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Seaside Special - The sublime and the ridiculous: North Eastern Essex

The previous chapter wound its leisurely way to a comfortable halt in Felixstowe. Now, viewed from across the confluence of the rivers Orwell and Stour, that town’s container port dominated my vista. Gantry cranes, dock terminals, warehousing and impossibly loaded deep-draught container ships stretched out on a 1 ½ mile quay curling into the North Sea. The port is currently the largest of its type in the UK, handling 48% of the country’s container traffic. 

Felixstowe from Harwich

I was in Harwich on the north Essex shore, taking in the expansive, mechanised scene across the estuaries. Harwich is a port too, of course. One with a rich history heavily focused on military service and passenger travel. For a start, it is celebrated as the launch point of the ship Mayflower which went on to carry the Pilgrim Fathers to North America in the seventeeth century.  

However time has treated these adjacent ports very differently. If Felixstowe was booming, Harwich town wore the air of an out-of-season open-air museum. I had walked up to a pair of long decommissioned, preserved lighthouses which neatly symbolised the town’s rearward aspect. (Although I noted that the Essex Way long-distance path began from the High Lighthouse and headed south, suggesting that from here the only way is indeed Essex.)

I happily wandered the oldest areas of the town nearest to the former royal dockyard on the north-eastern tip of the headland. The narrow thoroughfares of Westgate Street, Church Street and King’s Quay Street formed the nucleus of a conservation zone and were filled with handsome two- and three-story buildings that were once port and naval buildings serving the previously vital dockyard; together with Georgian merchants homes retaining fine porticos, tall sash windows and rendered or bare red-brick frontages. I stopped to admire the impressive protected façade of the electric picture palace.

The restrictions that come with conservation zone status, here and there at least, meant that closed down Victorian shops, cafes, pubs and offices converted into residences were required to retain their shop frontages and plate glass display windows. Some were now filled in with lacey net curtains, others piled with papers on the sills and others simply left empty. This, combined with the absence of almost any other people on a sharp December day added to the sensation that the world had moved on and left behind a characterful, quiet Harwich old town.

The atmosphere was marginally less soporific on the coast. A few trucks were heading into the docks on the site of the old Royal Navy Dockyard. The docks were only active under the royal banner for a period up to the early 18th century.  A lack of deep-water access and the difficulty of setting sail from Harwich often against an easterly wind meant the docks remained small scale. The dockyard has been in private ownership since, for repairs, boat building and some limited container transport. At the time of my visit, plans had been announced to redevelop the dock into a space for more than 300 homes. This would be a sad end.

But it would not be the end of Harwich as a port. Far from it. Commercial ferry and freight services will still operate from the International port at Parkeston a mile upstream from the old town to the Hook of Holland and Rotterdam. And a small fleet of pleasure craft were tucked into a marina by the Halfpenny Pier and the Quay, ensuring at least some level of old town port activity would exist deep into the 21st century. This was a splendid spot, I decided, sat at the end of the pier with a warming milky drink in my mits, and the sun dropping into the Stour overlooked by a brace of fine Victorian statement buildings.

Halfpenny Pier

I’d got to Harwich by changing trains at Manningtree that morning, grabbing a bacon butty at the fantastic station café and taking the Mayflower Branch line along the Stour estuary. Of course, this would not have been a branch line back in the pomp-days of the Great Eastern Railway and then the LNER that once owned the ferry terminal at Parkeston; and who built the hotel and former port buildings I’d admired at Halfpenny Pier.

The route along the floodplain of the Stour was a genuine eye-opener. I had no idea that this lovely stretch of coastal tranquility existed so close to industrialisation. Across the river I could glimpse the imposing tower and frontage of the Royal Hospital School, sun glinting of its long double row of tall windows, as the train passed Jacques Bay and Copperas Bay.

Returning from Harwich as dusk gathered, I jumped off the train at the tiny station of Wrabness in search of Grayson Perry’s ‘House for Essex’. Perry’s reputation has done nothing but soar across various intensities of lockdown with his inclusive, funny and charming ‘Grayson Perry’s Art Club’ series. Back in 2018 I was not so familiar with his work. I’d seen pics of this strangest piece of architecture online and wanted to see for myself whether something so intriguingly eccentric and fantastical could exist for real up against the muddy shores of the River Stour in the middle of nowhere.

But there the house was, framed by a copse on the left, its colourful and crazy roofline becoming clearer above a dirt track with my every muddy step. I don’t have the words to adequately describe the style of this fascinating, insane, spectacular piece art/architecture, so I bow to Oliver Wainright of The Guardian who observed that the work appears to be half medieval stave church, half Thai wat. The bulging bellies of pregnant women protrude from its skin of ceramic tiles, along with motifs of safety pins, cassette tapes, hearts and wheels. It is a heady mash-up of symbolism, as if the Masons had got together with the Rotary club, and a group of NCT mothers, to build a temple to fertility on acid.’  

Julie's House

The building was commissioned by philosopher Alain de Botton, as part of his Living Architecture series of holiday homes. Perry says the project is “a temple to the Essex everywoman” and is also known as ‘Julie’s House’. Perry has created a narrative that the house is a mausoleum to a fictional Essex woman, Julie May Cope, built by her husband when she died in a tragic accident with a takeaway delivery moped. The full story is available as a poem when you rent the house. Bookings for 2021 have all been allocated. I’ve added this to the list of dream holiday home locations alongside the Martello Tower at Aldburgh.

Beyond the house, a path took me downhill along a field boundary and into a damp wood alongside the Stour Estuary nature reserve, where brackish water collected in pools between mud flats and reed beds. On the horizon, floodlights around the Felixstowe docks cast neon streaks across the filling estuary.

Occasionally on these solo trips I get distracted from soaking up the moment because I’ve packed in too many places and I end up chasing a train or bus connection. This was not one of those times. I felt fully engrossed in the scene: Perry’s surreal creation behind me, the contrast between the docks and the nature reserve before me, unexpected peace, changing light and colours; chill air, quietly gathering waters and the complete absence of anyone else in such a special place.


Felixstowe Docks from Wrabness

Around the coast from the Stour, Essex splinters into myriad estuaries, wetlands and sea-surrounded salients. Soon, you happen upon Walton-on-the-Naze. I had been here more than ten years before the Harwich visit for a spontaneous family weekend away. It rather sets some of the sideswipes I have taken at holiday parks in a different context. Guilty of hypocrisy as charged, your Honour.

It was all the fault of those honest people at the Met Office. Sat becalmed in the office one listless Summer afternoon in 2007, I noticed that those insightful forecasters were seeing lovely whether in their crystal ball for the forthcoming weekend. Only on the east coast though. Cloud and unspecified murk was predicted for much of the rest of the country.

"Right! We are off away this weekend" I declared, to no-one in particular.

Kelly, sat at the desk opposite perked up.

"Ooh, excellent idea. Whereabouts?"

Kelly always had wunderlust and loved ambitious foreign travel, even when squeezed into the most thinly sliced timeframe. She was soon to chuck in the job and head off to join her partner in Australia.

"Essex", I offered meekly.

"Lovely…", she grinned, mirth tickling the corners of her eyes.

But I was seriously inspired by the weather forecast. Chasing the sun. Walton-on-the Naze looked favourite. We’d never been there and yet the pics on the web promised a half-mile long pier, pleasant architecture, independent shops, passable restaurants, and a golden sandy beach on which to enjoy those warming rays. My research backed up the weather forecast. Walton is one of the driest places in England, with an average annual rainfall of less than 20 inches.

I knew I was on to a winner and I set about booking some accommodation. I’d left it late though, and it was tougher than I anticipated. 1st, 2nd and even 3rd choices all bit the dust. So did the reserve list. But I persevered and eventually found something, and at a bargain rate too.

Sure enough the weather was lovely on that Saturday morning. Mrs A and the girls were happy to be going away for the weekend, even if I’d kept the destination under wraps. As we turned the corner of the coast road into Walton, I proudly announced that this was the town of our short sojourn. There were positive mutterings all round. The girls had clocked the beach and the amusements. Mrs A had worked out that Biarritz was off the agenda, but was relieved to see the seafood restaurant and wine bars. We drove through the town slipping by some stout Edwardian guest houses.

            "Tell me where to stop", said Mrs A.

            "I will."

Edwardian grandeur was changing into 20th Century functionality.

           "Any time now?"

          "Yep...Nearly."

Sturdy functionality became transportable flexibility. We had hit the holiday parks.

            "Left here, my dear."

'Welcome to Martello Caravan Park', said the cheery, if care-worn sign. This was a very different physical interpretation of the term ‘martello’, to the Aldburgh incarnation of which I have waxed on previous occasions.

            "You have got to be joking!"

Mrs A clearly was not a tiny bit amused. I will never forget the look of horror on her face.

          "C’mon! It will be a laugh."

We parked up by the office. I say office. In truth it was a decaying timber and asbestos shed. The vibes were not good. We joined a long queue of disgruntled caravaners prodding tattooed fingers at a scrap of paper pinned on the door that said ‘Open at 4pm – staff shortages’.

Later, when we had fought and won the battle for our key, and trekked to the outer limits of the park, passing the communal bins and the rusting children’s play area, I was still pointing out the positives to my other half.

"Look, everything else was booked up. Better here than nowhere, eh? Look at the weather. And the beach is on our doorstep. The girls are having a ball."

They were too. Once inside our luxury accommodation, they were folding out their sofa bed, flipping town the dining table, finding and then laughing at the chemical toilet…

The ‘better than nowhere’ remark was harrumphed at. And the ‘look at the funny side’ comment was turning milk sour. Mrs A wouldn’t go with me to Glastonbury because of the loos and the tents. Even though she had had many happy holidays in the statics at Gorleston-On-Sea in Norfolk, I don’t think she was expecting to relive those fond memories in adulthood. Betraying her working class roots is what I thought. If it was good enough for our parents...

Trouble is, I don’t think this place would have been. Martello Park hadn’t seen a speck of investment since at least our parents’ days. The caravan was stuffy, cramped and lacking a little TLC, as well as Windowlene, Cif and Flash. And the bed linen was on the tacky side. Not so much in the taste sense (though brown floral isn’t entirely my cup of tea), more in its adhesive quality.

We toured the park on our way into town. The carpet in the vacuous Wellington Suite bar/entertainment area was a genuine ‘70’s original, though the stains wove an intriguing tapestry of beer, ketchup and crisps across every subsequent decade.  There were a few hardy types in the paint-peeled pool, braving the thin layer of greasy surface scum.

But what was an adventure! I beamed. The only event that diverted us from the ‘I can’t believe you’ve done this’ conversation, as we took in the town’s charm, was tracking down the seafood restaurant spotted earlier. It really was a gem. The Attic seafood restaurant (on the ground floor, of course) served up this amazing platter that the four of us shared into the late evening, washed down with J2O (kiddies) and crisp Chardonnay (adults). This was the sort of fresh, subtle, unadorned fare that Mrs A was craving from the White Lion in Bempton. The restaurant shut down some months later. Clearly deep frying is the way to go.

Then back for crisps and beer in front of the one-channel telly, as tradition befits. The Met Office got the forecast wrong as well. It rained that night so hard that the drops rattled like machine gun fire on the leaky skylight above our bed. Was that the annual quota of 20-inches in one night? No-one slept particularly soundly.

Sunday, however, dawned fine and warm. A chance to explore the town a little. The architecture of the place was unremarkable but functional. Originally, it was a farming village situated miles inland. Over centuries the sea reclaimed large quantities of land and the mediaeval village of Walton now lies nine miles out to sea, a la Dunwich. This is a common story on the east coast. The old church finally succumbed in July 1798.

The fam in Walton circa 2007

Now, of course, it is a traditional resort town, surrounded on three sides by the sea. To the north is the Hamford Water nature reserve, occupying part of the Naze (a headland in other parlance). Hamford Water itself then sluices off the northern channel and cuts back towards the town and eventually winds into Walton Mere pretty much behind our lovely caravan park. The seafront had the promised ‘golden’ sandy beach on which we engaged in traditional seaside activities. The pier is the second longest in England after the one at Southend, just around the corner. That one requires a train to get from one end to the other.

We made us own fun in them days

We also wandered up to Walton Tower on the Naze itself, past banks of beach huts backing the beach and for rent at four and five grand a season. We climbed to the top of the tower for panoramic views over the backwaters to Red Crag cliffs – a fossil hunter’s paradise – and up the coast to the aforementioned Harwich and Felixstowe. The tower was built in 1720 by Trinity House as a navigational aid for ships making for Harwich Harbour. As well as the viewing platform the tower had an art gallery and the inevitable tea shop.

A few months after our trip, the Martello Caravan Park flier was deposited through our letterbox, advertising the new seasons prices. The garish carpet and chipped pool were displayed on the glossy leaflet in full glory. I suggested to Mrs A that we should make a return trip. This was not dignified with a reply beyond a searing curled lip and narrowed eyes.

I peeked at a review on dooyoo.co.uk. Seems the venue has not found favour with others either. 

“This site is just awful. From the moment you first drive in it is clear that your choice of holiday park was a bad one and perhaps you shouldn’t have tried to save that extra few quid. The Martello sign itself is a clear indication of things to come. Old. Rusty. Decrepit. On its last legs."

Harsh. But fair.

Next stop, Canvey Island...

 

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