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Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: The history of Harwich and its link with The Beatles

PUBLISHED: 17:00 02 July 2017

Harwich - from Elli at Visit Essex

Harwich - from Elli at Visit Essex

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To Harwich, to perform at the redoubt fort with The Hosepipe Band as part of the Harwich Festival. I don’t quite know how I have managed to miss visiting the redoubt before but it’s the case, writes Martin Newell.

Built in the early 19th century as a defence against a possible Napoleonic invasion, the brick fort has never seen action and is therefore rather well-preserved.

When you perform at the redoubt, you really are playing “in the round”, as the thespians call it. I was mightily impressed with the place. The inside resembles a military drum in shape, with a close-cropped lawn and an old water pump at its centre.

Now surrounded by houses, when it was first fully-manned, during the years running up to The Battle of Waterloo, it had a 360-degree command of its view. A house and a venerable elm tree were reportedly sacrificed to facilitate this feature.

The night we performed, as twilight descended upon the redoubt, the place developed something of a haunted quality, which I rather liked. If the British weather wasn’t always quite as capricious as it is, the place would be a perfect venue for the staging of a spooky play such as The Woman in Black. The former fort might also work as the venue for a Steampunk festival, or perhaps a vintage clothing fair. The place is a credit to its custodians and deserves to be in constant use.

Harwich, where for some years my late father worked as a port health inspector after leaving the Army, has a lot going for it historically. One thing I keep reiterating, so far to little avail, is the town’s minor part in The Beatles’ history. For it was here on August 16, 1960, that the Fab Four boarded the ferry, leaving England for the first time ever, to travel to Hamburg. A ramshackle young combo who’d driven down from Liverpool that summer, they commenced three gruelling months of club dates in Hamburg’s seamy St Pauli district.

After playing up to eight sets a night, bucked up by a combination of German beer and diet pills given to them by waiters, the teenagers returned to England a sinewy, well-drilled unit ready to take on the world – which they did. There exists, so far as I know, only one snapshot of the Beatles in Harwich. In the right-hand corner of it, a 19-year-old John Lennon can just be seen on the quayside, watching the band’s Commer van being hoisted by crane onto the Hamburg ferry.

People laugh when I tell them of the modest part Harwich played in the band’s story, but it is, nonetheless, pivotal in its own way, and really should be exploited more.

Harwich, for centuries, was second in importance only to London as a British port. For it was the gateway to northern Europe. Samuel Pepys was one of the two MPs Harwich once sent to Parliament. That the town was asssigned two MPs attests to its international prominence during the mid-17th century.

Pepys, known nowadays chiefly for the diaries he actually kept for less than a decade, was more than merely a diarist. He helped found the civil service and built the bones of the naval administration which, essentially, is still in use today. He should be in the candidature for any Greatest Living Englishman list. Yet, typically, our modern media (and to an extent the literary world) remains fascinated by his semi-coded later editions, which reveal a penchant for enjoying a spot of fiddle-de-diddle with his wife’s maids.

Harwich, which has distinguished connections with practically every salient historical era since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, rarely receives the credit it should. If there were any justice it would be up there with Canterbury and Bath as a tourist spot. Harwich is remarkably unchopped-about and possesses an extraordinary wealth of lovely old buildings and eccentric little corners, dating from the medieval era to the Edwardian. For centuries, however, it was a bustling, smoky port, full of the shipyards, roperies and sailmakers that built our sturdy man o’wars.

Daniel Defoe, another diarist, remarked in his own Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain: “Harwich is a town of hurry and business, not much of gaiety and pleasure, and yet the inhabitants seem warm in their nests and some of them are very wealthy.”

To this day Harwich people remain direct in manner, if friendly, and every time I visit 
I wonder why I don’t do so 
more often.

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