I drove South from Norwich. A VW camper van was abandoned at the side of the road, broken down. It had wedding ribbons stretched across the cab. The evening was warm and dusty. I arrived in Harwich some two hours later, at the end of the light. Having been shown to my room by Mick, my host, he offered to take me around the town before sampling a well-earned jar in the New Bell Inn.
The town itself is conspicuous by its absence. Harwich, gateway to the continent, where 58 Royal Naval men-of-war were constructed, home to the manufacturing and repair yards of Trinity house, whose former masters include Samuel Pepys, is basically missing. The main streets are a series of uncanny blanks, anonymous shuttered and curtained frontages. Cast your eyes up and the town comes into view, ghosts of awnings, faded shop names, disarticulated signs. The great storm surge of 1953 wiped a lot of the town out, burying most of old Harwich under sea-water for weeks. Pleasingly, a large electrical shop has survived the massacre, and trades solo at the end of the high street past the church, straight out of the 1970s, cookers, lights, toasters, and a vintage Bibendum statue, all in unequal rows. The post office is a recent departure, still bearing the signage. Most shops leave just a few clues, as if a spell of disguise has been cast across the town. It’s strange, to walk along a road that feels so very much like a town centre, but lacks the bustle and buzz.
On the shore, you can enjoy one of the finest views in England, across the Stour and Orwell estuaries to Felixstowe container port, by far England’s largest port, conduit for over 40% of our international goods trade. The astonishing mile and a half of continuous super-deep dock can rapidly service six of the world’s largest container ships at once, each transporting a barely conceivable 18,000 shipping containers. Immense cranes on rails can run right up and down the length of the dock, the whole operation controlled and directed by computer systems. In the dusk, the lights of the yard lit it all up, and set back across the water, the immensity of the shipping was reduced to toys you could hold in your hands, the countless containers too small to resolve as detail. The docks sang, ring of container touching down, whine of powerful electrical motors, sirens and horns, each unresolvable to any obvious event.
“Of course they come in full and leave empty. We don’t make anything any more.”
I just stared at it all. On the beach in the foreground, a large wicker whale had been built the previous year, and was now collapsing into the sands, powerless and beaten before the Maersk titans across the way.
We walked round to the Lightvessel 18 by the quay. Now retired, this was the last manned Lightvessel in British waters. It was odd to finally meet one. I’ve often been soothed by the poetry of the shipping forecast on Radio 4, (Who couldn’t fail to feel a quiver of something primal when Sandettie Lightvessel Automatic comes around?) and was pleased when Mick shouted out to the man in the gathering dusk to ask if we could step onboard.
“So long as you don’t sing any bloody shanties” came the reply through the murk.
The deck was a garden, pots and beds where ropes and chains had been. Tony told me that the group who owned it had decided to enter into the Harwich secret garden competition, and the floral consequences were before me. I promised to come back the next day to meet it properly.
The gloom had set in properly now, so we headed for the New Bell Inn.
Whilst much of the town might have dissolved in the flood, what is left are the pubs, a good dozen around the town, and mostly decent quality. With a pint of creamy mild, I listened to Mick telling me about the mass U-boat surrender, the Kindertransports, and the ships full of giant cranes coming in from China to populate Felixstowe, like some sort of sentient robot sending bits ahead to build itself on a foreign shore, unstoppable and relentless. Harwich was always witness rather than actor in these stories.
I made my way to bed full of beer, and listened to the sound of globalisation through the open window, the music of the world carrying easily on flat warm estuarine water. Ants moving the food eggs and spoil of global trade with a continuous singing urgency.
The next morning I was untidy round the edges, so set off for a restorative breakfast. In the cafe, I ordered an Espresso to kick start my day. It was clear they didn’t really know what that was, as they were surprised by the small volume of coffee the machine produced, pressing the button again and again until they were able to present me with a large mug of the stuff. We eyed each other suspiciously, and I drank as much as I felt able.
Down the quay is the Harwich premises of Trinity House. Founded in 1514, this venerable institution is in charge of lighthouses, navigational aids, and providing deep-sea pilotage in British waters. In Harwich, they maintain their fleet of Lightvessels, and make and repair navigational buoys. On the jetty, the rapid response vessel ‘Alert’ was at rest. Lightvessels are no longer crewed, instead powered by solar energy and computer operated from afar. One was in for repairs, and two more sat in the estuary awaiting tow to station. The factory manufactures navigational buoys of all sorts. By the road, sinker-weights were arranged in groups from 2 to 6 tons. Some had been painted like mushrooms or clouds. Piles of chains, massive and weighty were coiled up alongside. They wouldn’t let me in, so I headed across town to the Redoubt, a Napoleonic era circular fortress overlooking the estuary. It wasn’t open yet so I sat outside and wrote up my notes.
At 10am, it opened, and the only customer, I heading into the fort with my fiddle. Around the rim, an odd assortment of historical artillery sat, trained blankly on China Shipping across the water, a symbol of impotence in the face of global capital. In the circular central courtyard, I sat and played my fiddle to nobody, responding to the strange acoustic and filling the space with ringing notes. Behind me, one part of the fortress had housed conscientious objectors during the First World War, their confinement graffiti still on the walls of their dismal cells. There were a lot of mannequins around the place, no doubt designed to give the place a sense of habitation. Instead they only highlighted the emptiness of it, a series of frozen dioramas in so many period uniforms. Each room had a few, stuck in some awful role-playing exercise, succumbing to damp, featureless.
One room had a display on the Kindertransports, ships of Jewish children sent out of Europe in desperation in the last days before Hitler closed off the escape routes. Unaccompanied, often speaking no English, these kids were warmly welcomed to Britain and given a chance to start a new life here. Some later went to Israel, many stayed. Speaking to my Grandmother a few days later, she told me that one had come to her school in Hull, Tilde she was called, speaking no English, and within 2 years was winning public speaking awards. This resettlement struck me as the sort of act that could make one proud of one’s country. On a purely practical level, a refugee welcomed with open arms would surely be more likely to give much more back to such a country that one barely tolerated or even abused? Perhaps the sheer overwhelming complexity of arrivals to our country now makes it hard to comprehend the stories that send people here. There is no single compelling narrative to respond to, but a spectrum of migrants and refugees escaping regimes, wars, poverty, or just simply looking for something different. The simplicity of the Kindertransports story makes it an easy sell. In a fractured and confused world, compassion is harder to anchor.
I put my fiddle away, and exited the fort, politely refusing the chance to buy a plastic toy hand grenade. I needed to find somewhere to do some busking, or I wasn’t having any lunch. Passing the ‘PieSeas Chippy’ I headed for the pier. My timing was all off, as the cruise ship had come earlier in the week, and the hot weather had given way to overcast skies and strong winds. A rare open shop, full of ‘Antiques’ said ‘Please come in and look around’, the mistrustful look on the face of the proprietor told another story. There was a bookshop, closed today, and so chaotic as to be impossible to tell if it was a going concern. The pier was hook shaped and bleak, a cafe at the near end, benches and sea spray at the other. Not only was footfall and weather against me, but the pier was being repaired, with workmen hauling lumps of scaffolding, tins of paints, and tools back to a flatbed truck for removal. There was almost nobody else about. I set about playing anyway, being rewarded at least with a jig or two from the workmen. After an hour, despite only seeing about 20 people, I had miraculously made enough for my lunch, and the cafe threw in a free coffee for keeping them entertained.
But I needed a bit more or I’d be down on the day. I ate up and drove two miles to Dovercourt, part of the continuous conurbation of the Harwich region, and just slightly more of an active place on a day like this. Wind blew dusty and dry down the main street, full of plastic scraps and grit. Half the shops were boarded and derelict. I bought a sausage roll from the bakers. It was the worst sausage roll I have ever eaten, pastry turgid and limp, filled with a sausage seemingly contrived on strict homeopathic principles. I started up outside Boots. A lady immediately came out and shouted at me to shut up and go away.
“You can’t do that here! It’s not allowed!” She bellowed.
This caused me some difficulty. I’d vowed to always move on if asked, but I didn’t like being told I had to when I was within my rights. I decided to move 5 yards to my right so that I was technically outside another shop. This seemed ok, so I carried on. It was clear that Dovercourt didn’t get many buskers. A crossroads of withering shopping streets, a couple of banks, a grim spattering of traffic. A gentleman on a bike stopped and gave me 50p. He was sad I’d been moved on.
“No wonder we don’t get anything nice here.”
He told me about Dovercourt.
“No jobs now, the channel tunnel and Ryanair have taken all that away. All the rail freight used to leave from here, and it was a busy seaside resort. It’s just London overspill now. Those who can’t afford to live there and don’t need to commute there. But there’s not much crime, it’s ok. My kids have both moved away for work.” He concluded on a sad note and rode off. “But don’t let me keep you from playing.”
An old lady parked right on the pedestrian crossing and tottered over to me to hand over a £1 coin. I took my revenge on Boots by going to Superdrug for a new tube of toothpaste. I’d made £12 in an hour, astonishing in such a rundown place.
Dovercourt had much in common with Redcar and Ashington, albeit at the other end of the country and ostensibly built on entirely different grounds. It’d lost its industry and employment. But far worse than that, it had lost its identity too. It was just a shell. For all that Ashington had been a difficult and damaged place, it still felt like Ashington. Dovercourt was dead, and lacked any sense of itself. It was the saddest town I’d seen. I could find no positive note to sound, and drove the two miles back to Harwich in a cloud.
I was invited onto Lightvessel 18, and got the full tour. It had been used as the set for the Radio Caroline film, documenting the pirate radio station phenomenon that forced the strange and uncomfortable birth of Radio 1, and was now filled up with obscure broadcasting and phonographic equipment. Beyond this, I got a sense of a spacious and well laid out ship. The cabins were nice, the corridors wide, the kitchen suitable. On station, it would have swung around on the tides on a single anchor cable, and therefore had a special window that the crew could reach out of to adjust the TV aerial. I blagged my way into the engine room, normally off-limits. Inside, 6 Gardner engines were installed in pairs of different sizes. They were not connected to any propeller, as lightvessels couldn’t move on their own, but were instead to power the huge bulbs that marked their station.
In the top deck of the ship, the gang had built their den. A man-cave of epic proportions. Alan had brought a bouzouki so we played tunes and exchanged stories. It was approaching time to move on again.
I went for a final walk round town with Penny (Mick’s Wife) and her daughter Zoe. They pointed out the distant proto nation of Sealand, a WW2 defence platform now occupied as a sovereign nation by the hereditary Bates dynasty, a sovereignty completely ignored by all others, who tolerate it as harmless distraction. Then we found a Harwich rock. Colourful painted rocks are hidden all round the Harwich area, discovered, and moved on by other Harwich residents. I picked it up and pocketed it, in the sure knowledge that the right place to leave it would become apparent further down the line.
“Sometimes when you’re in the main street, a ship goes past so big that it seems it couldn’t be moving but instead the whole street is moving to the left.” said Penny.
Mick then came striding round the corner to join us, a huge grin on his face;
“I have just found the most miserable song!”
They were ready to go to their singing group. I was ready to drive across Essex to Braintree.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!