Harwich: the town that rocked
It’s the people that make a place special. How often have you read that? It’s been written so often it’s a travel cliché. But sometimes it’s also true.
Greater Anglia have a range of offers on rail journeys across the network this summer. To find out more, look at the #lettheadventurebegin video on their website; the address is at the bottom of this blog. They invited me to pick somewhere in the network and in return for a rail ticket, they asked me to blog about my trip. I chose Harwich. I’ll admit that having consulted the timetable, I was a little concerned. To reach Harwich from my starting point necessitated two changes of train and with just a few minutes between each, I anticipated spending half the morning in Manningtree. After all, this wasn’t Switzerland, was it? I needn’t have worried. The trains were punctual, the connections made without even having to power walk and the carriages clean and comfortable. The views as we made our way on the Mayflower Line along the River Stour were the icing on the cake, and I thought what a refreshing change it was not to have to focus on the road and be able to enjoy them.
A ten minute stroll from Harwich Town station and I was already beginning to appreciate the town’s long maritime history. Using a walking trail map I’d found online, I ticked off both the High and Low Lighthouses, the second of three pairs of lighthouses that had been built around here to aid ships’ navigation along the North Sea coast. To ensure they maintained the correct course, the two lights needed to line up, one above the other.
The Treadwell Crane was fascinating too, operated by men walking on the inside of the wheels. I was grateful for the Harwich Society’s comprehensive website, for though an informative sign had been placed near the crane, it had been positioned at the foot of a steep grassy bank. To read it, I’d probably have been best off lying flat on the turf.
Heading along the estuary, I walked past the impressive murals on Wellington Road and doubled back to take a look at the Electric Palace. Built in 1911, there were two entrances, one to access seats costing a shilling, the other a more affordable sixpence. The cinema still holds regular screenings today, though the reminder to patrons to turn off mobile phones is a more recent addition to the signage.
Update July 2019: the Electric Palace is closed for extensive renovations and is currently scheduled to open in late spring 2020.
It was time to pop in to The Pier Hotel, right on the quayside. Looking like a little piece of Shoreditch, the hotel was slick, contemporary and on-trend, its staff welcoming. Manager Chris told me that I could find 113 different gins on the NAVYÄRD bar’s drinks menu, and I wondered how long you’d have to stay to work your way through them at what the government would deem an acceptable rate. With the view over the confluence of the Stour and Orwell right in front of the hotel’s terrace, it would be an absolute pleasure, though one which would have to wait for another time. I had a boat to catch, and it wasn’t going to wait.
A foot ferry had connected Harwich to Felixstowe for over a century, but it was under threat of closing for good when Austrian Christian Zemann spotted it was up for sale. Seeing the potential – it’s easily an hour’s drive from Harwich to Felixstowe – he bought the business. Though he’d always dreamed of making his living on the water, he didn’t know Harwich, nor the area which surrounded it. It was a gamble, but one that paid off.
With hard work and a nose for opportunity, Christian has expanded the business, running not only the foot ferry but evening cruises, bicycle rental and seal boat trips as well. In fact, he’s already bought a larger boat, increasing the capacity of the ferry from 12 passengers to 58. The level of commitment Christian has shown is extraordinary. Troubled by the drenching some of his passengers were getting out on deck, he invested £15000 in stabilisers to stop the new boat from tossing and pitching. I’m pleased to report it worked.
Christian’s latest venture, the boat trips to the grey and harbour seals that make their home at nearby Hamford Water, have already proved to be a gold mine. Once down to only a handful in number, there’s now a small but thriving colony of around 70 seals at the reserve. I asked Christian how close he got. “Well, the channel’s pretty narrow, so if I kill the engine, then you can hear them breathe,” he said. That sounded close enough to me.
Back on shore, there was one vessel on the quayside that just couldn’t be ignored, not least because of its scarlet livery. Built in 1958, LV18 was Trinity House’s last manned light vessel before it was retired from service in 1994. But as with the Harbour Ferry, this was a boat that wasn’t going to go quietly, thanks to one man – the ebullient and utterly charming Tony O’Neil. He bought the vessel for a nominal £1 and the Pharos Trust was set up to oversee its restoration. It opened in 2011 as Harwich’s quirkiest visitor attraction.
Update July 2019: since I took this photo, the cost of admission has risen to £4 for adults and £2 for children. Family tickets (2 adults and 4 children) are £10.
A musician by trade, Tony has a passion for radio. Visitors to the ship can see some of his extensive collection of antique and vintage radios on board, but with an estimated 1600 in his collection, some remain in storage in the hold. That passion for radio also manifests itself in broadcasting. Tony once worked for Radio Caroline and his enthusiasm for pirate radio is undimmed. The likes of John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and Johnnie Walker all broadcast from radio ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters and the tenders that facilitated their commute came from Harwich.
Even the beautiful garden that you see on deck has a musical connection. The scented plants that form part of it are there in homage to John Peel. His 1967 show for pirate station Radio London was named “The Perfumed Garden.” Johnnie Walker is still involved. He’s a patron of the Pharos Trust and will broadcast from LV18 this August.
For anyone keen on maritime history, Tony has preserved some of the cabins on board just as they would have been when the vessel was in use as a lightship. There’s also a chance to see what a pirate radio station would have been like. There’s so much in the way of nautical and radio memorabilia that some have dubbed it a “floating prop shop”. Unsurprisingly, it caught the eye of the production team working on the 2008 movie “The Boat that Rocked” and with a splash of yellow paint for the occasion, doubled as Radio Sunshine.
It is individuals like Christian and Tony that are breathing life into a town that once lay forgotten at the end of the line. Their energy and commitment to this corner of Essex is helping to make Harwich the town that rocks.
Greater Anglia trains:
Harwich Harbour Ferry:
Seal boat trips:
The Pier Hotel: