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A walk around historical Harwich and its seafront

Length: 1-3 miles. Allow at least an hour and a half, but the walk could easily stretch to half a day or more, particularly if you combine it with a fresh fish lunch! There is a route map at the bottom of this page.

'Harwich: The seashore and lighthouse' by John Constable (RA), about 1815, Museum no. 302-1888

'Harwich: The seashore and lighthouse' by John Constable (RA), about 1815, Museum no. 302-1888, given by Isabel Constable

Look at Harwich on an Ordnance Survey map (go on: you should - maps are fascinating, packed with the stories of the land) and you'll see a crooked finger in the top-right corner of Essex, prodding up into the shared mouth of the rivers Stour and Orwell and shielded by the droop of Felixstowe to the east. A sheltered promontory, then, its geography demanding that it become a significant port, as indeed it has been for much of its life. Harwich is a town full of the contrasts you see in many parts of Essex: beautiful coastline and deep, deep history all but surrounded by unattractive housing estates and industrial areas, the ancient and charming butting up against the brute functionality of the modern. It's a fascinating place. I grew up in the outer Harwich sprawl and found the atmosphere of a then-struggling sea-port rather oppressive; I go back now, and find it engaging and intriguing and full of Essex charm - chocolate box beauty in bovver boots.

Arriving in Harwich

The train journey to Harwich has been highlighted as one of the most wildlife-rich lines in the country, although this really only applies to the final stretch from Manningtree to Harwich. Sit on the left side of the train for views over the Stour estuary, its exposed mud swarming with internationally-significant flocks of wildfowl and waders. Specialities include wigeon, pintails, brent geese and black-tailed godwits. Halfway along the estuary you pass through Stour and Copperas woods, full of nightingales and warblers in late spring.

Brent goose

Brent goose: a distinctive local visitor from autumn to spring, Photograph by Keith Brooke

Harwich High Lighthouse

Harwich High Lighthouse from the station car-park. Photograph by Keith Brooke

 

You want to get off at the last stop, Harwich Town station, not the big Harwich International, which is the first of the town's three stations and probably all most people ever see of the place other than from a ferry. (The number of people who have said to me, 'Oh yes, I've been to Harwich. Or rather, through Harwich...')

Harwich Town station: misleadingly uninteresting until you round the corner and see the High Lighthouse before you. This is one of a pair of lights; you will reach the other - inevitably, known as the Low Lighthouse - further along the walk. The High Lighthouse stands right in the middle of the peninsula - no wild North Sea waves lashing the foot of this lighthouse. The two were built in 1818, acting as leading lights: approaching ships just had to line them up in order to find safe passage into Harwich harbour. By the mid-1850s, however, silting up of the estuary had shifted the safe channel and the lighthouses became known locally as the Misleading Lights... By 1863 they were decommissioned and replaced by the iron lights just down the coast on Dovercourt seafront (well worth a look if you fancy extending the last part of the walk along the prom).

Through old Harwich

Looking up Church Street towards St Nicholas's church

Looking up Church Street towards St Nicholas's church. Photograph by Keith Brooke

Foresters

Foresters: Oldest house in Harwich. Photograph by Keith Brooke

 

This is one of those lovely walks where you can throw away the instructions. You're heading north, and that's all you need to know. Five or six streets (depending on precisely where you are) run parallel here. The least interesting of these is probably George Street, to the west. The streets are connected by cross-streets and alleyways, so you can weave your way through Harwich, with its attractive old buildings. Do the walk again and you can take a different route, stumbling across all kinds of hidden treasures.

Three Cups pub

The Three Cups pub. Photograph by Keith Brooke

Let's take Church Street today, the rather grand St Nicholas's church at its southern end. Immediately across the road from the church is Foresters, built around 1450 and thought to be the oldest surviving house in Harwich. It  was nearly destroyed by incendiary bombs in the Second World War, but was carefully restored afterwards, eventually becoming the headquarters of the Harwich Society, which deserves the credit for preserving and promoting most of what makes this walk so worthwhile.

A little further along is the Guildhall, an ornate Georgian building variously used as town and borough council headquarters, police station and gaol, and, in an earlier incarnation, a public house. Across the street from the Guildhall is the Three Cups Hotel, a 16th century inn (although many of the older features have been lost in various extensions and rebuilds). From its sign you might deduce that Nelson once stayed here, but that's far from certain. It was also a courthouse and residence of many of the town's mayors, which was handy for them.

The docks

... are fairly quiet these days, with most of the shipping going through Harwich International a couple of miles upriver. You're surrounded by the legacies of the town's past as a bustling port, though, a town Daniel Defoe described as 'a town of hurry and business'.

If you're here in the middle of the day, the area around the quay gives you lots of choices for lunch, with pub food, takeaways, fine fish restaurants and even a cafe on the old Ha'penny Pier.

Ha'penny Pier

Ha'penny Pier. Photograph by Keith Brooke

Fishing at Harwich has gone through a series of booms and busts. Early in the 18th century the fleet was down to a mere three smacks, but within 60 years fishing was booming again, and as many as 500 men and boys fished from Harwich, mostly around the Orkneys and the Norwegian coast. By the 20th century the fleet had shrunk once more, concentrating on cod and pink shrimps, and now there's very little commercial fishing at all.

Across the road from Ha'penny Pier you'll find a plaque commemorating the Mayflower, which set sail from Harwich for America in 1620. Its master, Christopher Jones, was a local lad who married twice in St Nicholas's church before leaving these shores. Was it really that bad?

 

Constable and the Low Lighthouse

Right, you've had the anarchic, wander-as-you-please bit of the walk: now its time to return to the instructions.

Stand with your back to Ha'penny Pier and you'll see Navyard Wharf to your left. Built on the site of a 12th century fort, this was an important naval shipbuilding centre from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Head down King's Quay Street with Navyard Wharf to your left. Once past the Wharf, you'll find the delightful Electric Palace on your left, one of the earliest purpose-built cinemas in the country, and a rare survivor.

Treadwheel crane

Treadwheel crane. Photograph by Keith Brooke

Electric Palace

Electric Palace, one of the oldest purpose-built cinemas in the country. Photograph by Keith Brooke

 

Onward, through the grounds of St Nicholas's church, across the road and you reach the northern end of Harwich Green. There's a small sandy beach to your left, and a short distance ahead you'll see the Treadwheel crane. This was built in the 17th century in the naval yard, and was subsequently moved to its current position on the green in the 1930s. The crane was operated by two men walking around inside a pair of wheels, rather like giant hamster wheels. One feature of this crane is the lack of any braking mechanism: if a heavy load ever started to slide back down the slope, the wheels would reverse, with disastrous consequences.

This was where Constable came to sketch the Low Lighthouse, which you can see ahead of you on a slight promontory. (The place where he must have sat is, helpfully, marked by a dog mess bin. There is no commemorative plaque on the bin, which I think is a missed opportunity.) Since Constable's day, a row of beach huts has been added, and the houses along Harbour Crescent have sprung up, concealing the view to the low cliff beyond. Also hidden by the houses is the early 19th century Martello tower known as the Redoubt, newly built in Constable's day and another worthwhile detour (see the Harwich Society website for visiting information).

Look closer at the lighthouse itself and you'll see another significant change: it's a different building. Constable's lighthouse was a rather quirky squared wooden building with angled props leaning up against each wall. This was replaced in 1818 by an equally-striking, squat, brick-built, ten-sided tower, with a canopied shelter for walkers around the ground floor. This incarnation survives today as the Maritime Museum.

Fossilised sharks' teeth

A collection of fossilised sharks' teeth found on the beach by the Low Lighthouse, Photograph by Keith Brooke

View from where Constable sketched the Low Lighthouse

The present-day view from where Constable sketched the Low Lighthouse. There's even a ship where Constable drew a ship, although not quite such an attractive one. Photograph by Keith Brooke

 

The shoreline here is one of the best places in the country for finding fossilised sharks' teeth in perfect condition. Trapped for perhaps 30 or 40 million years in the London clay beneath Dovercourt Bay, eventually the action of the sea prises them free and drops them along the high-tide mark.

Victorian stone breakwater, Beacon Hill

Victorian stone breakwater, poking out from the foot of Beacon Hill. Photograph by Keith Brooke

Old defences on Beacon Hill

Old defences on Beacon Hill, known to locals as 'the dubs', short for WD, or War Department. Photograph by Keith Brooke

If you walk on past the Low Lighthouse you come to another promontory. Looming on your right is Beacon Hill, known to the local kids in my day as the Dubs, short for WD. Fenced off now, the War Department built a number of gun emplacements and watchtowers here during the second world war. Ugly, and striking, and largely ruined, these buildings form a dramatic, and often strangely beautiful, scar across the horizon. To the left, a long Victorian breakwater pokes out into the river-mouth, a dramatic attempt to tame the shifting sands and silts of the estuary. Standing at the base of this breakwater (you're advised not to go out along it for your own safety), you can see Harwich to the north, the robot-like cranes of Felixstowe to the north-east, Dovercourt spreading along the bay to the south-west, and there in the distance, the dark smudge of the Naze at Walton.

Approaching Dovercourt

Approaching Dovercourt, with the white end of Orwell Terrace visible on the right. Photograph by Keith Brooke

Evergreen oaks of Cliff Park

Back through the evergreen oaks of Cliff Park, approaching the bandstand. Photograph by Keith Brooke

One feature, so easy to overlook, is out in the North Sea just to the south of the tip of Landguard Point, which is directly across the river-mouth. There, about six miles out, just visible on a clear day as an inverted U, a bit like a rather chunky oil rig, is Rough Towers. This is one of a series of sea-forts built during the Second World War as part of the country's defences. Since 1967 it has been occupied by Paddy Roy Bates, who likes to be known officially as HRH Prince Roy of Sealand. The micronation of Sealand has issued its own stamps, passports and currency and has even been the subject of coup plots and invasions, with a 'government in exile' being established in Germany after one such incident. It's a fascinating and rather unlikely tale, and has become something of a local legend, earning many disbelieving looks when it's recounted.Carrying on around Beacon Hill, you come to Dovercourt. A grand sweep of white houses marks the start of the town. This, and the nearby Cliff Park, is the most prominent remainder of the grandiose plans of Robert Bagshaw, mid-18th century MP for Harwich, who set out to build a new town here. Previously a successful East India merchant, Bagshaw's vision for the town bankrupted him, and by the early 20th century his villa in the park and the spa he had believed would draw people to the town, had been demolished.

Main road back into Harwich

Main road back into Harwich, with the High Lighthouse marking the way to the station. Photograph by Keith Brooke

If you're feeling energetic, you can continue along the promenade, with the grassy, Cliff Gardens sloping up to Marine Parade on your right. If you do this, just turn back when you're done and retrace your steps to Orwell Terrace. From here the choice is either to head along Orwell Road, and then Victoria Street to Dovercourt station, where your walk ends; alternatively, you could walk back through Cliff Park, with its magnificent evergreen oaks and bandstand. Emerging from the park, turn right along the Main Road and soon you'll see the High Lighthouse ahead of you, a handy, and fitting, landmark to guide you towards Harwich station where the walk began.

 

Copyright © Keith Brooke


Further reading

Books:

  • Essex Rock: a look beneath the Essex landscape by Gerald Lucy (Essex Rock and Mineral Society, 1999)
  • The Harwich Story by Leonard T Weaver (Harwich Printing Company, 1975)
  • Harwich: gateway to the continent by Leonard Weaver (Terence Dalton Limited, 1990)
  • Harwich Papers by Leonard T Weaver (Harwich Society, 1994)

Other:

Map

Route map

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