Harwich is an under-estimated gem and this plucky Essex port town which faces Flanders across the choppy North Sea has long been a favourite of mine. The older quarters of the town have a rackety, ruffian-like charm, especially at night and as dawn approaches, the seagulls awaken, wheel about, and search for discarded chip wrappers, and the noises from the nearby port carry on the wind as the rest of Harwich sleeps on. And the light here can be mesmerising. Look at the painting [above] of Harwich Lighthouse by John Constable, completed around 1820 in the small-scale Dutch manner that was so popular at the time. Both of the town lighthouses were leased at the time of their painting by Constable’s friend and patron General Rebow of Wivenhoe Park who was responsible for their maintenance and received tolls from passing ships and Constable would also spend time upriver at Flatford and Dedham, capturing on canvas the more bucolic nature of the River Stour as it wends its way through the valleys of South Suffolk. His view of Old Harwich remains fairly unchanged though, and the place oozes history, so after a recent 48 visit to the region, here’s what we found.
The town has been built at the tip of a small Essex peninsula in a grid pattern conceived and built in the 13th Century by the Earl of Norfolk, so as to best exploit its strategic position at the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour. The streets around its old port are lined with buildings dating back as far as the sixteenth century and at night when the mists push in from the sea, the tiny alleyways seem to swirl with the ghosts of the sailors and smugglers who lived and died here. Ports are a curious melding of pragmatism and romance, their growth stretched across centuries of struggle and aspiration, graft, malfeasance, blood, sweat, and tears, and facing a horizon which taunts with a promise of adventure and escape. A port town is both the end and the beginning of it all.
Harwich’s alleyways would have proved very useful as tumultuous press gangs chased their prey and sailors used them to give their assailants a run for their money which could sometimes result in a fair amount of damage to property. Many of the old inns were connected by tunnels so that local men could more easily escape from these press gangs. To add to the chaos, local sailors, smugglers, publicans, and town officials possessed competing interests as demonstrated by an event in 1794 when Lieutenant William Coller was leading a press gang in Harwich. Coller and his gang of men were about to seize three sailors hiding inside a pub called The Royal Oak and the publican shut the door in his face. This prompted lots of outrageous (and pompous) blustering from Lt Coller who demanded the man have his licence revoked. When you realise that many publicans along the coast were involved in smuggling and were in cahoots with local sailors then his anger appears more contextual, especially so as the whole set-up was an unpredictable mess of conflicting loyalties, both familial and fiscal.
Remember Samuel Johnson on sailing as a profession?
“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.”
[Boswell: Life- and Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson. It is unclear what inn they dined in the night before]
The town location took advantage of the effects of a storm surge in the 1100s which had already created the largest natural harbour between the Humber and London. This harbour was so large that in the 1600s the entire British Navy could fit into it and when the English Fleet returned from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, they put into Harwich Harbour. Harwich became a destination for serious sailors: Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher all sailed from the town during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and she herself travelled to the town to inspect the shipyard in 1561, staying at what was a medieval aisled hall in the High Street. Lord Nelson also visited Harwich in his ship Medusa in 1801 to assist in the formation of Sea Fencibles, a naval local defence force. The arrival of the Great Eastern Railway from London in 1854 put the town on the map, transporting thousands of Victorians to the port where they could be in Rotterdam or Zeebrugge 14 hours later, thanks to steamers which puffed their way across the notoriously short-tempered sea. Cheap flights mounted their own challenge but commercially the port remains vital to the town’s livelihood and many people still opt to enter and exit the UK via Harwich which has become become Britain’s second largest passenger port and is also designated a Haven Port where maritime traffic can shelter in inclement weather.
And that’s not all of Harwich’s illustrious seafaring history either. Centuries ago, in early September 1620, a wooden ship set sail from a port en-route to the brave new world of America, 3000 miles away over an unfamiliar ocean. The ship was the Mayflower and although Portsmouth claims to be the Pilgrim Fathers point of departure, some historians and locals are adamant that the ship was built in Harwich which was also the home town of its captain, Christopher Jones who lived at 21 Kings Head Street.
I love a good historical argument and claims that the Mayflower may have made only a brief stop-over in Plymouth as it began its journey have rattled a few Devonian cages. The ship has been described in some port documents as ‘The Mayflower of Harwich’, and its chief builder/owner was a Harwich native, implying that the town may well have been where the epic voyage began. Passengers embarked at the East End docks before it sailed on to Southampton and then Plymouth and some of its passengers came from Essex (at least four of them). But did the Mayflower first sail up the Thames from Harwich?
John Acton, a backer of the Harwich scheme to reclaim the town’s place in Mayflower history, said: “History tells us that Mayflower was only there [Portsmouth] to take on supplies and to pick up passengers from an accompanying ship that sprang a leak. The Americans are hugely interested in the Founding Fathers, who had very strong ties with this region. Many of the towns in the north-east United States have names like Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich, Colchester, and Harwich, which reflects the closeness with East Anglia. We want them to know that the real home of Mayflower is here in Essex, not in Devon.”
Samuel Pepys was once Harwich’s MP and held the position of Secretary to the Navy (1679-1685) and now, the Harwich Society maintains records of the town and manage local historical monuments which open to the public. Even if you only have a day to explore the town, there is much that can be seen including a visit to the yard where the Mayflower Project is constructing a replica of the famous ship that sailed to America. The Project intends to sail to America in 2020 in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of that famous journey and in the process, reclaim what they feel is Harwich’s central place in the Mayflower story.
Then there’s the circular Redoubt Fort, which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars and has a diameter of 180ft and ten guns sitting on its battlements. The fort was capable of housing 300 troops in eighteen casements but it was never called into use although its construction resulted in the deaths of local people during the 1953 floods that hit Harwich. The excavation of soil at nearby Bathside in order to build the forts earthworks meant Bathside was pushed below sea level. Seawater came in through a breach in the sea wall and was prevented from ebbing away, resulting in the loss of eight lives.
A Maritime Heritage Trail can be followed and the Ha’Penny Pier Visitor Centre on the Quay offers guided walking tours throughout the summer. The Historical Society recommends starting out from the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum and Lifeboat Museum (you can get climb aboard the lifeboat too) and walking to the Barge Murals which overlook the site where Thames Sailing Barges were built up to 1930. Look out for the Treadwheel Crane, built in 1667 to a Roman design, which resembles a massive, human hamster wheel because of the way two men powered the crane by walking within it, dangerously without a restraining brake system.
Available to visit on request is the old Radar Tower, at Beacon Hill Fort, which was the first radar installation of the second world war. (Ask at the Harwich Visitor Centre.) Should you wish for more sedentary entertainment, the gorgeous Electric Palace Cinema has a programme of films and events. It was built in 1911 for Charles Thurston. the well-known East Anglian showman, and is the oldest unaltered purpose built cinema in Britain, boasting the actor Clive Owen as patron. The cinema’s silent screen, original projection room and ornamental frontage remain relatively intact and interestingly, Friese Greene, the inventor of cinematography, lived in Dovercourt, a short stroll away and home to good quality sandy beaches and a genteel promenade.
Back in Harwich, there’s the charming L-shaped Half’Penny pier, so named for the halfpenny toll charged when it opened in 1853 (the pier also used to be the site of transfer from the boat train to the ferry) although visitors no longer have to pay. Return to the quayside and cross over to The Pier hotel which was built in 1852 in Italianate style to resemble a Venetian palazzo and overlooks the pier- the hotel dining rooms have fantastic views of the huge cruise liners and tankers that pass by on their way to the port. The Pier Hotel’s jolly white stucco and blue painted frontage is topped-off by an octagonal lantern on the roof and the bedroom annex is in sight of the red and white Trinity House lightship that was featured in Richard Curtis’ film, The Boat That Rocked, about the pirate radio ship, Radio Caroline, that was anchored off the coast nearby and broadcast day and night to thousands of teenagers living in Suffolk and Essex, myself included.
The Alma Inn was once the home of Sara Twitt who married Christopher Jones, the local man named as master and part-owner of the Mayflower in an Admiralty document, and we spent an evening in the pub, listening to the live band and eating some of the best fish and seafood we’ve ever had. Just a few steps away from the quayside and at the heart of old Harwich, it has been a pub since the 1850s, is one of Tendrings finest CAMRA pubs and feeds its guests seven days a week on what is describes as contemporary food with an Iberian twist.
Directed to a private room at the back of the inn decorated with a piano in one corner and a light fixture made up of barnacle-encrusted bottles [the spoils of the beachcomber], we gorged ourselves on a seafood platter, (oysters, dressed crab, roll mop, North Atlantic prawns, cockles, home-cured gravadlax, smoked mackerel paté, all served with bread and a butter sauce), added in a charcuterie platter too, (jamon Serrano, chorizo picante, salchichon Iberico, iomo, chorizo artisan, manchego with membrillo, olives, potato tortilla caperberries, olive oil, aioli, bread) and ate a side dish of fried and battered artichokes with parmesan. A deep bowl of sea bass with a rich sauce, softened potatoes and sherry lined our stomachs for the next course, dozens of Mersea Island rock oysters [silky, plump and buttery with a creamy-white heel and lots of ozone-fresh juice], served by the wonderful Pascal who [deservedly] seems to be a local legend. Oysters taste great when they’re washed down with pints of stout and they’re astoundingly good with a little champagne or other fizzy white wine poured into their shells, prior to eating, which gives them the fizzy kick of a 12 -volt battery. Not to everyone’s taste but most definitely mine and that of the Marquis De Vauvert who had this to say about the oyster:
Delight of our appetites,
Oyster, flee the liquid plain;
Enter the pomp of the feast,
Leave this perfidious element,
And, since you must die, rather die in wine.
There’s locally caught crab and lobster at the Alma, the latter sold by the weight and carried through the pub straight off the boat, and after posting photos on social media, I was deluged with people declaring their love for the place. They do accommodation in rooms, some of which have mullioned windows framing the same sea-view that Sara and Christopher Jones would have enjoyed. There’s no corporate mundanity, room-wise, (one resembles a ship’s cabin) as their descriptions on the website bear out: “There’s a pronounced slope to this room so roller skating is not allowed but people with one leg longer than the other will feel right at home.”
It would be a shame to be so close to Wrabness and not visit A House For Essex which is perched on a hill overlooking the Stour estuary, and exists as a monument not only to Grayson Perry’s artistic sensibilities but also to an Essex single mother who exists only in his imagination. Inspired by follies, shrines, eccentric homes and fairy tales, this two-bedroom House for Essex is inspired by an imaginary woman called Julie who was born in Canvey Island in 1953, was a former hippy and Greenham Common protester and went on to marry a refinery worker called Dave. After two children and an affair which killed their marriage. Julie went on to marry Rob, who commissioned the house in her memory after she was knocked down and killed by a takeaway delivery driver in Colchester.
It is the Taj Mahal of Essex, a secular chapel in other words and Perry’s character study informs every aspect of its design from the copper-gold alloy roof, frog-eye dormer windows and fertility figure weathervane (Julie as mother of us all) to a cladding of bas-relief tiles which bear carved depictions of cassette tapes and nappy pins alongside Julie’s name and her pregnant image. The shape and location reminded me of a restored tin tabernacle and its metaphors and references seem deliberately inconsistent, as if its creator has nostalgically bought up the entire stock of the nearest head-shop and Fair-Trade emporium after returning from a gap-year spent annoying the locals across three continents.
Perry was commissioned to design the two-bedroom holiday home by Living Architecture, an organisation that aims to enhance Britons’ appreciation of architecture through opening individually designed holiday lettings (there is also a Balancing Barn in Suffolk). It has had a mixed reception locally and persuading the council to grant permission to demolish the old farmhouse that once inhabited the site was a challenge. To gain the assent of local councillors and planners, Perry organised a presentation in the village hall and explained his vision of the English countryside as punctuated with strange and wonderful things. This particular site, with Wrabness railway station behind it, the cranes of the docks in Harwich and Felixstowe to the left and right and a scenic coastal pathway that runs downhill alongside the house and takes walkers along the Stour estuary is the result of a dynamic tension between art, nature, industry and farming. And, in the middle of this, Essex people live, leave their stamp and die.
Despite this, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth. The house celebrates the life of a working class local woman yet guest-stays there (which are granted via a ballot process) are not priced so ‘ordinary’ working class or even middle-class people can afford it. Living Architecture was created by Alain de Botton to allow people to experience staying in unusual living spaces created by great architects and artists [their words, not mine] but really it’s about wealthy and indulged people staying in unusual living spaces created by artists and architects.Imagine the Facebook posts of the fortunate few: Crispin and Tabitha– feeling blessed at Julie’s House by Grayson Perry.
Either way, you fork out at least £1800 for a weekend stay and find this will include hordes of tourists peering through the gate and in the windows and a bracing smell of horse dung from the stables next door. That’s a lot of dosh for no privacy. The garden is sere and left deliberately empty, which is odd because I didn’t think a tribute to Julie’s [imagined] existence would fail to take into account the likelihood that Julie would landscape her garden, even if it might include (as my Essex-resident friend joked) broken prams, a discarded washing machine, a few straggly petunias and a wind chime.
If you don’t drive, the estuarine pathway at Wrabness is easily accessed because the railway station lies behind Julie’s House- Wrabness is situated on the branch line to Harwich. The Mayflower line is the name given to the route from Manningtree and it dates back to 1854 when the line was built to provide connections with steamers bound for the continent. As you walk down the hill, the views of the estuary open up and the red-brick buildings of the Royal Hospital School interrupt the horizon of the Stour’s north bank. The school has close links to the Royal Navy and its pupils are the only ones permitted to wear naval uniform.The port of Harwich lies to the east and Felixstowe can be seen to the west and beyond Harwich, the River Stour reaches its confluence with the River Orwell which flows through the Suffolk county town of Ipswich to the open sea.
Keeping left, a walk alongside the river joins the levée beside the saltmarshes which are a popular feeding site for many species of bird, then, after a meandering route which takes you upwards into the surrounding fields, past a caravan site, the down again towards wooded headlands and sandy beaches dotted with chalets, you will arrive at Wrabness Nature Reserve. This 50-acre site is run by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is located on the site of a former MOD depot where sea-mines were once stored.
There are pathways through farm and grazing land, woods, intertidal mudflats and saltmarshes and the keen of eye will spot woodpeckers, kingfishers, avocets and oystercatchers and the red spring plumage of the knot, whilst black-bellied dunlins dabble away at the watery mud for molluscs and worms.
In spring, nightingales soar overhead then swoop down to hide in newly-leafed hedgerows, their song carrying for miles, whilst Brent geese feed and fatten up before departing for their Arctic summer breeding-grounds. Swallows are newly arrived, streaming over fields of rapeseed already well in flower and the plants buttery scent mingles with the rich salt-mud of the river. Blackcaps, white-throats and blackbirds add their voices to the waterside choir of terns, curlews, and water fowl all the way to Copperas Bay. The woodlands edging the river are thick with stitchwort and the yellow stars of newly opened celandines which feel waxy to the touch. We saw wood anemones, primroses and dog-violets whilst wood-spurge (euphorbia robbiae) had seeded itself liberally and its lime-green floral spume looked particularly striking next to silver birch.
I’ve also heard good things about the Ha’penny Brasserie on the Pier, which is currently being refurbished and due to open in May 2016. Oxleys deli in Dovercourt is praised as is the 16th century Samuel Pepys wine bar which also has rooms. There’s a festival towards the end of June and in May, the annual God’s Kitchel throwing ceremony has historically taken place in the town. Staff at The Cabin Bakery in Dovercourt bake the 400 kitchels (fruited flat cakes).