Built where two mighty rivers - the Stour and the Orwell - meet at at the sea, Harwich is home to former naval yards and acres of wildlife-rich marshland. When Elizabeth I visited the town in 1561, she declared it: "a pretty place and wants for nothing." The train journey there is an adventure in itself and is billed as the “Mayflower Line”, after the famous boat that sailed for America in 1620. The Mayflower's master, Christopher Jones, was from Harwich. The railway line from Manningtree to Harwich carries visitors along the beautiful Stour Estuary, which you can also explore on foot, following part of the Essex Way.
1. An hour or so by train - centuries of history
Visitors coming from London to Harwich will need to change at Manningtree, but the eighty-minute journey from capital to coast is packed with interest. The Mayflower Line is one of Britain’s scenic railways.
- Heading eastwards on the train, you pass the 2012 Olympic stadium on your left, with the UK’s tallest sculpture, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, looking like a roller coaster, beside it (tickets are 2 for 1 if you arrive by train with a voucher) There’s more about this area in our guide to car-free Greenwich, Woolwich and Docklands.
- At Colchester, look right for glimpses of Britain’s oldest recorded Roman town. You’ll see the tall tower of the town hall, and the late Victorian water tower nicknamed “Jumbo” silhouetted on the horizon.
- There’s often a quick change to platform 1 at Manningtree; once you’ve found the Harwich train, settle yourself on the left hand side to enjoy views of the Stour. Look out for the lovely church, twin ochre towers, and brick malt factory at waterside Mistley.
- The journey from here is spectacular, with views across the wide waters of the estuary to impressive buildings in Suffolk, like the Queen Anne-style Royal Hospital School. And, closer at hand, a series of waterside nature reserves, encompassing woods and flowering marshes.
- The industrial docks of Harwich International bring the journey abruptly back to the 21st century, but Harwich Town has plenty of history to explore – as well as pubs and teashops.
2. Stroll around town
Step out of Harwich Town station into Old Harwich and explore on foot: a simple stroll of not much more than a mile takes you past centuries of seafaring history. You’ll see the 90-foot High Lighthouse ahead, built in 1818, now the official start of the long distance Essex Way.
- Turn left in front of the lighthouse and follow the road right to see a bit more of the old town. Turn left along Church Street, passing St Nicholas church, with its seafaring monuments, and the Guildhall, which contains an old prison cell, its wooden walls etched with ships, gallows and even an 18th-century hot air balloon (open Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings).
- Turn right into Market Street and left into Kings Head Street, where half-timbered houses include (at number 21) the former home of Christopher Jones, captain of the Mayflower. There is a project locally planning to reconstruct the ship. At end of road, turn R along the Quay to find the Ha’penny Pier, lightship, and former naval yard, all overlooking the harbour. You can even get a ferry across to the Shotley peninsula.
- Follow the road right into Kings Quay Street. Head left and immediately right into Wellington Street passing murals and the 1911 Electric Palace Cinema. Turn left into Angelgate to see the Lifeboat Museum and walk along the waterfront to the Treadwheel Crane – a rare 17th-century naval relic.
- Continue, past the Low Lighthouse, housing a seasonal Maritime Museum and seaside gardens.
- Walk on along the sea front, with the water on your left, around the edge of the derelict Beacon hillfort, with views across bay. You can walk further along the coast to see the elegant Dovercourt lighthouses, or turn right instead at the marble statue of Queen Victoria into Kingsway and right again into High Street, bearing left into Main Road.
- Detour down the signed track to look at the Redoubt, a large circular fort built in 1808 to protect the harbour from a Napoleonic invasion (open summer and Sundays). Continue up main road back to the High Lighthouse.
- Returning to Harwich Town station, you might like to pop into the brewery there to pick up some souvenirs (cash only – phone ahead on 01255 551155 if you want to make sure someone will be there).