Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2018/6 posted by hidden europe on

There was talk, as we all waited to leave the overnight ferry from Hoek van Holland in Harwich, as to whether there would be any trains. "It was like the blitz here last week," said one woman, who had evidently escaped the wild English weather by taking a weekend break in Rotterdam.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

There was talk, as we all waited for the passenger gangway to be opened, as to whether there would be any trains. "It was like the blitz here last week," said one woman, who had evidently escaped the wild English weather by taking a weekend break in Rotterdam. "Mind you," she added, "it was even worse over there. Very icy."

The overnight ferry from Hoek van Holland to the Essex port of Harwich is a comfortable way of crossing the North Sea. Although it's a late evening departure, passengers can board at 7 pm, and enjoy dinner on board. It's all very civilised - at least until one arrives in Harwich, which is a soulless and desolate spot at dawn on a winter day.

At about 6.40 in the morning, the foot passengers on the ship are given permission to disembark. "Watch the ice," says a man at the top of the long gangways which lead down to the port buildings. There is no ice.

"So you don't live in Britain?" asks the woman at passport control. She's wearing the flattering uniform of Border Force. Padded shoulders, lots of gear. The front line of defence in the war against outsiders.

"What's the purpose of your visit to Britain?" she asks. I am unsure if this is just friendly casual chatter or if it's the new face of Brexit Britain.

"I'm going to Glenelg," I say. "It's in Scotland."

"Watch out for the snow and ice," she says, handing back my passport.

A train has just left. So there's a chance to ponder what's become of Harwich Parkeston Quay station named after Mr CH Parkes, one-time Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway. When the station opened in 1883, Mr Parkes was doubtless very flattered by the honour. Old pictures show bilingual signs (English and French, even though it's not clear that Harwich was ever served by ferries from France), smart porters and a well-stocked bookstall.

About 20 years ago, just as the number of ferry passengers to the continent was dropping due to cheap flights, Parkes was ditched from the name of the station. Tough, but that's branding for you. Parkeston Quay probably sounded too much like an obscure fishing port, so the station became Harwich International. Very posh. Very modern - just right for Blairite Britain.

The bilingual signs disappeared. So did the porters and the bookstall.

Rather than waiting on the desolate platform - unstaffed bar for a dead pigeon - I linger in the ferry terminal where Heart FM is desperately trying to bring some Monday morning cheer over the airwaves. I order a coffee at the Quayside Café (which is anything but quayside).

"Can I do you a Swift Five to go with that coffee?" the guy at the café asks. A Swift Five, it turns out, is English breakfast - sausage, bacon, egg, fried bread and baked beans. There are probably visitors from the continent who, having arrived in Harwich, wander around Britain trying to order a Swift Five.

I pass on the Swift Five, and the man at the Quayside Café gives me the coffee, telling me to mind the ice. I listen to Heart FM while sipping my coffee. On the radio, Steve - who works in the ambulance service - is telling listeners how grim it was with all the snow and ice last week. "Just like the blitz," says the presenter helpfully - just in case Steve hadn't quite got the point across. Steve is clearly a nice guy and he's up for a challenge. "Name five different types of apple," says the presenter.

"Granny Smith," says Steve with confidence. But then he falters and it's clear that apples are not Steve's forté.

It's time for the train. A Dutch couple with unusually large suitcases are looking for the lift down to the platform. It turns out that there is a lift, but it's not working. They are keen to buy a train ticket, but the machine doesn't seem to be working either.

I help them with their luggage onto the train, taking care to avoid the dead pigeon. An on-board announcement welcomes travellers with a warning that unattended luggage will be destroyed and that an even worse fate awaits passengers without tickets.

The Dutch visitors and I ride together to Manningtree, where our paths diverge. They are bound for the ticket office and then for London. I am heading north. As we alight onto the platform - not a trace of snow or ice - there is a gorgeous smell of fresh bacon. The station buffet at Manningtree is an Essex institution.

So the Dutch visitors opt for bacon rolls. I would do the same, but the train to Stowmarket is already rolling into the opposite platform. I wish the couple a nice stay in England and remind them to mind the ice.

Nicky Gardner
(co-editor, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.