Visit the historic maritime town of Harwich in Essex. Discover its lighthouses, lightvessels and Trinity House sites, and other fascinating historic sites.
This post may contain affiliate links. You can read my affiliate policy here.
Did you know there are four lighthouses in the Harwich area? The Trinity House Central Monitoring and Control Centre is located on the Quay. You can also find a former lightship nearby that is open to the public.
If you’re lucky, you may spot some additional lightvessels or lighthouse service vessels in the harbour.
But there’s lots more to see and do in this historic town. Join me on a tour of the highlights and lesser-known sites in the area.
Enjoy your visit to Harwich!
The Essex town of Harwich is located on the eastern shores of England, close to the Suffolk Border. Its position at the southern entrance to the Stour and Orwell estuaries makes it an ideal natural anchorage and safe harbour.
Dovercourt and Parkeston, where the North Sea ferries terminate, form the conurbation of Harwich.
From Ha’penny Pier, a passenger ferry runs across the water to Felixstowe and Shotley. Felixstowe is the UK’s busiest container port, handling nearly half of Britain’s container trade.
Harwich is also a haven for ship spotting, as well as lightvessels and lighthouse service ships!
Harwich is an excellent sheltered harbour, due to its location on the coast. It is the only large sheltered anchorage between the Humber and Thames. Because of its position, the area became a substantial naval base. Harwich Redoubt, Beacon Hill Battery and Bath Side Battery are all evidence of maritime occupation.
Many famous adventurers have set sail from Harwich. These include Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, and Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson.
It was also from Harwich that the Mayflower set sail for America in1620. Mayflower, a Harwich-registered vessel, was forced to call in at Plymouth due to poor weather conditions. Her Captain, Christopher Jones, lived in King’s Head Street, Harwich.
Diarist Samuel Pepys was Secretary of the Admiralty and MP for Harwich. Pepys was also elected Master of Trinity House in 1676. A plaque on the town hall commemorates his connection to the town.
During the Second World War, Harwich was a base for minesweepers and destroyers. In addition, the Dunkirk evacuation fleets assembled here.
Some of the these Maritime Trail points of interest are also included in my list.
The Corporation of Trinity House was founded in 1513 by a Royal Charter from King Henry VIII. Initially based in Deptford, Trinity House provided mainly pilotage services.
Many lighthouses were originally in private ownership. However, in 1836 an Act of Parliament gave Trinity House authority to purchase all remaining privately owned leases and management over navigation aids.
The Corporation is one of three General Lighthouse Authorities that have responsibility for lighthouses in the UK. Trinity House looks after lighthouses and aids to navigation in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar.
Historically, Trinity House had various depots located countrywide. Each depot was responsible for lighthouses, lightvessels, and buoys in its respective district.
The original Trinity House depot was located at Trinity Buoy Wharf, Blackwall.
The depot at Harwich was established in 1812. It was responsible for servicing aids to navigation between South Foreland and Orfordness Lighthouses. In addition, the depot was also responsible for around a dozen lightvessels.
Other depots operated in Great Yarmouth, East Cowes, Penzance and St Just. In Wales, depots were at Swansea, Milford Haven and Holyhead. Before the depots were established, Agents also operated from Ramsgate and Littlehampton.
Each depot carried out similar duties. The depots carried out buoy maintenance and lighthouse and lightvessel relief. Harwich was originally a sub depot of Blackwall. However, it gradually developed into a full depot and training centre in its own right.
Officers and crew were attached to a particular depot. They would report to the depot when reliefs took place. The lightship men worked in the buoy yards when ashore from their duty.
The Blackwall workshops were established in 1869. These were built alongside a shipping depot that had been on site since the 19th century.
During the early years of the Second World War, Trinity House transferred operations from the Blackwall depot.
Today Harwich is the Central Monitoring and Control Centre for Trinity House lighthouses and navigation aids. A new purpose-built monitoring centre was built overlooking The Quay in 2005. Across the road, Trinity House established a new state of the art buoy yard.
Other businesses now occupy one of the former office buildings.
Lighthouse Keepers arrived at the depot for their onward journey to lighthouses and lightships. They would then head out to relieve the keepers on duty. Keepers would be stocked up with supplies. Often their supplies would be prepared by a local shopkeeper. The local shopkeeper knew from years of service what would be needed to cover a two-month spell of duty.
At the buoy yard, maintenance and renewal of buoys and seamarks take place. The workshop carried out repairs, kept supplies topped up, and carried out general refurbishment work.
Alongside the office building, the large storehouse supplied ropes and paint for buoys and ships. They also supplied cleaning materials and other supplies for the lighthouses and lightvessels.
Each service tender had a section within the storehouse with supplies for the next trip.
Beyond the storehouse was the yard with buoys for renovation, housing anchors and chain cable. Trinity House employed painters, carpenters, blacksmiths and other workers.
Badly damaged buoys were initially sent to the Blackwall workshop for more serious repairs. The buoys used to operate using acetylene gas, which would be stored and replaced by the tenders. Now they are solar-powered but still require maintenance.
The Harwich depot was also the preliminary training centre for lighthouse keepers. Recruits were taught how to operate lighting equipment, fog signals, radio equipment. They also learned how to take weather reports and cook skills, which was very important.
Following their initial training, the recruits became Supernumerary Assistant Keepers (SAKs). They were generally posted to a particular depot area to get practical experience at different lighthouses within the depot’s jurisdiction. SAKs would work as reliefs during periods of leave or illness. Following their probationary period, they would then be promoted to Assistant Keeper and eventually (after 10 – 15 years’ service) to Principal Keeper.
Rock lighthouses usually had four keepers, with three on duty and one ashore. Land stations had three keepers, or two if there was no fog signal.
Originally known as the Continental Pier, Trinity Pier was built in 1866 as a terminus for the Great Eastern Railway vessels. Parkeston Quay opened in 1883, and operations were transferred to this site.
On 18th June 1910, a fire broke out in one of the storage sheds, causing devastating damage to the pier. It was rebuilt in 1915 using concrete.
Following the Second World War, Trinity House took over the pier. The pier was used to store buoys, and in 1955 Trinity House redeveloped the old pier. Lighthouse tenders also berth here when in the harbour.
Depending on where they are working, you may see one or more of the lighthouse service tenders. The best way to find out where the service tenders are is by using the Marine Traffic App. You can save your favourite fleet and track their routes.
Built in 1982, THV Patricia is a Multi Functional Tender (MFT). She is the oldest of the Trinity House fleet. Patricia can carry out various lighthouse services, including buoy maintenance and wreck marking.
THV Galatea was built in 2007 as a Multi Functional Vessel.
She is also used for commercial operations. Like Patricia, she lays buoys and is used lightvessel maintenance.
THV Alert is a Rapid Intervention vessel often used to go to the aid of wreck marking.
You may see more lightvessels in the centre of the harbour. These are known as the stream moorings. These may be lightships that have been withdrawn from their station and are now awaiting overhaul.
At least one lightvessel is usually in refurbished condition, ready for redeployment if one of the active lightvessels needs to be replaced at short notice.
Ha’penny Pier was so-called because the original ferry toll from here was a halfpenny.
It was built in 1853 and used as a departure point for paddle steamers until the First World War. It is one of the UK’s only remaining wooden working piers.
The old ticket office is home to the Harwich Historical Society, and the visitor centre is open over the summer. The Society also organise guided tours of Harwich from here.
Evening cruises depart from the pier in the summer along the Stour and Orwell rivers.
One lightvessel you will see is LV18, located on Ha’penny Pier. She is usually open to the public.
LV18 was used for much of the filming of the movie The Boat that Rocked, though very little footage made the final cut.
Just alongside LV18 on The Quay is the current RNLI Lifeboat Station. This was built in 1890, replacing an earlier one that now forms the Lifeboat Museum.
The Quay is an excellent place for ship spotting. From Parkeston, regular ferries carrying both freight and passengers travel to the continent.
Parkeston is named after Mr Parkes, the first chairman of the Great Eastern Railway. He built Parkeston Quay as the terminal for the packet service to Holland.
The cottages at Angelgate were built in 1858 as a coastguard station. They were built on the site of the former Anglegate Battery army headquarters.
Harwich’s first Lifeboat station was established in 1876. A Lifeboat had been in operation between 1821 and 1825 before being withdrawn. The museum tells the story of the Harwich Lifeboat service.
Located at 7 Church Street opposite the church is the former Trinity House Catering Depot. Formerly the Harwich Post Office, the depot was taken over by Trinity House on 1st January 1976.
Trinity House possibly used this after the closure of Blackwall to train lighthouse keepers, particularly in general catering skills. Trinity House may have also used it for other purposes.
Also known as the Range Rear, the High Lighthouse is the second to be built in this location. The first was built in 1665 on top of the old Town Gate. The current tower later replaced it in 1818. It aligned with the Low Light to form leading lights into the channel. This formed a safe passage into Harwich.
The first Low Lighthouse on the foreshore operated with the High Lighthouse. The current Low Lighthouse was built in 1818, at the same time as the present High Lighthouse.
The Harwich Maritime Museum is located within the building.
Both Dovercourt lighthouses were built in 1863 to replace the High and Low Lighthouses. They worked as leading lights, guiding vessels around Landguard Point. They were also known as the Dovercourt Range Lights and replaced by buoys in 1917.
The Trinity Cottages are located in Fronks Road, a short walk from the Dovercourt Lighthouses. They are easily recognisable by their distinctive design. The cottages were built in 1862, and later years were used as dwellings for former lighthouse service personnel.
They may have served as a shore station for keepers and their families at some stage. However, their original purpose is unclear.
The ‘donkey house’ on the corner of Fronks Road and Beach Road was up for sale in 2019.
LV15 was built in 1954. The lightvessel was moved to Tollesbury, Essex, and renamed Trinity in 1991. She is the base for Fellowship Afloat, which provides outdoor adventure activities.
Built by Trinity House, the Naze Tower was used as a daymark, and is visible along the coastline.
Built in 1932, LV87 moved to Levington in 1973 following decommissioning. She is located in the marina of the Haven Ports Yacht Club at Suffolk Yacht Harbour, Levington. Her lantern was removed and used at the Inner Dowsing station. She later received a replacement lantern from LV88.
Please use my affiliate links when making a booking – thank you!