PUBLISHED: 11:32 28 October 2014 | UPDATED: 11:32 28 October 2014
Dovercourt has certainly welcomed more than its fair share of holidaymakers over the years, but Petra Hornsby discovers that this small town, along with nearby Harwich, still offers plenty to visitors
The great British seaside resort has seen many changes over passing decades, largely due to the many different holiday choices people enjoy today.
Dovercourt was at the heart of the UK holiday camp revolution of the early 20th century and among Dovercourt’s biggest claims to fame is perhaps it being used as the location for the 1980s sitcom Hi de Hi, set in a 1950s holiday camp and filmed in the town’s own Warner’s Camp. The newly-built facilities had been used during World War II to house refugee children coming in to be fostered as part of the Kindertransport scheme and were also requisitioned by the Government in 1942 as a prisoner of war camp.
Once the war was over, the holiday making could really begin and during its peak, the camp was entertaining up to 11,000 visitors a year. Warner’s at Dovercourt Bay seemed to have everything — a swimming pool, tennis courts, bowling green, cricket pitch and putting green. Inside, it had a grand ballroom with its own resident band and an ample dining room. Sadly, perhaps with the popularity of holiday camps dwindling everywhere, it was closed in 1990.
Nevertheless, today the Lower Marine Parade end of the beach still has all that the holidaymaker or day-tripper might need, with a boating lake, roller-skate and skate board park and refreshments, plus inflatables, buckets and spades and other equipment for beach activities on sale. The town itself has an interesting high street with a range of shops including a supermarket and is just a short walk from the beach.
The beach at Dovercourt Bay is largely sandy, making it great for families. It has earned a much-coveted Blue Flag Beach Award and is Marine Conservation Society recommended as well as life guard attended. The beach is famously landmarked by the two cast iron lighthouses that were erected in 1863 and used until 1917 to guide ships around Landguard Point.
Dovercourt nestles right up to its neighbour, Harwich, the northern most coastal town in Essex and one of the five Haven Ports on the East Coast of England. Sitting at the confluence of the River Orwell and River Stour, Harwich overlooks the busy container port of Felixstowe.
Harwich became a naval base in 1657 thanks to it being considered the only safe anchorage between the Thames and the Humber. Its strategic position made it a target for foreign invaders starting with William of Orange in 1688 and the much-feared (but never realised) Napoleonic invasion during the 19th century. The Harwich Redoubt was built as part of the town’s defence and stands today as a tourist attraction.
These days, there is a peaceful way to enter and leave the port, as many tourists do, opting for the comparative luxury of ferry travel from the International Port of Harwich to the Hook of Holland or Esbjerg in Denmark.
Harwich Town has retained many of its naval landmarks and its seafaring character in the Old Town, which is a designated Conservation Area with some very handsome buildings. The Halfpenny Pier, a Victorian wooden construction, is a great summertime attraction and perfect for a stroll or to enjoy a cup of tea while watching the fisherman cast their lines. The Pier, a highly rated restaurant and hotel, enjoys a great view out to the harbour area and other places to visit include the High Lighthouse and also the Electric Palace Cinema — one of the oldest cinemas to survive in its original form both externally and internally thanks to a campaign for its refurbishment which was completed in 2009.
It was during Queen Victoria’s reign that Dovercourt really came into its own and became a popular seaside destination for those living further south in the county and who travelled in by train. There was also a weekend steamer service that operated between London and Yarmouth, stopping at Southend, Clacton and Walton along the way.
At this time, there were plenty of hotels and guest houses serving visitors who seemed keen to spend their time mostly on the beautiful sandy beach, dipping their toes in the water, playing games or just relaxing while enjoying the views.
This influx inspired John Bagshawe, a former East India merchant who had settled in Harwich. Having taken ➤ over the shipyard, he had great ambitions to build a new town at Lower Dovercourt.
Perhaps his main contribution to the town was the part he played in bringing the railway to Harwich, which he expedited through his ministerial position following his election in 1847. Clearly, he had a vision for the whole resort; when a spring was discovered in the grounds of another of his projects (Cliff House) he then built a luxury spa there to create an added attraction for perhaps a different type of visitor.
In the end, Bagshawe’s ambitions got the better of him financially, and following the landscaping of the slopes from Orwell Terrace to Mill Lane, complete with shelters, grottoes and a miniature waterfall, he was declared bankrupt. Bagshawe died in 1861, but the Cliff Walk, Orwell Terrace, Cliff Hotel and Queen’s Head Hotel remain as testament to his enthusiasm for the small seaside town.
Both Dovercourt and Harwich have strong senses of community and some people remain living there very happily for many years. One resident explains: ‘I was born in Dovercourt and have lived here for more than 40 years. My family are from Dovercourt, my dad worked for the railway and my grandfather was a submariner based in Harwich during World War I. When you think of the hustle and bustle of everyday life in a city, there’s nothing better than going to the beach or going down to Harwich pier and watching ships go by.’
But the council certainly aren’t resting on laurels, recognising there is still more they are keen to do to invite more tourism in to the area as well as keeping their residents happy.
Mick Page, Leader of Tendring District Council and Cabinet Member for Regeneration, explains that a number of initiatives have been undertaken to make Dovercourt more attractive to both residents and visitors alike.
‘We are working very closely with our partners, such as Harwich Town Council, to revamp the High Street by improving the overall feel with new street lighting, paving around the station area, new tourism maps and other features,’ says Mick. ‘This will not only improve the town centre for people living there, but also will help attract the many thousands of visitors who come in regularly on the large cruise ships. It is all about increasing the footfall and therefore the viability and sustainability of Dovercourt town centre.’
So, whether keen to frolic on the beach, stroll along the Marine Parade, visit the many tourist attractions or simply sit and watch the ships come and go, this charming and endearingly understated part of the county’s coast is certainly worth a visit. n
For more information on Harwich and Dovercourt’s fascinating past, visit www.harwichanddovercourt.co.uk