons later in this year’s September, I took his arm for his school reunion and a glance at my old secretarial college, one that I used to tell Cambridge University Boys was a new all-girls’ college, for none of them would otherwise engage with a Secretary.

Arriving by train, we walked through a much modernised station approach, past the Botanic Gardens and the former Marlborough Secretarial School – now a Sixth Form College – to the Hotel du Vin, chosen for the short walk to The Reunion and also reliably luxe and charming. The hotel, like all other Vins, is decorated and appointed with care and consideration for every guest comfort; the staff are without exception professional, friendly and kind. High five to you, Team Vin.

The Reunion was set against a live and professional jazz soundtrack. Taking place in a rather smart new cricket pavillion we met Old Boys ranging in age from around 25 to 85 taking in just one of BB’s peers. Wine and conversation flowed easily; we chatted with a farmer, a teacher, a manufacturer of equipment (shame on me, I can’t remember what sort), an engineer and a publisher, all interesting folk with tales to tell of school and beyond.

Over dinner at The Vin Bistro, we planned the next day, a task easily and amusingly achieved when encouraged by a really good bottle of Chateau Musar, for one of the pleasures of The Vin is that the wine cellars genuinely do justice to an accurate moniker.

Saturday was a walking day; we strolled along Trumpington Street heading for Cafe Foy, chosen for its independence, promise of locally sourced food and river setting. I can recommend The Foy for it delivered everthing promised, with charm and deliciousness; judging a place as I do by its coffee, The Foy has a firm stamp of approval.

From here we walked across the river to The Fellows House, an exemplar Hilton that houses art and sculpture by BB’s childhood friend Diarmuid Byron O’Connor, a marvellously eccentric talent whose work is found in settings as varied as Great Ormond Street (Peter Pan), the interior of Annabel’s and numerous private collections. Here in Cambridge we admired all six of his works in situ, each a curious, clever and compelling commentary on themes ranging from Cambridge bicycles to Alan Turing, CS Lewis, John Herschel and more. My personal visit glittered even more when I encountered the innovation of fellow entrepreneur and friend Martha Silcott; her genius, environmentally conscious and highly sustainable Fab Little Bag dispensers were resplendent in the Ladies Loo and prompted a swift congratulatory call. BB and I toasted our clever friends … and their contrasting talents.

A quick visit to the eclectic Kettle’s Yard took us past the familiar walls of Magdelene, scene of a climbing escapade or two and of course, the Pickerel Inn, home of many a rowdy evening. Then, a charity shop tour to satisfy a habit of mutual enjoyment, particularly fruitful in wealthier areas where top threads and more can be snapped up for not-a-lot; here, a warm triumphant glow arose by way of some very fine champagne flutes now in a cupboard at home poised for a fitting celebration.

Our substantial and late breakfast providing fuel enough for a return walk through town, we got as far as the FitzWilliam Museum before agreeing to take a cab to the station for our journey home, for we were sated with a full night and day in Cambridge. To the station we returned, tired, happy and content with our lot.

Thank you Cambridge for a dignified and arty stay.


The Full Review: Radisson Park Inn, Southend
Reader, do not be deceived: nothing in this hotel resembles images online. Reception was worse than tired. Unlike many other places, lockdown was not exploited for purposes of refurbishment or even a general tidying up. Worn packing tape applied to floors served to direct guests to the shabby front desk. An ante-area – gleaming on the hotel’s home page – featured stained sofa and scratched, faded furniture. Having paid extra for a sea view, our room looked onto a metal fence adorned with red danger sign. The sea was invisible from either within or without, the balcony being inaccessible as the door was fitted with a security lock.

Inside, a torn grey sheer nylon cover did not quite fit the bucket chair from which it was attempting to escape. A short rail was provided in place of a wardrobe, despite there being space for one. The bath plug was too small to fill the waste and so on. We showed Reception pictures of our room compared with those on the website; they concurred that the promise did not meet actuality and moved us the following night to a room from which we could enjoy both balcony and sea view. Here, the same worn decor applied, a universal standard that extended throughout the hotel.

At breakfast, lovely staff did what they could with components that shouldn’t feature in any hotel. Coffee machines produced a weak brown liquid, less than fresh bread circulated through an ancient toaster, undercooked bacon and eggs were returned for complete cooking. Here, as in our bar encounter above, a short-staff situation was to blame; the catering manager and chef had both failed to materialise and those who had arrived for work were filling the gaps as best they could.

Whilst the fabric of this hotel left far too much to be desired, the team that kept the cogs turning couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. I offered to write to Radisson management; Please write, they said. We have told them that things are bad here but they don’t care. No matter how hard we work to improve the situation, we can’t make miracles on our own. Management must hate us.

It is not easy to track down e-mails for Radisson management in the UK, so I messaged the group via Twitter and was told in cursory fashion to contact Customer Services; surely, if “service” held any resonance to these people, given our grievances they would have contacted me? The best I could do was write via LinkedIn to Mr Federico J Gonzales, allegedly CEO of Radisson Hotel Group; with over 500 connections he clearly uses the platform but chiming with our experience, his silence is no surprise.

Two guests I spoke with had been in the Southend Radisson Park Inn for a few days and couldn’t wait to leave; It’s been hell on earth, one said. We usually go to Spain. We thought if this was nice it might be easier to do it again next year. Never again.

With more of us forced to “holiday” in the UK this summer, British hotels had a golden opportunity to persuade us that the UK can offer as good an experience as a foreign holiday. During our two trips described here, the Radisson cost over £50/night more than the Hotel du Vin. They cannot seriously expect guests to accept shabby accomodation at high prices; nor should they treat staff without dignity and respect. That this hotel does both is testament to Management’s pitiful attitude to the business of hospitality. Were this hotel in the USA it would be closed down.

To concur with the guest above, never again.

© Giovanna Forte 2021

About fortewinks

A PA at 19 and self employed PR at 26, Giovanna is now a British healthcare entrepreneur and public speaker. She is also a bon vivant, mother of two accomplished, entrepreneurial daughters and recently became a Nonna. Youngest-of-All is a Melbourne Top 30 under 30 Chef and founder of monforteviennoiserie.com, the city's finest destination for pastries and soft-serve. FirstBorn is a published author as well as Certified Aromatherapy Practitioner; her studio is in East London and she can be reached through amaromatherapy.com.
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