Travel: Backwater by sea

Two historic North Sea ports became linked this week - by a new long-distance bicycle route. Harwich and Hull are connected by the 163- mile Sustrans track. But if you don't fancy cycling, there's plenty to see at either end. Simon Calder recommends a blustery day in Essex, while Rob Ainsley makes a call to the last traditional phone booth in Britain
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Whether you approach by sea, road or rail, your first sight of the mouth of the River Stour - on which Harwich perches - is a festoon of ungainly and unsightly cranes. Fortunately for the traveller, but possibly regrettably for the town, they belong either to Felixstowe - across the Estuary - or Parkeston Quay, buried a couple of miles west. Harwich is a tidy, beguiling port precisely because most of its maritime might has moved elsewhere. Twenty-one years ago this week, the navy left the port to its own devices, taking with it the rest of the 20th century.

The feeling of a town marooned persists when you wander around its quiet, handsome streets. A stern, redbrick bank has drifted to seed as an antique shop, while the Electric Palace cinema has been preserved perfectly since it opened in 1911. Only the the advertised admission of a shilling has changed - but not by too much. If you go tomorrow, National Cinema Day, to either of the showings of The English Patient, you will pay only pounds 1.

A ticker-off of sights could survey the town's attractions in a morning and still have a couple of hours left for a bit of ferryspotting. But unless a chilling easterly is whipping in off the North Sea, Harwich rewards a longer stay. A modest arc of a beach is washed (or, in high winds, battered) by the murky estuary water, in contrast to the bright primary colours applied to a cheery row of beach huts. Alongside, decked along a broad lawn, are the town's three gems.

The High Lighthouse and the Low Lighthouse are a non-matching pair. For centuries, they and their predecessors guided mariners to the safety of the port. The idea was that when the two were lined up, they showed the precise course to steer to reach the harbour safely - hence they were known as leading lights. But, as the estuary silted up, they could no longer be relied upon and became known as the misleading lights.

The last-but-one Low Lighthouse features in work by Constable, who spent productive summers a few miles upstream at Flatford Mill. The present version houses a (necessarily) small maritime museum. Its High sibling remains a landmark for mariners, and now, additionally, for hikers: a plaque proclaims "Here ends the Essex Way, 81 footpath miles from Epping".

The strangest sight in Harwich also involves walking. The treadwheel crane, planted in the middle of the lawn, is a large, time-blackened shed from which a gantry protrudes in a gallows-like manner. Inside, a human- sized drum like a watermill wheel allowed two men to plod endlessly around to raise cargo from moored vessels.

Halfpenny Pier, whose name reveals the tolls charged, is a peeling, but appealing, incursion into the estuary. A few fishing vessels bob about in the swell, but your eye is caught by a strange creature on the horizon: the Stena Discovery, a giant catamaran that began sailing to Holland 12 days ago. She is moored at Parkeston Quay, where the fortunes of the town moved more than a century ago. It was named after the chairman of the Great Eastern Railway Company, Mr Charles Parkes, who decided to move ferry operations there in 1883. Now the quay has acquired the much more dynamic title of Harwich International. The change distances the port still further from merely municipal Harwich, the town at the end of Essex - and England.


Tourist information: Parkeston Quay 01255 506139; Electric Cinema: King's Quay Street 01255 553333; Recommended reading: Shire County Guide - Essex, by Stan Jarvis (pounds 5.99)