In Harwich, there is one vessel on the quayside that you just can’t ignore, not least because of its scarlet livery. Built in 1958, LV18 was Trinity House’s last manned light vessel before it was retired from service in 1994. But as with the Harbour Ferry, this was a boat that wasn’t going to go quietly, thanks to one man – the ebullient and utterly charming Tony O’Neil. He bought the vessel for a nominal £1 and the Pharos Trust was set up to oversee its restoration. It opened in 2011 as Harwich’s quirkiest visitor attraction.
A musician by trade, Tony has a passion for radio. Visitors to the ship can see some of his extensive collection of antique and vintage radios on board, but with an estimated 1600 in his collection, some remain in storage in the hold. That passion for radio also manifests itself in broadcasting. Tony once worked for Radio Caroline and his enthusiasm for pirate radio is undimmed. The likes of John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and Johnnie Walker all broadcast from radio ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters and the tenders that facilitated their commute came from Harwich.
Even the beautiful garden that you see on deck has a musical connection. The scented plants that form part of it are there in homage to John Peel. His 1967 show for pirate station Radio London was named “The Perfumed Garden.” Johnnie Walker is still involved. He’s a patron of the Pharos Trust and will broadcast from LV18 this August.
For anyone keen on maritime history, Tony has preserved some of the cabins on board just as they would have been when the vessel was in use as a lightship. There’s also a chance to see what a pirate radio station would have been like. There’s so much in the way of nautical and radio memorabilia that some have dubbed it a “floating prop shop”. Unsurprisingly, it caught the eye of the production team working on the 2008 movie “The Boat that Rocked” and with a splash of yellow paint for the occasion, doubled as Radio Sunshine.
It is individuals like Tony that are breathing life into a town that once lay forgotten at the end of the line. His energy and commitment to this corner of Essex is helping to make Harwich the town that rocks.
Maldon’s Promenade Park is a popular recreational spot, but tucked away at its easternmost point is a less visited spot. Known locally as the Barge Graveyard, it’s the final resting place for the old wooden sailing barges that have come to the end of their useful life. Left to the elements, the tide breaks them down and slowly they rot away to nothing.
There’s no information or signage on site that offers clues to the provenance of the barges, though the Citizan website has this to say:
“Lying in the Graveyard are the remains of Thames sailing barges British Lion, Vicunia, Pretoria, Mamgu; a lighter; an Admiralty launch, a fishing vessel built in either Scandinavia or Belgium as well as several other vessels.”
The Visit Maldon District website has a little more detail about when some of the barges were built. The British Lion was built in 1879, whereas the Vicunia was a much later vessel, dating from 1912. To put these dates into context, the use of the Thames Barge for commercial purposes peaked around 1914 before going into decline. Once, transporting goods such as straw, horse feed, bricks and cement to London would have been done by water, with the flat bottoms of the barges perfectly designed to navigate the shallow waters of this marshy coastline. But then along came faster transport by rail and road and the barges were consigned to history.
The Visit Maldon District website also explains that some of the boats were partially broken up before being brought to Maldon. The Pretoria is one such vessel, broken up downriver, with the bottom lying here at the Graveyard. It was commonplace to break up the barges for scrap and salvage before dumping what was worthless in the mud.
To get a sense of what some of the boats might once have looked like, it’s an easy stroll along the Chelmer to Hythe Quay. It’s now the main location where you’ll see such barges in Essex. Kitty, Hydrogen and Lady Jean are among the active barges based at Maldon. For a full list, visit the Sailing Barge Research website:
Topsail Charters offer trips out; periodically these are day sails that teach you a little of the history, bird life and landscape through which you’re travelling. It’s also possible to follow by barge on race days; Maldon next hosts a barge race in mid-June 2017. You can find the full public trips schedule here:
Those vessels that aren’t quite finished also open periodically for tours. s.b. Pudge, s.b. Centaur and Steam Tug Brent welcome visitors on 30th April and 1st May 2017. Entry is free but donations are gratefully received.
Why does a little seaside resort in Essex give the town of Sandwich in Kent 50p a year?
To find the answer we need to learn a little about the Cinque Ports (from the French for five, cinq, but pronounced sink not sank). They comprised Hastings, Sandwich, Dover, Romney and Hythe. Broadly speaking, in return for supplying the King with ships and manpower, they received certain privileges:
“Exemption from tax and tallage, right of soc and sac, tol and team, blodwit (the right to punish shedders of blood) and fledwit (the right to punish those who were seized in an attempt to escape from justice), pillory and tumbril, infangentheof and outfangentheof, mundbryce (the breaking into or violation of a man’s mund or property in order to erect banks or dikes as a defence against the sea), waifs and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan.”
Basically, they didn’t need to pay any tax and could smuggle what they liked. A lucrative deal, and nice if you could get it. Unfortunately, problems had plagued the Cinque Ports from the start, not least that their harbours were prone to silting up. Hastings was the worst affected; to try to get round the problem, Rye and Winchelsea became what was known as limbs of Hastings, later to be bestowed with the title “Antient Towns”. That’s not a typo, by the way.
Seeing the limbs as a way out of their problems, the others followed Hastings’ example. Most of these limbs were in Kent or Sussex, geographically logical. Only one was located in Essex. It would seem that the men of Sandwich had a penchant for Brightlingsea’s oysters and could also see the advantages to be gained by the town’s convenient location halfway to the annual Herring Fair at Yarmouth. Sandwich, tempted by the ships that could be pressed into service from this thriving port, and Brightlingsea, keen to secure the financial rewards and freedoms associated with the Cinque Ports, were a match made in heaven.
These days, the link between the two towns is largely symbolic. Every year, on the first Monday in December, All Saints’ Church on the edge of town hosts what’s called Choosing Day. The Deputy of Brightlingsea, the officer responsible to the Mayor of Sandwich, is elected. And as part of this ceremony, the ship-money owed to Sandwich in lieu of the service of men, ten shillings – or 50p in new money – has to be paid.