Town has a 'once in 400 years' opportunity to boost its tourism economy
PUBLISHED: 11:30 30 March 2019 | UPDATED: 17:03 02 May 2019
A significant anniversary approaches for the north Essex coastal community of Harwich and business leaders are hoping to make the most of it.
Next year, 2020, marks 400 years since the Mayflower ship set sail for the New World carrying the Pilgrim Fathers, who on their landmark voyage across the Atlantic set out the democratic principles of the new society they hoped to create. The episode has a special place in American and British history as a symbol of early European colonisation of the future United States.
Harwich has a central role in this famous story – not only was the Mayflower built in the town but it is the birthplace of the ship's captain, Christopher Jones, who lived and was married (twice) in Harwich.
It is anticipated there will be a lot of interest in the anniversary celebrations from both American tourists keen to retrace the story of their country but also from people closer to home.
For Paul Milsom, chair of the Harwich and Dovercourt Tourism Group, the anniversary represents a “once in 400 years opportunity” to promote what the town has to offer and to also improve parts of it. He says members of the group - made up of business people and councillors - as well as the wider population of Harwich are focussing on the 400th anniversary, so the town “can maximise on the tourism opportunities”.
“It's a real opportunity for Harwich to let people know what an exciting place it is,” said Mr Milsom, who operates the Pier hotel and restaurant in the town.
“When you say Harwich to people, it doesn't necessarily conjure up tourism. People think of it as a working town but many people don't know its rich history.”
The group has been working on its plans since 2015 and things are starting to “gather momentum,” he said.
A number of attractions are in development and are due to be open by Autumn 2019.
These include Christopher Jones' house on King's Head Street, which has been restored to how it would have looked in the 17th century and will be open to the public for the first time. A Mayflower visitor centre is also being developed and will be located in the town's Esplanade Hall, a Victorian school building that had become run down before this opportunity to refurbish it came along.
In addition, a Mayflower trail around the historic parts of Harwich complete with interpretation boards is in the pipeline while work has also started on a sculpture of the Mayflower, which will stand on a roundabout at the gateway into Harwich at Parkestone. Another wicker sculpture of the Mayflower is planned for the town's main green.
Alongside these physical features, an impressive calendar of events are in place for 2020 from a half-marathon in April and a festival of arts in June to a motorcycle run in September and a shanty festival in October. Other events include an open gardens weekend, a sausage festival and Christmas market.
Many of these events already take place annually but they will be boosted next year and tailored to the Mayflower celebrations. According to Mike Carran, head of sport and leisure at Tendring District Council, businesses have been encouraged to come up with their own twist on the historic festivities - one baker is going to create a Mayflower cookie while a local pub is formulating a recipe for a Mayflower cocktail.
Tendring District Council has got behind the initiative in a big way and has already committed £135,000 to these projects with additional funding available as the big year approaches.
As well as being central to efforts in Harwich, the council has also been active on the national and international stage, liaising with other towns which are part of the wider story of the Mayflower. A total of 12 destinations make up the so-called 'Mayflower 400' trail including the villages of Scrooby and Babworth in Nottinghamshire, where many of the lead Pilgrims came from; Leiden in the Netherlands, which offered sanctuary to protestants of the day; and of course, Plymouth, the final stop for the Pilgrims before they headed off to the New World.
It is hoped tourists coming from the States will follow this trail where each place on the way is putting on a series of events during the year.
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On the radar
Mr Carran points out that Harwich is already on the radar of American tourists and features on a number of itineraries run by US travel operators. As well as the Mayflower connection, the town was the home of Christopher Newport, who captained the Susan Constant, the largest of three ships which carried settlers for the Virginia Company in 1607 on the way to found the settlement at Jamestown in the Virginia Colony, which became the first permanent English settlement in North America.
The hope is that investment going into the town now will not only help to make 2020 a special year for Harwich but will also promote the destination for the long-term.
“The bigger thing for us is that 2020 becomes a foundation for a bigger tourism offering,” said Mr Carran.
The whole calendar of events is due to kick off this November around the time that Thanksgiving is held with an 'Illuminate' festival of light and parade on Harwich Quay. It promises to be a year to remember for the folk of Harwich.