Friday, 6 September 2013


The summer holidays being over I did a church run this week along the south bank of the river Stour and, having expected to find most of them closed, was pleasantly surprised to gain access to eight out of eleven churches visited (albeit one of those is a ruin).

St Nicholas in Harwich is normally locked and an appointment is needed to gain access but when I visited a Mass was being prepared and I asked for, and was given, permission to look around and take photos. This is a Victorian built church and externally is rather dull but the interior holds some good glass and interesting monuments and I liked the galleries. High up on both sides of the organ are the ‘cages’, quite unique, into which school children were packed in days gone by to form a heavenly choir. This was before the choir stalls were placed in the chancel around 1870. The cages are now kept locked for reason of safety but an excellent view of the interior of the church can be obtained from the lower gallery.

ST NICHOLAS, Church Street. 1821 by M. G. Thompson. Gothic of the lean Commissioners’ type. Yellow brick, tall W tower with spire, castellated porches l. and r. Interior of nave and aisles with three galleries, two-storeyed windows and very thin piers carrying a sham groined vault. The chancel is effective — as tall as the nave but polygonal and with only one tier of large windows. The STAINED GLASS is original: borders and shields. - FONT. Octagonal, of Purbeck marble, of the usual type with two shallow blank pointed arches to each side, early C13. - PAINTING Moses giving the Law. Said to be by William Paris, 1700. - PLATE. Paten of 1683.

Looking east (3)

S aisle window (4)

North chancel wall monuments

HARWICH. One of our Gateways to the Continent, it shares its fine seaviews and its thrilling memories with Dovercourt, where sleeps one of the bravest of our brave. It has the oldest lighthouse in Essex and one of the oldest in England, built before Winstanley thought out his plans for Eddystone, and now transformed into a dwelling-house above the mile-long promenade.

The narrow streets of this old town are grouped on a low promontory where the Orwell and the Stour pour into the sea, and its memories are of men and ships. On the green close to the Redoubt is the old crane of the shipyard, and a shipyard bell cast in 1661; the crane was worked by men walking inside big wooden drums. By the coastguard station is the old naval yard established by Cromwell and often mentioned by Pepys. In the church register, which began with the second year of Queen Elizabeth, is the birth of Christopher Newport, a seaman who shared in Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement of Virginia, and the same register has a record of the marriage of Christopher Jones, the Master of the Mayflower, which bore the name of this town on her timbers, the letters still visible in the famous barn at Jordans in Buckinghamshire. In this harbour Nelson’s fleet would ride at anchor under the shelter of Languard Point. This quay saw the coming and going of our Dutch and German kings, though the quay today is too small for our big steamers, which use Parkeston Quay two miles up the Stour. The wharves and other quay buildings of Harwich rise on 12 miles of piles and concrete cylinders driven into the bed of the Stour.

Harwich has preserved the inn (the Three Cups) where Nelson stayed, with the Fleur-de-lys on the Tudor ceiling of one of the rooms, and in Market Street is the Royal Oak, its upper storey leaning over the narrow way, and next to it a house with the date of Armada Year between two griffins at a doorway; there is a man in Tudor costume on one of the doorposts, and on its opposite post is a woman with a mirror and a shield. The oldest possession of the town is the Norman font in the modern church, which has also on its chancel wall brass portraits of John Rychemond with his two wives in Tudor dress*. Facing them is a bust of Sir William Clarke, Charles the Second’s Secretary for War, who fell in a sea fight and was washed ashore to be buried in the old churchyard. A tablet on the wall tells us of the burial in 1808 of Charles Cox, agent to His Majesty’s Packets which sailed from this port in the Napoleon wars and founder of the bankers of British officers in succeeding wars. Here in a chapel hang flags that braved the breeze in the Great War, carried by Harwich pilots from ship to ship. Below them are the names of 12 pilots who went down in those four years, and with them on the peace memorial are the names of the men of Harwich and one nurse who never came home again.

In the Great War Harwich and Dovercourt were like a fortress and no strangers were allowed within the limits. Since the days when Harwich men sailed with Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish in the first two English voyages round the world there have been no braver deeds at sea than some remembered here, for the Harwich Mine-Sweeping Flotilla held the record of enemy mines swept up in any theatre of war. There is a handsome stone and bronze memorial to the memory of the men who were lost, and, of course, to the memory of Captain Fryatt, who lies at Dovercourt. He was one of the bravest of all the men who laid down their lives for Britain.

Out of the Great War there has come to Harwich a transportation wonder that is all too little known, the ferry from here to Zeebrugge. The arrival of the ferry is one of the most interesting sights of Harwich. The broad-beamed monster can be recognised far-off by the lofty twin funnels as the boat comes slowly up the navigation channel of the estuary until it is opposite the land end of the railway line, when it swings round, makes a right-angled turn, and creeps in stern first between the terminal berths, constructed so as to fit the shape and size of the ship, with hardly a foot to spare. It is a masterpiece of manoeuvring. The ferry can operate whatever the state of the tide. An adjustable bridge secured at the shore end is lowered by a gantry with electric winches, the platform of the bridge being swung between two vertical girders so that it automatically takes the same list as the ferry when traffic is moving on or off. Each of the Harwich ferries has four sets of lines, which will take 45 wagons with 20-ton loads. The boats are about 360 feet long, with engines of 3000 horse-power, and goods can be loaded on them at a factory in England and taken over this ferry to almost any country in Europe. It follows that Harwich has a most cosmopolitan-appearance, for here are trucks from almost anywhere on the Continent.

* No longer extant.

Simon K -

If I might see another Spring
I'd not plant summer flowers and wait:
I'd have my crocuses at once
My leafless pink mezereons,
My chill-veined snow-drops, choicer yet
My white or azure violet,
Leaf-nested primrose; anything
To blow at once, not late.
If I might see another Spring
I'd listen to the daylight birds
That build their nests and pair and sing,
Nor wait for mateless nightingale;
I'd listen to the lusty herds,
The ewes with lambs as white as snow,
I'd find out music in the hail
And all the winds that blow.

- Christina Rossetti, Another Spring

It was one of the first spring-like days of 2013, a Monday in early April, and I arrived with some anticipation at a church I had been looking forward to visiting for the long winter.

Locked, with a keyholder notice of sorts. It said appointments to view may be made by telephoning the churchwarden, as if they were actually hoping to sell it.

I rang her up, explaining I'd come from Ipswich specially to see inside her church. 'Well, usually we like people to make an appointment', she said, so I patiently explained again why that hadn't been possible. She listened, but was unable to be helpful. 'I'm sorry dear, there's no one who can come and open. There's so few of us left now, and we're all old and infirm. Normally we open it up after Easter, but it's been too cold to sit in the church. And we can't leave it open because of the vandalism.'

The vandalism. She made it sound like an infectious disease. She did tell me they were always open on Saturday mornings, and they'd also be open on Friday 'because a cruise ship was in', but that was the best I could hope for. I sounded as disappointed as I could - after all, I did want her to feel a bit guilty for locking her church against the people of God. Well, honestly.

St Nicholas was rebuilt in the 1820s, in the Carpenter's Gothick style of the Commissioners Churches of the time, all in white brick, at a cost of £20,000, a colossal amount of money, about four million in today's values. It is probably the best church of its decade in the county.

And then it was south-westwards (actually the only way you can go without a boat) to Dovercourt.

I came back the following Saturday, to find the church open. A banner outside declared CHURCH OPEN, ALL WELCOME! The west doors were open. I stepped into a church I haven't seen inside for nearly twenty years, and had forgotten everything about.

A vast space, full of white light, seeming longer than it really is thanks to the three sides of gallery. The fact that this church is described as Essex's best building of its decade is as much due to the interior as the exterior, because it is almost entirely a complete Georgian worship space on a huge scale, just on the eve of the Oxford Movement, and virtually untouched since.

And yet everything has a lightness of touch, nothing imposes. Twenty years ago, I recalled finding it breathtaking; breathtaking now, but with the added bonus of rather liking it a lot now. The narrow sugar icing arcades tower out of sight towards the vaulting, the eye drawn to the east as much as in any great late medieval church.

The furnishings are almost entirely original, including a grand mayoral pew (for a town of less than 5,000 people!), the late 19th Century choir stalls having been removed and replaced with modern chairs. The only other hint that anything happened after the 1820s is a collection of very fine early 20th Century three-light windows by Henry Holiday, William Morris, Powell and Son and the bloke I can never remember but his signature is an anchor with a W in it.

Two elderly custodians were very friendly, and I had to refuse a cup of tea. They were knowledgeable about their church, and why not? They had been worshipping in it since the late 1930s. Remarkable in itself. They were proud of their church, and proud of Harwich, which they boldly declared was much older than Dovercourt, despite the church being newer.

But of course it is a perfect church for such an idiosyncratic little town as Harwich. I was buoyed up (possibly a pun there) and set off a couple of miles into the suburbs for a return to Dovercourt All Saints.


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