The overlooked Essex town with a listed building for every four residents
I’m sitting in the dining room of the Pier Hotel in Harwich, tucking into a delicious breakfast of poached eggs and haddock, when the Stena Line ferry comes steaming past the window, bound for the Hook of Holland. It’s a timely reminder that this compact peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the North Sea, has always been an important gateway to the Continent, with a proud seafaring heritage quite out of keeping with 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 embark, I had no idea that Harwich had such a historic centre. Stay on the train for two more stops and you’ll discover an ancient enclave that played a leading role in some of the most dramatic events in our island’s history. A cluster of narrow alleys flanked by Georgian, Jacobean and Tudor houses, it’s hardly changed since Nelson harboured here.
On the confluence of the Stour and Orwell rivers, Harwich has seen its fair share of conflict: Bloody Point, across the bay, owes its name to a sea battle in 885AD between King Alfred and the Vikings; in the 14th century, English armies sailed from here to France to fight the Hundred Years’ War; at the end of the First World War, Germany’s U-Boat fleet came here to surrender.
Between battles, Harwich used to be a popular holiday destination, but like a lot of seaside resorts it was scuppered by cheap flights to Spain, and if it hadn’t been for my friend Madeline Smith, I might have assumed the modern ferry port was all there is to see. Madeline – an actress and former Bond girl – is passionate about Harwich. Some of her ancestors came from here; she can trace them right back to the time of The Mayflower.
The Mayflower? I always thought that famous ship came from Plymouth. Not on your nelly! As Madeline told me, Plymouth was merely her last port of call before she left Britain. The Mayflower came from Harwich, as did its captain, Christopher Jones, who ferried the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World.
2020 was the 400th anniversary of that momentous voyage, and Harwich was all set to celebrate with a year of special events and festivities: American tour groups had booked transatlantic trips and Captain Jones’s quaint old house had been converted into an evocative museum. Madeline took me to see his house and other landmarks around the town. I was amazed by what I found.
Harwich was subdued and a bit 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 sightseers, it seemed ripe for a revival, and this Anglo-American quatercentenary looked like the perfect fit. Then along came Covid, and everything shut down.
Three years later I’m back again, and Harwich feels even quieter. I didn’t see many shops or restaurants open last time I came here, and I’m sad to see that since my last visit, several places I remembered have shut down. 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 convivial. The Alma has been a pub since 1859, but the building is medieval. In the 1590s it was home to a merchant called Thomas Twitt, whose daughter Sara married The Mayflower’s Captain, Christopher Jones. As I eat my locally caught skate (Harwich still has a small fishing fleet), The Alma’s affable innkeeper, Nick May, joins me for a chat. He relishes the antique character of the town and its strong sense of community. He’s raised a family here.
“It’s the end of the line, which is a beauty or a curse, depending on which way you look at it,” says Nick. “Everybody imagines it to be a huge, bustling port – which it has been in its history, but nowadays it’s a bit more low-key.” Yet for such a tiny place, Harwich punches way above its weight. There are all sorts of festivals throughout the year, from sea shanty recitals to ale trails.
The reason Harwich is so well preserved is thanks in no small part to the valiant efforts of the Harwich Society, a tireless group of volunteers who dedicate their free time to protecting the historic fabric of the town. It all started in 1969, when developers threatened to demolish the Redoubt Fort (built to repel Napoleon) to make room for new houses. Now the society has around 2,000 members, double the number who live in the old town.
Andy Schooler, the society’s vice-chairman, takes me on a walking tour. “You can walk round it in about a quarter of an hour,” he tells me. Yet if you stop off in all the historic sites along the way, it will take you an entire day. “Only about 800 inhabitants, but 200 listed buildings – all within a very, very small area. You might think it’s too small, but really a day’s 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 it was rescued by local cinephiles, who restored it to its former glory. It screens everything from Hollywood blockbusters to arthouse movies. 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 been saved by the community, so there’s love in the building – it provides a really unique experience and atmosphere. The ambience here is remarkable.”
Our next stop is the Guildhall, a grand old townhouse that’s been home to the local council ever since 1673. The stairwell is adorned with portraits of well-fed former mayors, resplendent in their municipal finery, but the most impressive memento is the so-called Graffiti Room downstairs. In the 18th century, this room was used to incarcerate prisoners awaiting trial, and many of them spent the time scratching intricate pictures on the walls. There are numerous 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 entrance fee), looking out across the still grey water towards the looming cranes of Felixstowe and the wild North Sea beyond. A signpost on the quayside points to Cape Cod, where The Mayflower sailed, 3,314 miles away. Standing here, as darkness falls, the past feels very close. “It’s a place that’s chock-a-block with history,” says Andy. “It gets in your blood.”
I spend the night at The Pier, a handsome Victorian hotel on the harbourfront. The corridors are decorated with vintage travel posters (“Harwich for the Continent – the largest cross-channel luxury steamers”). A recording of the shipping forecast is playing in the gents. I dine on grilled mackerel with red cabbage, coley fillet with chips and peas, and scrumptious apple crumble – £27.50 for three courses, good value for such fine food. From my bedroom window, after dark, I watch the lights winking across the bay.
Next morning, before I leave for home, I stop off at Harwich’s newest landmark, unveiled a few months ago. Entitled ‘Safe Haven’, it’s a moving memorial to the (mainly German Jewish) children of the Kindertransport, who arrived here from the Continent – all alone, without their parents, seeking sanctuary from Nazi persecution, just before the Second World War.
The memorial depicts a huddle of anxious children walking down a gangplank. They must have felt so afraid at first, so unsure of what might await them. Ian Wolter’s accomplished sculpture depicts that air of apprehension very well. “We disembarked at Harwich and were taken out into some fields,” recalled one of those youthful 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 a tangible thing, it was so 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.