Why Harwich is one of Essex’s best kept secrets

Harwich redoubt

Harwich redoubt - Credit: Archant

A unique destination along the county’s coast, Harwich’s maritime history takes on international prominence over the next 18 months. Petra Hornsby discovers why Harwich is one of the county’s best-kept secrets

Harwich quayside

Harwich quayside - Credit: Archant

Many coastal towns across the country are feeling the strain these days, largely due to the steady decline in holiday-makers and the impact of other economic pressures.

In Essex, towns such as Southend and Clacton are proving themselves to be robust survivors by adjusting to changing times and pulling in investment to enhance the character and showcase the assets they have to attract visitors from near and far.

Like these coastal towns, Harwich is unique and is aware of the need to attract both day visitors and tourists. There are many who work hard to ensure that people within the community and from further afield have plenty to experience and enjoy throughout the year.

There are six beaches located in and around the town which are great for family day trips and the beach at neighbouring Dovercourt has this year been awarded Blue Flag status, which is a great accolade.

Harwich sits on the estuaries of the rivers Stour and Orwell that lead into the North Sea. It is a busy port and cargo ships which are a regular feature on the skyline serve as a reminder of the maritime heritage of the town. Harwich’s location meant safe anchorage between the Thames and the Humber, giving it great importance both militarily and for civil transportation.

Harwich International is home to regular Stena Line ferry services to the Hook of Holland and it is the UK’s second busiest passenger ferry port.

Harwich pier

Harwich pier - Credit: Archant

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It is Harwich’s maritime history that has served to shape the town over time and which can be clearly seen in Old Harwich, where many old buildings date back to the 16th century.

Today, there is solid core of people working hard voluntarily, not only to maintain the historic elements of the town, but also to inspire new ideas through art, crafts, music and performance, something which next year will fuse together in one great celebration.

The location of Harwich, along with other places along the East Anglian coastline, made it vulnerable to attack and at one stage it was Napoleon and his fleet that was feared the most.

The town’s Redoubt Fort was built between 1808 and 1810 by French prisoners of war to protect the town from threat of attack, which in the end didn’t happen. During World War II, it housed British troops awaiting trial and now it is a popular attraction for history buffs or people wanting to see if it lives up to its reputation for being one of the most haunted locations in Essex.

The Ha’penny Pier is thought to be one of the last surviving wooden working piers in the country. Built as an arrival and departure point for visiting paddle steamers, today it houses the Harwich Society and visitor centre. Its name reflects the original toll for entering the town via the pier.

Famous diarist Samuel Pepys, a frequent visitor to Harwich on naval business, was elected as MP for the town in 1679 and there is a restaurant and hotel named after him in Old Harwich just a short distance from the pier.

Harwich pier hotel

Harwich pier hotel - Credit: Archant

Visitors can head to the Maritime Museum and then follow the Heritage Trail which incorporates the wooden treadwheel crane which was used in the Naval Yard from 1667 to 1927 and is the only one still in existence today.

Other sights include the Customs House and the Electric Palace Cinema as well as landmarks such as the Low and High Lighthouse.

The trail also includes Captain Christopher Jones’ house and it is this feature that perhaps has the greatest significance at the moment. In 2020, Harwich plans to mark the 400th anniversary of the pilgrims’ journey on the Mayflower in 1620 to settle in New England.

Next year, Harwich – along with 12 other key towns including Dartmouth, Boston, Southampton, Southwark (London) and Leiden in Holland – will be holding events recognising and honouring the part each played in the exodus of the pilgrims to the New World.

Harwich has been building up to this special occasion over the past few years and this year two of its annual festivals will make sure that the Mayflower is high on the agenda in their programme of events.

The Harwich Maritime Festival (formerly known as the Sea Festival) takes place on July 27, on and around Harwich Ha’Penny Pier, and this year will be organised by Harwich Haven Authority.

Harwich pier

Harwich pier - Credit: Archant

There will be attractions, both on land and on the water, that will draw attention to the town’s rich maritime heritage, while also incorporating the creative vibe that is alive and well in Harwich today.

On the day, there will be live music, stalls and plenty of activities with the forthcoming Mayflower anniversary very much in mind.

One attraction which is sure to be popular is the chance to visit the refurbished RNLI station, to meet the volunteer crew, to board the boats and to explore the lifeboats’ facilities.

The Harwich Festival of the Arts takes place between June 20 and 30 and, as in previous years, will be presenting a full and varied programme of visual arts, music, poetry and dance in several different locations across the town.

The full list of events can be found on the website harwichfestival.co.uk and one popular exhibition will be back by popular demand – the 20cm x 20cm Open Exhibition, which is open to all skills and all ages. If your design or picture fits the size and is submitted on time, it’s in!

Harwich has been very much boosted by a dedicated and enthusiastic team (The Harwich and Dovercourt Tourism Team) which comprises members of the town council and local business people, and it was their motivation which inspired the new historicharwich.co.uk website.

There is no doubt that the excitement of 2020 is engaging many who live and work in the town, but it is also clear that so much of what makes Harwich so fascinating will stay very much in place, as it has always been, once the bunting has been taken down at the end of next year.

The town’s history will have been illuminated and celebrated and the beaches and pavements will have seen more footfall, but it will be business as usual for all those who have always known and celebrated what makes Harwich so special.

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