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Harwich is the first port of call

PUBLISHED: 10:01 19 July 2013 | UPDATED: 10:01 19 July 2013

EXG AUG 13 Harwich

EXG AUG 13 Harwich

Archant

Harwich may well be the end of the railway line and the one-lane highway from the rest of the UK, but for hundreds of cruise and ferry passengers every year it's just the start of their journey. Once at Harwich, the world is your oyster. In fact, Harwich is the county's gateway to the Norwegian fjords, the Baltic coast, Iceland, Lapland, Russia, the Netherlands and Denmark and even an easy way to tour the capitals of Europe.

But, as David Whittle of the Harwich Society explains, there is more to Harwich than that. ‘Many people think of Harwich only as the departure point for ferries or cruise ships,’ says David. ‘That’s Harwich International Port. The pretty old maritime town of Harwich is to the east, where the rivers Orwell and Stour converge, and it is a fascinating town packed with houses and other buildings that have been standing for many hundreds of years.’

Indeed, Harwich has been a port since the late Middle Ages, when it sent wool around the world and received wine in return. Under Henry VIII it became an important fishing town – so important that three forts were built to protect it and its 800-strong population. In the late 17th century it became a naval base, under Samuel Pepys, who was First Secretary to the Admiralty at the time and also the town’s MP. The Navy Yard was the original site of one of the town’s most impressive surviving monuments, the Harwich Crane, dating to about 1667, but this is just one of many clues to the colourful history of Harwich that still stand. The Redoubt Fort and Dovercourt’s High and Low lighthouses also live to tell the tale of this ancient port.

‘Over a small area you will find many places to explore,’ adds David. ‘As well as the Redoubt Fort, there’s the Maritime Museum, Electric Palace Cinema, Lifeboat Museum, a working Lifeboat Station, a decommissioned Trinity House Light Vessel LV18 and The Mayflower Project, where a replica of The Pilgrim Fathers’ ship will be built.’

As well as the sightseers, Harwich also attracts holidaymakers and day-trippers looking to enjoy the typical English seaside.

‘Thanks to the international port, Harwich welcomes visitors of all nations and of course those from across our own county and our neighbours too,’ enthuses the town’s Mayor, David McLeod. ‘Harwich is full of character, with a very strong and friendly community.’

Joined to the south of Harwich, Dovercourt Bay is a surprisingly tranquil and picturesque seaside resort with Blue Flag sand and shingle beaches next to a fine harbour, the largest between the Thames and Humber. Arriving and departing vessels can be spotted from the comfort of the long prom and the seafront has genteel attractions including a skating rink, putting green and a boating lake. >>

Another surprise is Harwich’s Electric Palace Cinema, which survives as one of the oldest purpose-built cinemas in the country. Behind its ornamental façade is the original projection room – which dates from 1911 – and ticket office, and a screen first installed to show movies of the silent era.

In fact the first film to be shown was The Battle of Trafalgar and The Death of Nelson, a silent film with live sound effects and musical accompaniment, tickets for which the early cinemagoers of Harwich would have paid a shilling (sixpence for children) each. When the ‘talkies’ arrived in the 1920s, the Electric Palace was extremely popular and it remained so until 1956. Sadly, it was largely forgotten about until 1972, when it was earmarked for demolition to make way for a car park. This potential tragedy galvanised the local community to take action and save it, successfully having it listed as a building of sociological interest (now Grade II*) and spending a decade restoring it to its former glory in time for the cinema’s 70th anniversary in 1981.

Today the Electric Palace is a thriving community cinema, run by volunteers and with celebrated British actor and local resident Clive Owen as its patron. It screens films to suit all tastes, from Hollywood blockbusters to independent art house films every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as archive film shows, theatre and concert performances and, fittingly, silent films. This month’s programme includes an evening with the Bohem Ragtime Jazz Band from Hungary, alongside screenings of Despicable Me 2. When it comes to Harwich, expect the unexpected.

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