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St Nicholas, Harwich

at sea

Harwich St Nicholas Harwich Harwich St Nicholas

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  It was one of the first spring-like days of 2013, a Monday in early April, and I arrived with some anticipation at a church I had been looking forward to visiting for much of the long winter. But it was locked, although there was a keyholder notice of sorts. The sign said appointments to view may be made by telephoning the churchwarden, as if they were actually hoping to sell the place. I rang her up, explaining I'd come from Ipswich specially to see inside her church. 'Well, usually we like people to make an appointment', she said, so I patiently explained that I hadn't seen the notice until I'd made the journey from Ipswich. She listened, but was unable to be helpful. 'I'm sorry dear, there's no one who can come and open. There's so few of us left now, and we're all old and infirm. Normally we open it up after Easter, but it's been too cold to sit in the church. And we can't leave it open because of the vandalism.'

The vandalism. She made it sound like an infectious disease. She did tell me they were always open on Saturday mornings, and they'd also be open on Friday 'because a cruise ship is in', but that was the best I could hope for. I sounded as disappointed as I could - after all, I did want her to feel a bit guilty for locking her church against the people of God.

St Nicholas was rebuilt in the 1820s, in the Carpenter's Gothick style of the Commissioners Churches of the time, all in white brick, at a cost of 20,000, a colossal amount of money, about four million at today's value. I came back the following Saturday, to find the church open. A banner outside declared CHURCH OPEN, ALL WELCOME! The west doors were open. I stepped into a church I hadn't seen inside for nearly twenty years.

The interior is a vast space, full of white light, seeming longer than it really is thanks to the three sides of gallery. The fact that this church is described as Essex's best building of its decade is as much due to the interior as the exterior, because it is almost entirely a complete Georgian worship space on a huge scale, just on the eve of the Oxford Movement, and virtually untouched since. And yet everything has a lightness of touch, nothing imposes. Twenty years ago, I recalled finding it breathtaking, and it was breathtaking now. The narrow sugar icing arcades tower out of sight towards the vaulting, the eye drawn to the east as much as in any great late medieval church. The furnishings are almost entirely original, including a grand mayoral pew (for a town of less than 5,000 people!), the late 19th Century choir stalls having been removed and replaced with modern chairs. The only other hint that anything happened after the 1820s is a collection of very fine early 20th Century three-light windows by Henry Holiday, William Morris, Powell and Son and Thomas Willement.

The two elderly custodians were very friendly, even though I declined their offer of a cup of tea. They were knowledgeable about their church, and why not? They had been worshipping in it since the late 1930s, remarkable in itself. They were proud of their church, and proud of Harwich, which they boldly declared was much older than Dovercourt, despite the church being newer. But of course it is a perfect church for such an idiosyncratic little town as Harwich. I was buoyed up (possibly a pun there) and set off south-westwards (actually the only way you can go without a boat) a couple of miles into the suburbs and Dovercourt.

Simon Knott, April 2013

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looking east looking west north aisle chapel
If I might see another spring unto me by Henry Holiday Christ in Majesty St George of England
Blessed Virgin St Nicholas St Simon Good Shepherd let us also go that we may die with him
IC XC NI KA M U Harwich Deanery Trinity House pilots memorial
fight the good fight altar and reredos war memorial 1820s font
medieval font in thy light shall we see light William Morris & Co
Christ in Majesty flanked by St Nicholas and St George Christ flanked by Mary at the Annunciation and St Simon Good Shepherd flanked by the Blessed Virgin and St Beatrice
who all perished off Southwold in the storm of 13 November 1840 lost his life in the Quetta earthquake died at Havre when on his way home


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