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Maritime madness, seal watching and Mayflower connections: Why Harwich is so much more than the gateway to Holland

As the plucky Essex town gears up for the Mayflower400 celebrations, it’s worth shouting about its own unique history, says Martin Dunford

Monday 12 October 2020 17:18
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The boutique Pier hotel at Harwich
The boutique Pier hotel at Harwich

If you were asked to name one of the world’s greatest harbours, what would you come up with? New York? Hong Kong? Sydney? Chances are, you wouldn’t say Harwich.  

But the fact is, the confluence of the Orwell and Stour rivers creates one of the greatest natural harbours on the planet, with views and a heritage to match. 

On the north side, Felixstowe (in Suffolk) is the country’s largest container port by a country mile; on the south side, Harwich (in Essex) is the poor relation. But apart from Greenwich, it could just be the UK’s most historic maritime town.

The posters used to say “Harwich for the Continent” (to which graffiti-writing wags would add “Frinton for the Incontinent!”), and that’s pretty much what people think of if you mention Harwich – catching the ferry to Holland. But give the town more time if you can.  

It’s dead easy to reach from London – an hour and a half by car or a swift train journey to Harwich Town, five minutes from the town quay.

And if you’re going to come at all then now is the perfect time: the town is due to play its part in the 2020 Mayflower400 celebrations to commemorate the Pilgrim Fathers’ pioneering voyage to the New World in 1620.  

As home to both the ship and its captain, Harwich is rather proud of its role in the Mayflower story. 

Harwich Low Lighthouse

The maze of narrow Georgian streets that make up Harwich’s tiny town centre hides lots of maritime goodies. The naval yard, where the cream of the Royal Navy’s ships were built from the 16th to 19th centuries, sits on the other side of the Pier Hotel, and there’s the nearby Treadwheel Crane, which is the oldest of its kind anywhere, operated by forcing unfortunate workers to walk within in its enormous wooden wheels.  

Saunter up to the impressive Redoubt Fort, on the hump of the town’s peninsula, and you can explore impressively restored cavernous rooms, tunnels and gun emplacements and take in the best 360-degree views of the harbour.

Fittingly, as HQ of Trinity House (the UK’s national lighthouse operator), Harwich also has two lighthouses, both of which you can visit: the aptly named Low Light right by the beach (yes, there is one, though there’s an even better one at adjacent Dovercourt, a 10-minute walk away), which houses a small maritime museum; and the High Light, once used as an impromptu brothel and which you can now climb for more great views.  

Harwich Beach

There’s also the LV18 Light Ship right by the town’s diminutive Ha’penny Pier – used for the filming of The Boat that Rocked, and where Tony O’Neill and his wife stream radio online (occasionally with the help of BBC Radio Essex). 

Tony is a pirate radio (and lighthouse) nut and the ship is extremely well preserved, kitted out with a series of cabins that represent different decades in the hard life of seafarers who used to live onboard, and others reflecting the years of pirate radio, with brilliant period details including a hotchpotch of equipment dating from the glory days of Radio Caroline et al.  

Harwich Harbour

By now you’ll probably want to get out on to the harbour itself, which you can either do by crossing to Felixstowe or the Shotley Peninsula on one of the regular foot ferries, or by taking a seal-watching trip down the coast at Hamford Water National Nature Reserve. 

These last around two hours and cost £20 per person, and October is the perfect time to go, when hundreds of new-born pups are on view. Felixstowe itself has more maritime memories and a nature reserve stretching back up the coast, while Shotley has lots of great walking along both estuaries, including the six-mile-long Arthur Ransome trail to the Butt & Oyster pub at Pin Mill – the writer lived nearby and set his novel We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea in these waters.  

The Alma Inn

The Pier or the Alma Inn are both perfect places to retire to after a spell on the water – very different from each other but each offering comfortable rooms, superb food and a welcoming vibe.

Nick May who runs the Alma is a Harwich devotee and can tell you lots more about the town and its history, not to mention that of his own building, which is one of the oldest in town. The Pier is equally respectful of Harwich history, which it celebrates in its NavYard bar, with an ultra-large gin menu, craft ales and a tasty menu of snacks inspired by the town’s Scandinavian links.  

So there you have it: Harwich may be the gateway to Holland, but it has plenty more than that to shout about.

Travel essentials

For more on the Mayflower400 celebrations, see www.historicharwich.co.uk

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