Sunday, 14 March 2010

What is it with Harwich?

The finest harbour on the east coast of England, Harwich should have reaped the rewards of military and commercial occupation for the last 400 years. Sadly, the town is a shadow of its former self and despite whole streets - and even quarters - of truly outstanding architecture and urban form, the town feels somewhat squalid and run down.

The town has a formidable conservation society, the Harwich Society, but has yet to cope with the impact of large out-of-town shopping: in both Harwich and Dovercourt, boarded up and whitewashed up shops indicate that the recession continues to bite in this pretty corner of Essex.

I was astonished that despite the warmth of the older buildings, the strength of the Harwich Society and some individual efforts, the whole place looked grim and unloved, even on a bright day. Ten years ago, when we lived in The Hague, my wife missed the ferry and she had to spend the day with two toddlers, in Harwich. Her report, on arrival home, was not exactly glowing, and that layover was in July.

There were glimpses of encouragement, including the friendly lady at the RNLI Shop and the staff at the cafe on the Ha'penny Pier, but even this little cluster of structures at the port struggle to stay open. It came as no surprise that the original Ha'penny Pier was destroyed by fire and they couldn't be bothered to rebuild it. The original Continental steam-packet service left from this pier, then - later - from the adjacent Trinity Pier. The town could benefit from developing the Ha'penny Moorings, but little is done for visiting yachts, and most head for Shotley across the Stour or other marinas. Although the area is limited by its location crammed between the Navyard and Trinity Pier, there is no reason why this pier couldn't be developed to the mutual benefit of the town and sailors.

Of course, there's nothing wriong with Harwich or its people: it's a pleasant, friendly place. However, there is an endemic problem with urban Britain that manifests itself most in smaller towns. Small town Britain has adopted poorly to the decline in manufacturing and providing unskilled and semi-skilled jobs remains a huge problem. Current and past rules, regulations and policies in Britain have made it difficult for politicians and councils to do much other than encourage industry. It's not really a full range of instruments, more an 'on' or 'off' tap to encourage or discourage commerce and industry.

The result is that the approach to Harwich is characterised by a massive anti-vandal steel fence running for several miles along one of the most glorious estuarine scene in eastern England, then unnecessary roundabouts and high, blank walls. The Parkeston Quay complex has looked, for more than thirty years, like it's on its last legs. Tumbleweed, empty car parks and concrete blocks were probably on the glossy architects' drawings.

The shame of it all is that it all could be spectacular: a Torquay or Nice of the east coast. Easy to snigger at the thought, but the Essex Riviera is entirely possible. Take a drive down the Stour from Manningtree and Mistley to Harwich then round to Clacton. If some politician or council official can start looking beyond party politics and start responding to the very real need to build a new Harwich, this could become a year-round attraction with a real diversity of opportunities for all.

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