Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Sorry everyone, I'm on a writing deadline at the moment. The January newsletter's due up any minute though. Have the following piece instead. It's a recent article I wrote about Harwich for the East Anglian, which many of our non U.K. readers won't be able to gain access to. I'm rather proud of my work for the Anglian and it enables me to go round the county writing about all sorts of interesting people and places, in this case a very historical English sea-port about twenty miles from where I live.
I could have stayed in and perhaps I should have. At some point during the New Year I'd managed to download Version 1 of the National Cold into my system– that's the one that comes with the hacking cough and blocked sinus, with its optional add-ons of headache and sore throat. Though it was a bright cold Saturday and I decided to go and mooch around in Harwich instead. When the god in charge of mucking about with perfectly good historical places visited Harwich, he must have missed a lot of it out. The old part of the town is remarkably untouched and still haunted by the ghosts of the thrumming old seaport which it used to be.
From the town pier, you can see the confluence of the rivers Orwell and Stour and imagine the numberless sailing ships over the centuries whose first or last sighting of England must have been old Harwich. It's a little-known fact that when the Beatles first went to Germany in August of 1960, for a 48-night stint at Hamburg's sleazy Indra Club, it was from Harwich that they left. There's blurred snapshot in one of my old pop books of John Lennon on the quay watching the band's battered and overloaded Austin van being hoisted onto the ferry.
For centuries Harwich was a very important place. Samuel Pepys the naval administrator and diarist was an MP here. When Dr.Johnson and Boswell left England for Holland, it was also from Harwich which was then the gateway to Germany and the Low Countries. Daniel Defoe described the port as: 'a town of hurry and business, not much of gaiety and pleasure' but acknowledged that some of its residents were wealthy. The vestiges of that wealth are still to be seen in the streets of the old town, though the grandeur is discreet – as you might expect in a town which has also known hard times.
When I first knew Harwich in the mid-Seventies as a young pantiwaist of a singer in a gigging band, it was known as a rufty-tufty, hard-living sort of place where you generally watched your step. My father was a Port Health-officer here for many years and was immensely fond of it. Later, however, after the sea cargoes were containerised and the trade moved away from the old port, it made him sad to revisit the place. When he met the old port workers he'd known, he said: “You find they just want to talk about the old days.” There's still a residual melancholy about the Old Town and yet, one gets the feeling that Harwich is quietly on the up. The American cruise ships arrive in summer – disgorging many of their passengers into Harwich for the day. True, many will be coached to Colchester or London for day-trips but others will stay and wander around the town marvelling at the antiquity of the buildings or gazing up at Harwich's imposing church, St Nicholas. In addition to this, Christopher Jones, the Master of the Mayflower was from here, the Elizabethan house he was born is in Kings Head Street. In nearby streets, even by contrast with ten or fifteen years ago, are signs that Harwich is beginning to do okay. Some of the older houses, bought by hard-up teachers during the housing-boom years when Harwich was cheaper than many other places, look well-kept and genteel. Despite dire times for the pub trade, there are still lots of pubs and as one local told me, “It's not hard to find somewhere to to eat here” The Pepys and the Pier restaurants both seem to be flourishing and even on this bitterly cold day, if the streets are quiet it's only because the eateries are full. In high season, my guide said, on some days these streets are packed. And the people who really do take to Harwich are the cruise ships' mainly Filipino and Thai crews.
Standing on the town's Ha'penny Pier, it's easy to imagine Harwich as it was, a place full of tall-masted ships, coal boats and Men of War – many of which were built here for the Navy. Further in, in the alleyways and cut-throughs of the Old Town were the sailmakers, the chandlers, the taverns and the roperies. A few centuries ago Harwich was the town that never closed. Here the press-gang would have waited, to waylay some drunk sailor so that he could wake up with a headache en-route to a sea-battle with the Dutch navy. Here Defoe arrived in spring of 1722, finding the townsmen 'far from being famed for their good useage of strangers'. Here too, the Huguenot refugees and Flemish weavers on their way to Colchester would have had their first experiences of England. And then came the slump of the late 20th century when the economic game moved up the field. Harwich today though, surprises me and I can't think why I haven't been back here for so long. Sure, there's talk in the town about the recent closure of Woolworths and who might go next. But despite the freezing weather there was a good turn-out on the quay for the New Year fireworks. In a few months' time the cruise ships will be in again and the various festivals and tours will take place. And then the visitors will come – and I will be among them.