Visiting Harwich, Essex

The port of Harwich is a must-see destination for history-lovers. It is the place where the Mayflower ship is believed to have been built and where its captain, Christopher Jones lived and was twice wed. 

Visit the historic town, see the house where Christopher Jones lived and the church where he was married. Other attractions include the Electric Palace, one of Britain’s first cinemas (which has local actor Clive Owen as its patron), and the atmospheric Redoubt Fort, which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars. Famed diarist Samuel Pepys was once MP for the town. The Harwich Society provides informative guided tours.

Harwich is the UK's second busiest passenger ferry port, its harbour, which is the largest between the Humber in the north of England, and London, was created by a storm surge in the 1100s, a quirk of fate that gave rise to the area’s long and fascinating seafaring history.

The attractive old town was built on a grid pattern, in the 13th Century, by the Earl of Norfolk, to exploit its strategic position at the mouth of the Stour/Orwell estuaries. The famous seafarers Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher all sailed from Harwich during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I on various expeditions.

An enjoyable way to discover the historic town is to follow its Maritime Heritage Trail. From Ha'Penny Pier Visitor Centre on the Quay there are guided walking tours throughout the summer. Start your walk at the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum, built in 1818, and Lifeboat Museum, where you can get aboard a lifeboat, and end at the Barge Murals which overlook the site where Thames Sailing Barges were built up to 1930. A special gem is the Treadwheel Crane, built in 1667, a kind of colossal hamster wheel based on a Roman design. The crane was worked by men walking in the interior of two large wheels to raise and lower goods and materials. As far as is known Harwich has the only British example.

En route down the quaint streets there is the chance to take in gems such as the Electric Palace Cinema, built in 1911 and now the oldest unaltered purpose-built cinema in Britain, St Nicholas’ Church which was rebuilt 1821 where Christopher Jones was married, and The Redoubt Fort which was built in 1808 as a large circular fort to protect the harbour from a Napoleonic invasion. These are just a few of the outstanding treasures the trail has to offer. Also visit the old Radar Tower, at Beacon Hill Fort, which was the first radar installation of the Second World War, and can be opened on request to the Harwich Visitor Centre.

Further afield, visit the popular Essex town of Billericay where you can find a blue plaque dedicated to Christopher Martin - an influential Pilgrim and one of the signatories on the Mayflower Compact. A little further is the seaside town of Leigh-on-Sea, where you can find a pub called The Mayflower which some suggest also has connections.

Browse the Visit Essex or Historic Harwich websites to explore more of Harwich's fascinating history and plethora of attractions.

Harwich's Mayflower programme

As the birthplace of the Mayflower, Harwich built a diverse and authentic programme of activity for 2020 and 2021 with exceptional support from the local community:

  • Major local authority investment delivered two new bespoke Mayflower attractions that will provide essential experiences for visitors looking to understand the origins of the ship and her crew. The home of Christoper Jones, Captain and part owner of the Mayflower, has opened to the public for the first time with a range of bespoke content and interactive elements. Further information on Harwich’s links to the Mayflower can be explored at Harwich’s new Heritage Centre, with a dedicated exhibition exploring the town’s role in the Mayflower’s journey, including a range of artefacts that have never been publicly displayed before

  • Harwich’s updated visitor trails highlight the town’s Mayflower heritage, set against the beautiful backdrop of the River Stour. These incorporate wider attractions such as the Redoubt Fort, which hosts activities through the summer including ghost hunts, beer festivals and battle re-enactments

  • Harwich’s existing events programme picked up a Mayflower theme, incorporating great events such Harwich and Parkeston Winter Ale Festival, Harwich Sausage Festival, the Harwich International Shanty Festival, which sees performers from across the world come together for a weekend of song, drink, performance and more

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