A town guide to Harwich
PUBLISHED: 12:35 11 July 2016 | UPDATED: 12:35 11 July 2016
Well known across the county as a historic port and a place of adventure for passengers setting off on a cruise across the oceans, Harwich is ready to offer even more for visitors to this charming resort
Historic Harwich is a description of the busy port situated in north Essex which has a certain ring to it and, what’s more, the words are accurate. Visitors keen on historic adventures are totally spoilt here and a newly-formed group of private, public and voluntary organisations has joined forces to remind both locals and a wider audience just what Harwich and neighbouring Dovercourt have to offer.
A famous part of this history is the story of the Mayflower, the name given to the ship that was built at the port and captained by Harwich-born Christopher Jones, when it sailed with the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620. The 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower is just four years away and Harwich is keen to celebrate this momentous event, but the Harwich and Dovercourt Tourism Group is encouraging everyone to bring out the bunting early and showcase all the wonderful things that the town is quite rightly proud of.
The Harwich and Dovercourt Tourism Group was formed earlier this year following an invitation to businesses, retailers and leisure and tourist organisations to get involved in a new scheme to encourage more visitors to the area. Many, it seems, are more than happy to be involved.
Both Harwich Town Council and Tendring District Council are offering their support. Mike Carran from Tendring District Council explains the reasoning behind forming the group.
‘We felt that a lot of positives would be gained by all sectors coming together and sharing information that would help promote the town,’ says Mike. ‘In these challenging times, with less money around, there is a need to think more creatively. Tendring District Council wanted to start a group that would make things happen and agreed to kick start the campaign by creating a brand and logo which would be easily recognisable and would highlight all aspects of the area under one heading. We have also created an umbrella website which we hope will help to effectively represent Harwich and Dovercourt’s top visitor attractions and we are now putting the finishing touches to a promotional video.’
Of course, the main focus might be on the Mayflower, but there are other important elements to Harwich’s history, including the Redoubt Fort which was built during the Napoleonic wars as well as the Electric Palace, which is one of the country’s oldest cinemas and is now fully restored. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys was MP for the town and a stroll around the old part of Harwich gives the visitor a great insight into what life in this vibrant coastal port was like before the arrival of modern passenger ferries.
Colin Farnell of the Harwich Society is clearly looking forward to the celebration ahead but, for him, there are one or two important anniversaries to acknowledge first. ‘Next year is the 350th birthday of our great landmark: the two wheel man-operated Treadmill Crane,’ says Colin. ‘As far as we know, it’s the only one still in existence in Britain. Then, in 2018, our two famous light houses — both the high and low – will be 200 years old. Our society intends to mark the occasion with celebrations fetauring 200 people standing symbolically across the green and there will be a children’s carnival. For 2020, I envisage our volunteers in costume and re-enacting what life was like at the time of the Mayflower’s voyage 400 years ago.’
The Harwich Society was formed in 1969 and has an impressive 2,000 members who are all active volunteers playing their part in running five museums, the visitor centre, nature reserve and even acting as town guides.
Colin continues: ‘I feel we can be an advantage to the new tourism group as we are a big organisation in a small town and we are an effective civic amenities society. Harwich is definitely a place worth promoting and is a great place to visit for the day.’
One businessman, whose family has had connections with Harwich since 1978, has willingly stepped forward to chair the new tourism group.
Paul Milsom, of Milsoms Hotels and Restaurants and owner of the popular Pier restaurant and hotel in Harwich, explains why the town deserves better recognition. ‘Harwich has had something of an image problem over the years, but the tide is turning and we now have the opportunity to demonstrate all the vibrancy of the area and the variety of activities on offer,’ says Paul. ‘As well as the heritage, there is an award-winning beach at Dovercourt, there are lovely walks and cycle routes to enjoy and the more energetic can try kitesurfing or windsurfing.
‘As a business, we have invested in the town as our restaurant and hotel have recently undergone a massive refurbishment, so we are naturally keen to encourage more visitors to the area. There are always challenges, but, as a group, we can be co-ordinated in our approach and lay down foundations that will boost the area in the lead up to the Mayflower celebrations and beyond. Increased tourism will benefit everyone in Harwich and encourage much-needed growth.’
Along with its heritage, another lure for the visitor is the town’s abundant culture and, for this reason, the organisers of the Harwich Festival are also involved with the new tourism group.
The Harwich Festival (which is supported by public funding from Arts Council England, the Tendring Education Trust and Essex County Council) not only runs its annual summer festival programme, but is also behind many other events throughout the year. These include free creative writing sessions (known as Write Away) which are held weekly in Harwich library, and also Urban Knitting, the latest word in al fresco decorating.
The festival’s artistic director, Peter Davis, says: ‘There is a strong cultural buzz in the town with music of all genres, visual arts, dance, drama and creative writing providing residents and visitors with plenty of entertainment and an opportunity to be involved.
‘We wanted to help advertise all the events that take place in the town and offered to organise a box office in the town’s library where people can pick up information on forthcoming concerts, festivals (there are 12 throughout the year) and performances or gigs, as well as book tickets at the same time. We also have an informative website that lists all that is taking place and where tickets can also be bought.
‘Already we are looking ahead to the anniversary in 2020 and, this year, we invited artists of all ages to submit pieces of work which measure 20cm x 20cm to be exhibited as part of the festival. There is very much an emphasis on the visual arts this year and we are also starting our Panel Project where around 3,500 children will help paint bricks on to sail cloths which will then be used to wrap local landmarks across the town.’
Colourful, artistic, cultural and historic Harwich. Clearly, with the enthusiasm and expertise that the Harwich and Dovercourt Tourism Group have between them, the next few years will be very exciting for all involved and give people good reason to visit this charming place.