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.
This National Trust property was originally a fishing lodge used by the monks of St John’s Abbey. A stream, the Bourne, emerges a short distance north of the site and spills out to form a large pond, thought to have been created artificially as there appears to be no geological reason for the water to widen.
After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, St John’s Abbey passed to the Lucas family and later, they began to demolish it. Seeking to improve on the monks’ fishing hut, they constructed what’s now Bourne Mill. The stones were cannibalised and together with those Roman bricks, pieces of flint and some Walton-on-the-Naze septaria to hold it all together, formed the new structure. If you’ve been to Colchester and seen its castle and wall, you’ll notice some similarities.
The wonderful building that you see today at Bourne Mill was the result. Well actually, not quite. What Sir Thomas Lucas built was a single story dwelling, thought to be a place where he could go with his well-heeled mates to fish and then hang out over dinner. On the ground floor, there are two fireplaces which lend credence to this theory.
Carp, pike and wildfowl would have been plentiful so it seems likely that this story is true. This beautiful banner, stitched by the Colne and Colchester Embroiderers Guild, tells the story.
But that story doesn’t end there, of course. Now that Britain was Protestant, it became a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Catholic Europe. Granted refuge by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1565, they boosted the town’s population, congregating in what would later become known as Colchester’s Dutch Quarter. Though they kept themselves separate when it came to socialising and marriage, they did have a profound effect on the north Essex landscape and economy, bringing their weaving industry skills and breathing new life into a flagging industry.
The Dutch introduced new worsted draperies, known as bays and says. They were lighter and cheaper, and not surprisingly proved very popular. A method of quality control was introduced in 1631, immediately raising the status of Colchester cloth. That Dutch seal automatically meant that your cloth fetched a higher price; faulty workmanship, on the other hand, would lead to fines (called rawboots) being levied.
Bourne Mill grew an upper storey, recognisable by the gable ends that are also commonly found in the Netherlands and Belgium. It became a fulling mill, a place where cloth was softened to make it more wearable. A waterwheel would have made the process of hammering the fabric much less labour-intensive. Initially urine, collected from the poorhouse, would have been used in the process; the ammonia it contained helped to clean and whiten the cloth. Later, Fuller’s earth would have been used instead. Afterwards, the cloth was stretched on frames known as tenters to dry – attached by tenterhooks.
After a while, the Essex cloth industry fell into decline once more. The cloth industry, bay especially, was vulnerable in the 18th century to disruption by wars, competition from rival manufacturers, and the import of cotton. By around 1840, Bourne Mill was no longer in use as a fulling mill. As the cloth industry declined, the fulling mills were converted to grind corn or grain, competing with the many windmills that dotted the landscape.
Bourne Mill was converted to a corn mill by 1860 and it’s for this purpose that the uppermost floor and sack hoist would have been installed. The three millstones used at Bourne Mill were imported from France. Later, it was steam driven, but the last miller hung up his apron in 1935.
Today, the property is managed by the National Trust. You’ll find it a 20 minute walk from Colchester Town station just east of Mersea Road, which is served by buses from the town centre. If you drive, there are a few parking spaces at Bourne Mill but if these are full, roadside parking is available nearby. If you’d like to explore other mills in North Essex, the map below gives you an idea of where to find them. For one of only two working tide mills in the country (the other is at Woodbridge in Suffolk), check out Thorrington Tide Mill, a short distance from Colchester:
Found on the edge of Colchester town centre, St Botolph’s Priory is a ruined Augustinian priory that stands on the site of a Saxon church. It was built in the years immediately preceding 1100 out of flint and recycled Roman brick and tile, similar materials to those found in the town’s Norman castle on the opposite side of the High Street. It was officially founded as the Priory of St Julian and St Botolph in 1103, St Botolph being a Saxon abbot who had died over four hundred years before.
It was never quite as important as nearby St John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1895. There was quite a rivalry between the two institutions which manifested itself in several violent altercations. In one, following a dispute over who had the right to control another church, St Peter’s, a small riot broke out after the Prior and some of his men headed over to the monastery and attacked some of the monks with a sword and dagger.
These days, the ruins and the small park which encircles it offer a quiet retreat from the busy shopping area around the corner. One of the most unusual architectural features of what remains is the style of the towers, which are cylindrical in shape. There is also an elaborate façade which survives, with plenty of windows and archways adorning it. The largest, half a circular window, is thought to be the first of its kind in the country, but it’s the multi-layered doorway that offers the greatest wow-factor to present day visitors.
St Botolph’s Priory was dissolved in 1536 and its possessions granted to Sir Thomas Audley who was the Lord Chancellor of England at the time. He’d been instrumental in helping King Henry VIII split from Papal Authority. It remained in use as a parish church for a time, but its location was to prove disastrous in 1648. During the English Civil War, Colchester was placed under siege for eleven weeks after Royalists who had sought a resting place inside the town’s walls came under attack from their adversaries, the Parliamentarians. The town was bombarded with cannons, and as the Priory was located such a short distance from the town’s gates, it suffered significant damage. To this day, it has not been repaired.
In the 19th century, a church was constructed alongside the ruined priory and this is still in use today. Part of the footprint of the old priory contains tombs and graves associated with that church.