The overlooked town of Essex with one listed building for every four residents

Harwich used to be a popular holiday destination, but like many seaside towns it has been plagued by cheap flights to Spain - Getty

Harwich used to be a popular holiday destination, but like many seaside towns it has been plagued by cheap flights to Spain – Getty

I’m sitting in the dining room of the Pier Hotel in Harwich, enjoying a delicious breakfast of poached eggs and haddock, as the Stena Line ferry steams past the window, bound for Hoek van Holland. It’s a timely reminder that this compact peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the North Sea, has always been an important gateway to the mainland, with a proud seafaring heritage befitting its modest size.

I first came to Harwich 30 years ago to catch that ferry, but the terminal is a few miles inland at the mouth of the Stour. had such a historic center. Stay on the train for two more stops and you’ll discover an ancient enclave that played a leading role in some of the most dramatic events in our island’s history. A cluster of narrow lanes flanked by Georgian, Jacobean and Tudor houses, it’s hardly changed since Nelson had a harbor here.

Surrounded on three sides by the North Sea, Harwich has always been an important gateway to the continent - Getty

Surrounded on three sides by the North Sea, Harwich has always been an important gateway to the continent – Getty

At the confluence of the rivers Stour and Orwell, Harwich has seen quite a few conflicts: Bloody Point, across the bay, takes its name from a naval battle in AD 885. between King Alfred and the Vikings; in the 14th century, English armies sailed from here to France to fight the Hundred Years’ War; at the end of the First World War, the German U-boat fleet came here to surrender.

Between the fighting, Harwich was a popular holiday destination, but like many seaside towns it was beset by cheap flights to Spain, and if it weren’t for my friend Madeline Smith I might have assumed the modern ferry port was all there is to see. Madeline – an actress and former Bond girl – is passionate about Harwich. Some of her ancestors came from here; she can trace them back to the time of The Mayflower.

The May Flower? I always thought that famous ship came from Plymouth. Not on your nelly! As Madeline told me, Plymouth was just her last port of call before she left Britain. The Mayflower came from Harwich, as did its captain, Christopher Jones, who took the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World.

2020 was the 400th anniversary of that momentous voyage, and Harwich was all set to celebrate with a year full of special events and festivities: US tour groups had booked transatlantic voyages and Captain Jones’ quaint old home had been converted into an evocative museum. Madeline took me to his house and other places of interest in the city. I was amazed at what I found.

Harwich was understated and a little run-down, but beautifully preserved. Wandering the cobbled streets, it’s easy to imagine yourself in 1620, the year The Mayflower left. Largely undiscovered by tourists, it seemed ripe for a resurgence, and this Anglo-American quarter-century celebration seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Then Covid came and everything shut down.

William Cook at Harwich

William Cook at Harwich

Three years later I’m back and Harwich feels even calmer. Last time I came here, I didn’t see many shops or restaurants open, and I’m sorry to see that several places I remembered have closed since my last visit. Granted, I’m here on a Monday in January, but it hardly feels like a thriving city.

I’m going to The Alma Inn for lunch. Inside, the atmosphere is lively and cosy. The Alma has been a pub since 1859, but the building is medieval. In the 1590s it was home to a merchant named Thomas Twitt, whose daughter Sara married The Mayflower’s Captain, Christopher Jones. As I eat my locally caught skate (Harwich still has a small fishing fleet), The Alma’s affable innkeeper, Nick May, joins me for a chat. He enjoys the city’s antique character and strong sense of community. He started a family here.

“It’s the end of the line. That’s a beauty or a curse, depending on how you look at it,” says Nick. “Everyone imagines it to be a huge, bustling port – which it has been throughout its history, but these days it’s a bit more subdued.” But for such a small place, Harwich punches well above its weight. There are all kinds of festivals all year round, from sea shanty recitals to beer routes.

The reason Harwich is so well preserved is due in no small part to the valiant efforts of the Harwich Society, a tireless group of volunteers who spend their free time protecting the historic fabric of the town. It all started in 1969, when developers threatened to demolish the Redoubt Fort (built to ward off Napoleon) to make way for new homes. Now the association has about 2,000 members, double the number living in the old city.

Andy Schooler, the association’s vice president, takes me on a walking tour. “You can walk around it in about fifteen minutes,” he tells me. But if you stop at all the historical places along the way, you will be busy for a whole day. “Only about 800 inhabitants, but 200 monumental buildings – all within a very, very small area. You might think it’s too small, but really one day is not enough.”

Harwich has plenty of retro seaside charm

Harwich has plenty of retro seaside charm

We start at the Electric Palace Cinema. One of the oldest movie theaters in the country, it opened in 1911. In 1972, it was about to be demolished to make way for a truck parking lot when it was rescued by local cinephiles, who restored it to its former glory. It screens everything from Hollywood blockbusters to art house films. It also hosts live music and stand-up comedy.

“My father was a volunteer projectionist here,” says the cinema’s operations manager, Michael Offord, as he shows me around. “It was saved by the community so there is love in the building – it makes for a really unique experience and atmosphere. The atmosphere here is remarkable.”

Our next stop is the Guildhall, a grand old mansion that has been home to the City Council since 1673. The stairwell is decorated with portraits of well-fed former mayors, resplendent in their municipal finery, but the most impressive memento is the so-called Graffiti Room downstairs. In the 18th century, this room was used to hold prisoners awaiting trial, and many of them passed the time scratching intricate pictures on the walls. There are numerous etchings of sailing ships (including one from the American Revolutionary War) and an early hot air balloon.

We end up at the old Ha’penny Pier (so named because it used to charge half a penny to enter), looking out over the still gray waters to the looming cranes of Felixstowe and the wild North Sea beyond. A signpost on the wharf points to Cape Cod, where The Mayflower sailed, 3,314 miles away. Standing here as darkness falls, the past feels very close. “It’s a place steeped in history,” says Andy. “It’s in your blood.”

The Electric Palace is one of the oldest movie theaters in the country, opened in 1911 - Getty

The Electric Palace is one of the oldest movie theaters in the country, opened in 1911 – Getty

I spend the night in The Pier, a beautiful Victorian hotel on the harbor. The corridors are decorated with vintage travel posters (“Harwich for the Continent – the largest luxury steamers across the channel”). In the men’s there is a recording of the shipping forecast. I dine on grilled mackerel with red cabbage, fillet of pollock with chips and peas, and delicious apple crumble – £27.50 for three courses, good value for such good food. From my bedroom window, after dark, I watch the lights flash across the bay.

The next morning, before I leave for home, I stop at Harwich’s newest landmark, unveiled a few months ago. Entitled ‘Safe Haven’, it is a moving memorial to the memory of the (mainly German-Jewish) children of the Kindertransport, who arrived here from the mainland – all alone, without their parents, seeking refuge from persecution by the Nazis, just before World War II.

The memorial depicts a group of frightened children walking across a gangway. They must have been so scared at first, so unsure of what lay ahead. The finished sculpture by Ian Wolter captures that atmosphere of fear very well. “We disembarked at Harwich and were taken to some fields,” recalls one such refugee youth, Rabbi John Rayner. “The sun was shining, the air was clean, the grass was greener than I had ever seen, and if freedom was ever tangible, it was that morning in Harwich.”

Where to stay

Doubles at The Pier ( costs from £150 per room per night, including breakfast.

For more information on Harwich and Essex, visit or

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