I’m sitting in the dining room of the Pier Hotel in Harwich, enjoying a delicious breakfast of poached eggs and haddock, when a Stena Line ferry passes the window, bound for the Hook of Holland. It is a timely reminder that this compact peninsula, surrounded by the North Sea on three sides, has always been an important gateway to the Continent, with a proud maritime heritage to match its modest size.
I first came to Harwich 30 years ago, to catch that ferry, but the terminal is a few miles inland, on the Stour Estuary, so when I got off the train at Harwich International, where ferry passengers on board, I had no idea it was Harwich. that it had such a historical place. Stay on the train for two more stops and you will discover an ancient enclave that played a central role in some of the most dramatic events in our island’s history. A cluster of narrow streets flanked by Georgian, Jacobite and Tudor houses, it has hardly changed since Nelson lived here.
At the confluence of the rivers Stour and Orwell, Harwich has seen its fair share of conflict: Bloody Point, across the bay, named for a sea battle in 885AD between King Alfred and the Vikings; in the 14th century, English armies sailed from here to France to fight in the Hundred Years’ War; at the end of the First World War, the German U-Boat fleet came here to surrender.
Between battles, Harwich used to be a popular holiday destination, but like many seaside resorts it had cheap flights to Spain, and if it hadn’t been for my friend Madeline Smith, I might have taken with the modern ferry port there. all is to be seen. Madeline – actress and former Bond girl – is passionate about Harwich. Some of his ancestors came from here; she can trace them back to the time of The Mayflower.
May? I always thought the famous ship came from Plymouth. Not on your nelly! As Madeline told me, Plymouth was only her last stop before leaving Britain. The Mayflower came from Harwich, as did its captain, Christopher Jones, who transported the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World.
2020 was the 400th anniversary of that important voyage, and Harwich was ready to celebrate with a year of special events and festivals: transatlantic cruises had been booked by American tour groups and Captain Jones’ old house had been converted into a museum evocative Madeline took me to see his house and other landmarks around town. I was surprised at what I found.
Harwich was ramshackle and a little run down, but wonderfully preserved. Wandering its cobbled lanes you could easily imagine yourself in 1620, the year The Mayflower set sail. Largely undiscovered by tourists, it seemed ripe for revival, and this quarter-century Anglo-American seemed like the perfect fit. Then came Covid, and everything stopped.
Three years later I’m back again, and Harwich feels even quieter. I didn’t see many shops or restaurants open the last time I came here, and I’m sad to see that some places I remember have closed down since my last visit. Granted, I’m here on a Monday in January, but it hardly feels like a boom town.
I drop into the Alma Inn for lunch. Inside, the mood is lively and positive. The Alma has been a pub since 1859, but it is a medieval building. In the 1590s it was the home of a merchant called Thomas Twitt, whose daughter Sara married Captain The Mayflower, Christopher Jones. As I eat my locally caught skate (Harwich still has a small fishing fleet), The Alma’s relaxed host, Nick May, joins me for a chat. He loves the old character of the town and its strong sense of community. He has raised a family here.
“It’s the end of the line, which is a beauty or a curse, depending on how you look at it,” says Nick. “Everyone imagines it’s a huge, bustling port – which it was in its history, but it’s a little bit smaller than it used to be.” But for such a tiny place, Harwich punches well above its weight. All kinds of festivals take place throughout the year, from retellings of sea lore to ale trails.
The reason Harwich is so well preserved is thanks in large part to the valiant efforts of the Harwich Society, a tireless group of volunteers who give up their free time to protect the town’s historic fabric. It all started in 1969, when developers threatened to demolish the Redoubt Fort (built to defeat Napoleon) to make way for new houses. Now the association has around 2,000 members, double the number living in the old town.
Andy Schooler, vice chairman of the association, takes me on a walking tour. “You can walk around it in a quarter of an hour,” he tells me. But if you stop at all the historical sites on the way, it will take you a whole day. “There are only about 800 inhabitants, only 200 listed buildings – all within a very small area. You might think it’s too little, but really a day is not enough.”
We start at the Electric Palace Cinema. One of the oldest cinemas in the country, it opened in 1911. In 1972, it was about to be demolished, to make way for a lorry park, when local cinephiles rescued it, returning it to its glory before this. It shows everything from Hollywood blockbusters to arthouse films. It also stages live music and stand-up comedy.
“My dad was a volunteer projectionist here,” says the cinema’s operations manager, Michael Offord, as he shows me around. “It’s safe for the public, so there’s love in the building – it offers a unique experience and atmosphere. The environment here is amazing.”
Our next stop is the City Hall, a large old town house that has been home to the local council since 1673. The staircase is decorated with portraits of well-fed former mayors, resplendent in their urban beauty, but the most striking is the most impressive. called the Graffiti Room downstairs. In the 18th century, this room was used to incarcerate prisoners awaiting trial, many of whom spent time scratching intricate paintings on the walls. There are many etchings of sailing ships (including one from the American War of Independence) and an early hot air balloon.
We end up on the old Ha’penny Pier (so called because it used to charge half a penny), looking out across the still gray water towards the looming cranes of Felixstowe and the wild North Sea beyond. A post on the Cape Cod pier shows where The Mayflower set sail, 3,314 miles away. Standing here, as darkness falls, the past feels very close. “It’s a place steeped in history,” says Andy. “It gets into your blood.”
I spend the night at The Pier, a handsome Victorian hotel on the harbor front. The corridors are decorated with vintage travel posters (“Harwich for the Continent – the largest luxury channel steamers”). A recording of the shipping forecast is playing in the men. I dine on grilled mackerel with red cabbage, coley fillet with chips and peas, and scrumptious apple fritters – £27.50 for three courses, good value for such food. From my bedroom window, after dark, I watch the lights flicker across the bay.
The next morning, before I leave home, I stop at Harwich’s newest landmark, unveiled a few months ago. Called ‘Safe Haven’, it is a moving memorial to the children (mainly German Jews) of the Kindertransport, who came here from the Continent – all alone, without their parents, seeking refuge from Nazi persecution , just before the Second World War.
The memorial shows a huddle of anxious children walking down a gang plank. They must have been so scared at first, so unsure of what might await them. Ian Wolter’s accomplished sculpture captures that air of concern very well. “We came aboard at Harwich and were taken out in certain areas,” recalled one of those young refugees, Rabbi John Rayner. “The sun was shining, the air clean, the grass greener than any I had ever seen, and if ever freedom was tangible, it was that morning in Harwich.”
Where to stay
Doubles at The Pier (milsomhotels.com) cost from £150 per room per night, including breakfast.
For more information about Harwich and Essex visit harwich-society.co.uk or visitessex.com.