You'll find Harwich in the top right corner of Essex, at the end of a peninsula overlooking the River Stour. It boasts the finest natural harbour between the Humber and the Thames, hence has a long and esteemed maritime history, although today is overshadowed by the container port of Felixstowe across the estuary. You get there via the A120 or up the branch line from Manningtree (from which, if you look out of the window for the right couple of seconds, you can see Grayson Perry's A House for Essex at Wrabness). And Harwich turns out to be a bit of a jewel, overflowing with old streets, pubs and museums, plus as a vantage point it's hard to beat. [Visit Harwich][Visit Harwich][Harwich Society][24 photos]
Harwich Maritime Trail: One good way to explore the town is via a Discovering Britain audio walk, where you can listen to your history on the way round with the added bonus of an accompanying 36 page booklet from the Royal Geographical Society. Or there's the Harwich Pub Trail, if that's more your thing, and assuming you have no need to remember the rest of the day. But I plumped for the Harwich Maritime Trail, picking up a leaflet courtesy of the seemingly ubiquitous Harwich Society, which weaved for a mile and a bit through the old streets. Including the following...
• Redoubt Fort This Napoleonic fortress was built just over 200 years ago, in case the French came calling. A two-storey circular building, it now sits inside a moat, inside a ring of allotments, inside a housing estate, so is nigh impossible to see from the rest of the town. Restored and staffed by volunteers, it was the best value three quid of the day. Circuit one takes you round the ramparts past the big guns, then you descend to view the ring of damp arches within which the soldiers slept, worked, exercised and ate. Today these arches contain an eclectic museum which tells the fort's story but also that of the town, including a collection of Sealink memorabilia, a second hand bookstall, and lots of old objects that Harwich Society members were reluctant to throw away. Make sure you get the 50p leaflet to explain stuff on the way round. (entrance £3, open daily)
• Low Lighthouse A squat 200-year-old wooden light by the riverside, now home to the town's Maritime Museum. (entrance £1)
• High Lighthouse Visible across town, its light lined up with the Low Lighthouse to guide sailors into the harbour. It also marks the end of the 81 Essex Way, an 81 mile footpath from Epping. It was recently reopened to allow visitors to enjoy the view from the top (and ignore the lady who says it's more than 200 steps to the top, it's less than 100). (entrance £1, Saturdays only)
• Treadwheel Crane A 350-year-old hoist attached to big wooden hut containing a wheel operated by men walking round inside. Now there's a modern welfare idea, eh Minister?
• Lifeboat Museum The town's not short on museums, even if most are small. Thisone houses an old Clacton lifeboat, the Valentine Wyndham-Quin. (entrance £1)
• Electric Theatre Opened in 1911, closed in the 1950s and restored in the 1980s, this is one of the oldest operational cinemas in England. Its facade is glorious, and its daily film programme appropriately not-quite mainstream.
• Mayflower Project The Captain and crew for the Mayflower came from Harwich, and the captain's house still stands in Kings Head Street. There are currently plans to recreate the boat in time for the 400th anniversary of its 1620 sailing. So far they've only built the keel frame, but you can have a look at that, and their plans for the next five years, on site by the station. [website]
• Ha'penny Pier At the tip of the town, overlooking the river, this is a stumpy dog-leg jetty with a cafe and a tiny tourist information hut (where the Harwich Society will hope to sell you some of their many publications).
• Light Vessel LV18 It's big, it's red, it's the last manned lightship in the UK, and it's moored up beside the Ha'penny Pier. Oh and of course it's a museum, containing Pirate Radio memorabilia. (entrance £2) [website]
That's a lot more than most small towns have to offer. And if Harwich doesn't hold you, here are three neighbouring places to escape to.
Dovercourt: Harwich's Essex twin is a former seaside resort fractionally down the coast, now coalesced with its northern neighbour. Its long bay is dominated by two wooden lighthouses, one by the promenade and one out to sea, installed by Trinity House in 1863, again to guide in sailors through careful alignment. It's also a great place for watersports, hence the bay was thronging with windsurfers at the weekend, watched over by spouses and family while they circuited offshore. The council's attempt at a cliff garden seems somewhat worse for wear these days, with crumbling concrete and no attempt at planting, and the beach huts are a motley bunch (numbered in an entirely illogical order). A couple of hotels survive overlooking the breakers, but alas you're too late to visit Dovercourt Bay Holiday Park, once dressed up as Maplins for the filming of Hi-De-Hi, now demolished and replaced by a housing estate.
the Harwich Harbour Foot Ferry: From May to August (and weekends in April and September) a pedestrian ferry crosses the Stour linking Essex to Suffolk. It's only small, seating no more than 12 paying passengers, but that was no problem on my visit with loadings extremely light. The custard-coloured lowloader sets off from the Ha'penny Pier a few times a day (be sure to check the timetable) to negotiate the shipping lanes where there might be a yacht, there might be an ocean liner or there might be a massive container ship. You might also get a bit splashed or you might not, depending on conditions, and there's a loyalty card in case you make ten journeys (which, let's be fair, is unlikely). Oh, and there's a choice of destination...
Shotley: At the end of a tongue-shaped peninsula, sandwiched between the Stour and Orwell estuaries, lies the small village of Shotley. It's most famous as the site of the Royal Navy's training school for boys, based on the Navy's last sailing ship, with recruits numbering 500 before WW1 but 2000 after WW2. The boys lived and trained in a complex on the hill, now almost entirely demolished and awaiting rebirth as housing, but the mast of HMS Ganges (which they used for rigging practice) remains on site. Various artefacts from the naval colony are preserved in a museum by the marina, free to enter, and containing the ship's original figurehead. Or, while you're waiting for the ferry to come back, you can go for a walk up one or other arms of the estuary. The Stour side is prettier, with a strip of communal woodland atop the cliffs, an important bird habitat along Erwarton Bay, and fineviews over the peninsula from the adjacent farmland tracks. Meanwhile the Orwell side is busier, with yachts aplenty off the salt marsh, and the amazing sight of the Port of Felixstowe on the opposite bank. I couldn't take my camera off the miles of cranesand containers, so beguiling is the import/export theatre played out on the Suffolk shore. I counted 34 cranes in total, their automatic shuffling servicing a sequence of giant international ships piled high with wares from abroad. A lot of what you buy comes through here, out of mind and out of sight, unless you live in Harwich or Shotley, that is.
Felixstowe: And the ferry also runs from Harwich to Felixstowe, which I suspect is a busier run, but that's for another day.