The Future is the Past: Harwich, Essex

Harwich has a split personality. At the northeasternmost point of Essex, the old town is still laid out as the medieval port it once was, but it’s separated from the cranes at Harwich International Port situated a mile up the Stour river. For centuries it was a key access point to Europe: a “gateway”, when it meant something beyond the buzzword loved by deliverologists in the netherworld of saleability. Since the Middle Ages, continental Europe has seeped in and out here. The King used to receive information from Holland, Germany, Scandinavia through Harwich, which developed with the Harwich packets – sailing boats that predated the Royal Mail. Today it’s a stream that’s become a trickle. In the middle of the last century you could walk into Liverpool Street station in east London and buy a ticket for a train ferry as far as Moscow, via Harwich. There were twice daily sailings from Harwich to Zeebrugge, a service run by the British Railway Board. All sorts of things were lifted on to the boat by crane: cars, horses, now and then an elephant. Every week there was a thwarted stowaway attempt by a Russian man desperate to sneak back home. It was the arrival of the Great Eastern Railway in the 1860s that saw the port moved from Harwich proper to the area downriver newly named Parkeston, where there was more space for development. My wife Hayley and I are staying in the boutiquey Pier Hotel opposite the town’s Ha’penny Pier. From our room we can hear the clanging of the distant docks, where those still left with a job at the port toil out of sight.

We’re here on the recommendation of Visit Essex, who are pushing the county’s coastline and rural northern reaches on the edge of East Anglia as an alternative to the Essex we all think we know. There is an air of reclamation about such ventures at the moment. The upshot of the rise of The Only Way is Essex and the return of Essex as a kind of derogatory shorthand for slow-learning glitzy vulgarity and souped-up motors – which in reality are hardly localised to Essex – has been a drive to set the record straight, or at least to air other stories. Focal Point Gallery in Southend have launched Radical Essex, an extended programme backed by Visit Essex aiming at “promoting Essex as a cultural destination”. Its first exhibition, The Peculiar People, follows the strands of experimental living and idealistic fantasias that were key to the growth of the county. Developments such as the plotland bungalows built by East End escapees at Dunton, and the optimistic postwar new town of Basildon that was built over them and later sold off under Thatcher’s right to buy, provide an arc that neatly tells the story of modern-day Essex.

Up here in the county’s vertiginous reaches, some are adamant that the louder, competitive Essex nearer London – pumped with City money until it became a byword for vulgar – is one that doesn’t apply north of South Woodham Ferrers. Less fly-tipped fields, Barratt Homes and boozed-up City boys; more Roman relics, ancient creeks and forgotten woodland. I have written about wider perceptions of Essex in the past, and received letters and comments from readers imploring me to ignore the vulgar Essex of Epping and Southend (where I’m from) and concentrate on the one found further north: Constable country, well-kept villages, historic ports and seasides. Another Essex, they say: the real Essex. But while it’s true that the further you are from London, the more unspoilt the villages are, nothing exists in a vacuum.

Essex is characterised by its relationship to the flow of wealth in and out of London, whose dominance reverberates around the entire county.

Earlier at dinner in the restaurant below us there was only one other table dining. Two couples of early retirement age on an impromptu double date, after they pushed their tables together. The blow-dried and long-dyed women seemed happier about the arrangement than their stiff-shirted husbands, who engaged in stunted small talk. If someone set up a hidden camera you could repurpose it as a lost scene from a Mike Leigh drama: feed a live-stream through a film-stock filter, get the editing right, add a musical flourish. Smatterings of conversation – fragments of lifestyle choices, holidays, hobbies – betrayed money made on the back of the City, before heading north. Nice place in a village, burglar alarm and iron fencing.

Essex is characterised by its relationship to the flow of wealth in and out of London, whose dominance reverberates around the entire county. What we call “Essex” could be described as the residue of the movement of people in and out, settlers and deserters. A hidden Essex history is that of sanctuary for the refugee and migrant. Many of us in Essex are the product of immigration. My friend Felix’s Polish grandfather moved to Billericay in the mid-1960s, an act of calm after a life shaken up by war: escaping both the Russians and the Germans, he ended World War Two flying Wellington bombers for the RAF. He retired in the ‘60s and opened the Billericay Bookshop, which he and his wife ran until the late 1980s. My grandparents moved to Southend from Ireland. Hayley’s grandmother Hannelore moved from Bergsteinfurt in northwest Germany to the East End of London after meeting Ernest – Hayley’s grandfather – in 1946 during the peacekeeping mission. They eventually settled in Basildon, and her brother Friedhelm would cycle the 60 miles from Harwich straight off the boat when visiting them. Stories like this fill my heart with such joy. They seem to evoke a freedom that feels somehow more potent through the distillation of retelling. Ernest talked of Friedhelm cycling to England as we viewed the decades old colour films he made with his Super 8 camera while his family was young. If only I could make it back there for a moment, to see Essex roads without that Audi TT up your arse, the A12 shorn of perpetual congestion; to see Essex field and marsh in a different, more innocent light; to breathe some of that cradle-to-grave postwar-consensus optimism sharply into my lungs.

“This was a very important part of Harwich, importing and exporting trains all over Europe. Sadly that’s all gone,” says retired local architect Sean Day as we survey the sleepy corner of the town near the railway station. “I can remember being held up in traffic here as a youngster, with my dad moaning as there was a train in the middle of the road.” Following the decline of the port, there have been numerous local efforts to remake Harwich as a heritage centre. Day is one of the driving forces behind the Mayflower Project, which is constructing a full-size replica of the ship that took the pilgrims to America. The newly built vessel will set sail to the US in 2020, to commemorate 400 years since the maiden voyage. Their aim is to redress the balance between Harwich, where the ship was built, and Plymouth, where it set sail from and the place that is most readily associated with the Mayflower.

In celebrating a journey into uncharted waters, the Mayflower Project chimes with the stories of migration and fresh starts that course through the larger Essex narrative.

In celebrating the Mayflower’s journey into uncharted waters, the project chimes with the stories of migration and fresh starts that course through the larger Essex narrative, which you could also find on a more micro level in the bungalow developments down the coast in Jaywick and elsewhere. Cockneys filtering out to build their own bungalow dreamscapes, long before Jaywick became Channel Five’s disrepaired seaside dystopia. Essex County Council projects the Mayflower Project will bring 80,000 extra visitors a year, which has piqued the interest of the local hotels; so has an endorsement by Richard Branson. Ultimately, Day and the council want to turn the town into a focused brand: Historic Harwich, home of the Mayflower.

When the Mayflower Project acquired the land from Network Rail on a lease basis, the site was full of half-buried detritus such as cars and prams, and covered by nettles and brambles. Aside from the dwindling port work, unemployment has been a problem for years. Local young people helped to rebuild the site as part of earning an NVQ through the Mayflower Project, with new gates and benches installed, and a mural created on the surrounding wall by school children.

Day and the other volunteers spent four years researching the original ship, but the new boat isn’t being made from any existing blueprint. “The designer had to research it for years, taking the details that are known for ships of the period, and adding engines.” It wasn’t the simplest of tasks – there were at least 12 Mayflowers afloat in 1620. “It was a lucky name, apparently,” says Sean. The ship’s importance to our own island myth cannot be overstated. It’s claimed that 35 million Americans, or 14 per cent of the population of the US, are descendents of the Mayflower’s crew. Helping populate this large land mass which evolved into a superpower that boomed as the British Empire petered out meant heads turned towards the Atlantic. We happily lapped up what they sent our way: Great Balls of Fire beats bar billiards; burger ‘n’ fries beats brawn and brown bread.

Jaywick, Essex

Harwich’s Electric Palace cinema is a restored turn-of-the-century picture house still used in the way it was built for. Surrounded by 17th century houses, it’s looked after by a group known as the Harwich Society. Run from the oldest house in town, the society relies on an army of volunteers to help maintain the upkeep of heritage Harwich. The Electric Palace is the UK’s “oldest-surviving, least-altered” cinema. It closed after the flood in 1953, fell into disrepair in the ensuing years and was almost raised for a carpark (always the carparks) until it was saved by the society, who acquired it in the mid ‘70s.

I meet Colin Crawford in the grand but empty auditorium. Colin moved here from Hampstead, north London, 40 years ago, to run the port as its general manager. He only intended to stay for a couple of years, but is still here, now holding the position of vice-chairman of the Harwich Society. During the era of postwar modernity, ornate details of historical buildings were often disregarded as people put their faith into a sleek-lined future. The society, which formed in 1969, flew in the face of that and were seen as the lunatic fringe as a result. Now its logic of restoration and small-cee conservatism fuels the identity of England.

Colin says the Harwich Society steps in where authorities can’t due to lack of funds, knowledge or will. But it could be argued Harwich’s worker-bee nostalgists only serve to mask the town’s problems. There is still employment here, says Colin, but wages are low. He hopes the port will be expanded, but this isn’t imminent. Anti-social behaviour means the cinema doesn’t allow children under 15 to come unaccompanied. “The trouble is if you let them in on their own they can be abusive to the volunteers,” he says. “There being poor wages in the town, there are broken families and some troublesome characters.”

The Society’s vice-chairman David Whittle arrives at the cinema to take us to another local historical landmark, the Redoubt Fort, a large circular defensive structure built to protect Harwich from Napoleonic invasion. Whittle worked on the docks when Colin was general manager. Back then the berths were full all day long.

Paranormal investigators spend their weekend nights searching for ghosts in a building with a legacy of proud impotence.

The Redoubt is one of over 100 Martello towers in all on the southeast-up-to-east coast, starting in Eastbourne and finishing up in Suffolk. Built into a bank of the Stour, it was originally armed with ten 9-foot-6-inch 24-pounder guns, which could shoot armour-pierced shells that would explode upon entering their target. But not a shot was fired in battle from the Redoubt – the ideal eventuality for a fort like this. An insurance policy, just in case. Trident back when the best threats were those you could see. French spies in fishing boats would communicate back to their generals the strength of the English coastal defence thanks to the Martellos, which is why, says Whittle, they were never attacked. “If the French had brought their powerful army here, they would have flattened the town. We’d all be speaking French today! That’s what the Martello towers are all about.”

The Harwich Society first entered the Redoubt Fort in 1969, after it had been derelict for some years. Building materials and consumer detritus such as old washing machines, even an abandoned car had been dumped within its walls. In the clean-up they found a 12-tonne gun buried in the earth. The Redoubt stopped being an active deterrent in the 1880s. It was used as a prison for conscientious objectors in the First World War – there is still a jail downstairs, but just for show. After World War Two it was used by the Civil Defence during the Cold War. In the 1950s, the whole town would descend upon the fort to take part in a morbid exercise that simulated a nuclear attack.

We clamber around the wall and down into the former messes. The fort’s many rooms are stuffed with relics. Rows of secondhand books to raise money for upkeep, displays of how soldiers used to live here, and a duck punt, once a common site when Essex marshland was a destination for daytripping hunters from London. We come across a World War Two V2 rocket motor, which the local people used to moor boats to until somebody noticed what it was a couple of years ago. “Of course the whole area was cleared,” says David. “Luckily the tonne of amytal on the end had disappeared over time.”

The fort is owned by Tendring District Council, but is the largest historic monument managed by private individuals. The Harwich Society has over 2,000 members. The majority of the volunteers are of retirement age – Whittle says the society would love younger blood involved, but people are often too busy trying to make ends meet, bringing up their kids and going to work. They used to do fetes but the volunteers are too old for the three-weeks work that’s needed to set them up. They help fund the place by charging the paranormal investigators who spend weekend nights searching for ghosts in a building with a legacy of proud impotence.

Mistley, downriver from Harwich, Essex

The MP for Harwich and North Essex is the Conservative, Bernard Jenkin. Hayley and I visited Harwich in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Since then, like many of his fellow Tories, Jenkin has campaigned to leave the European Union in the run up to the 23rd June referendum, in direct opposition to the wishes of his party’s leadership. Last week, he presented a screening of Brexit the Movie at the old Electric Palace cinema. Essex is intrinsically associated with disquiet at the EU. UKIP was founded not far away from here, in Frinton, and much of the county will vote in favour of leaving the EU in the referendum. Nigel Farage chose Southend to launch his pro-Brexit flotilla of boats upriver.

Nostalgia is a potent force in this Brexit debate and it has been adhered to to the point of farce. It has the potential to be a deciding factor in some people’s choice. When recently The Sun came out in support of Brexit on its full front-page editorial, its tone was predictably vainglorious: “Our country has a glorious history. This is our chance to make Britain even greater, to recapture our democracy, to preserve the values and culture we are rightly proud of.” Jenkin tweeted The Sun front page with his own message: “The revolution against the establishment has begun.” That Jenkin is a white Tory MP, son of a life peer and a Corpus Christie alumnus seemed to matter little to his claim. Here was the thrill of possibility of an island unshackled. Here was the promise of action in an ocean of inertia. Here was a finger poised, tantalisingly, on the rewind button.

But what is nostalgia, exactly? And why does it have such a hold on us? In Harwich’s case it could be described as a deep connection with one’s locale. It leads to a desire to preserve what’s there, something to invest in at a time when entropy has seized tomorrow. Pull the place up by its bootstraps by selling people the past. The possible outfall is that you turn your back on serious notions of the future. It is hard to tell exactly what this curious place on England’s eastern edge can tell us about the country or indeed its most infamous county. Viewed one way, it’s just another port town with its own problems. But in its Society it has fostered a kind of defiance against the decline that has befallen so many other places of its kind, albeit a very English brand of defiance. The kind that Cameron’s big society wanted; the kind that saw brooms waved around after the London riots.

Doggerland is the mythical lost landscape that once joined the east side of the UK to mainland Europe. If we are to break away in a fit of Brextacy, it won’t be the first time.

Southend-based artist Sophie Sleigh-Johnson’s Chthonic Index, an intriguing pamphlet sized monograph published by the Focal Point Gallery, visualises Essex as a site of haunted inscription. It penetrates further than nostalgia can, deep into the Essex sublime, finding a fertile darkness of the unknown and the hidden in her county. The project first surfaced in a radio programme made for Resonance FM, which started with a foghorn groaning over spoken prose. It evoked the liminal, the littoral, the flooded and the submerged, obscured terrain ripe for the formation of myth.

Sleigh-Johnson’s research into this liminal Essex took her to researching Doggerland, the mythical lost landscape that once joined the east side of the UK to mainland Europe. (Anyone who has heard the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast more than once will be able to recall Dogger Bank, a sandbank 60-odd miles off the English coast, the most shallow part of the North Sea.) Dutch ships first found evidence of the vanished plain of Doggerland at the bottom of the sea 150 years ago, uncovering tusks and remains of woolly rhinos and other fantastical beasts. More recently in 1985, human remains from a burial site were brought back to shore by fishermen. Radiocarbon dating pinned this unknown hunter-gatherer to the Mesolithic period 9,500 years ago. He was buried twice: first by man, second by nature. As the ice age thawed away, the swelling sea turned a range of boxy hills on the northwestern corner of a continent into the increasingly isolated island we live on today. If we are to break away in a fit of Brextacy, it won’t be the first time. This gargantuan geological divorce has set the tone for the United Kingdom’s isolationist quirks ever since, with Essex seemingly at the sharp end of the split as much then as it is now.

We look down at Harwich from the tower. It seems small, slightly insignificant, against this dramatic man-made structure of the fort. North over the river is the larger port of Felixstowe, a bigger concern than Harwich, and better equipped to meet the challenges of globalisation. Here, nostalgia is the present; the future is the past. This Harwich of conservation, of keeping alive the old, is just another fold in the English experience. Driving us back to our hotel, Whittle mentions the 1980s sitcom Hi-de-Hi was shot in nearby Dovercourt, the fictional Maplin holiday camp was filmed at Warner’s resort there. One of the nation’s most popular TV shows, which ran for the entirety of Thatcher’s first two terms, Hi-De-Hi celebrated the good clean fun of the 1950s at a time when such community spirit was being tested by cuts to public services and privatisation.

Warner’s housed hundreds of Jewish refugees during the Kindertransport initiative at the breakout of the Second World War, of which a memorial sculpture by the Mayflower Project reminds us. Migrants arrive here by stealth these days: of the 68 people crammed into lorries found at the port of Harwich in June 2015, 15 were children, and two of the women were pregnant. Bernard Jenkin was quick to exploit the incident. “Our disagreements with the EU over immigration and the movement of people must not be left off the table. Abuse of the European Convention on Human Rights unreasonably inflates successful asylum claims. Addressing this is another piece of the puzzle in reducing illegal entries into the UK.” But Brexit or not, hiding whole families in containers designed for imports speaks of the outfall of geopolitical catastrophe and the triumph of capitalism and logistics more than it does a forced hand by the EU. New life squeezed into a shipment of Polish washing machines, a macabre echo of a once optimistic arrival. People in boxes and boats – inverted ghosts, haunting in life as much as death.


Image credits: Harwich’s Mayflower project; Jaywick; Mistley, downriver from Harwich. All photos: Hayley Hatton


The Learned Pig

Tim Burrows

Tim Burrows writes about culture and place for The Guardian, Vice, The Quietus and other publications. His first short story, Broadgate, is published in the Influx Press anthology An Unreliable Guide to London on 7th July. Trying to Fit a Number to a Name: The Essex Estuary by Tim Burrows and Lee Rourke is also published by Influx.