'Randolph Stow's Harwich' by Suzanne Falkiner

The port of Old Harwich can be approached by a streamlined highway through a barren industrial landscape, or via the high street through suburban Dovercourt. Either way, you keep going until you reach the sea: 'and if you get your feet wet, you've gone too far', they'll say when you ask directions. Finally, you reach an enclave of narrow streets lined by small cottages and terraces huddled together with their backs to the North Sea winds and surrounded on three sides by the Stour estuary. Beyond the dock areas, where a variety of fishing boats, yachts, and barges are moored and pigeons and seagulls ride the stiff updrafts, old men in fluorescent jackets mess about in smaller boats. Further away, the concrete and containers give way to a beach lined with pebbles and myriad tiny blue mussels, bleached oysters, and slipper shells.

Along the Quay, a small number of American tourists make pilgrimages to the miniature museum housed in the ticket office to the Ha'penny Pier. 21 Kings Head Street, diagonally opposite Randolph Stow's old house, is the birthplace of Christopher Jones, the captain of the Mayflower. Joseph Conrad – with whom Stow felt a particular psychological affinity – would have felt at home here when he passed through in 1896, and again in July 1914, on his way to Poland.

Local landmarks include the Customs House, two lighthouses, and a fortress: Harwich was once a garrison town, encircled by a medieval wall against Scandinavian invaders. Stories persist of inns with bunks built into the walls and chains attached – 'They'd drop a shilling in your beer, and then you'd have taken the King's shilling', the locals enjoy telling you. 'You'd wake up next day, with a sore head, out at sea.'  Others reputedly featured tunnels dug from one to another, to expedite the movement of smugglers.

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Suzanne Falkiner

Suzanne Falkiner

Suzanne Falkiner is the author of Mick: A life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 2016).

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