Watch the ships sail by in tallest house in Harwich!
Jonathan Perry, Partner of the Signature Homes department at Fenn Wright’s Colchester branch is marketing the property, and talks to sellers, David and Rosie Thurston about how they made this house a home.
Why did you choose to live in Harwich?
I’m a marine Pilot and we have always lived by the sea. When we first saw High House and its tremendous harbour views we were immediately smitten – there can’t be many homes where the world’s biggest ships routinely sail past your windows. Nowhere else seemed to measure up nautically or in bricks and mortar.
Please can you summarise High House to us?
High House is a delightful Grade II* Listed family home known locally as one of the “Captains’ houses”. It comprises eight bedrooms, five reception rooms and three bathrooms. The house currently offers flexible accommodation over four floors with a fifth basement level and four barrel- vaulted coal cellars found under the road. To the front of the house are wrought iron spear headed railings and rendered pillars with large lantern holders. Four stone steps lead up to the entrance – with a magnificent varnished pine and brass studded front-door – and there is a shared access at the side of the house which leads through to a walled block paved courtyard providing some outdoor space.
What were you looking for when you were first searching for a family home in Harwich?
We were looking for a period home with bags of character, preferably Georgian, and lots of space for a large family. My wife and I love the sea and being close to the water was essential too as this is where I work and play. I guide container ships, cruise liners and ferries in and out of the ports within Harwich Haven, and in my leisure time we sail our yacht in the harbour and surrounding Stour and Orwell river estuaries.
Why did you choose to renovate a property over buying something that didn’t require work?
Although we were looking for something with character, it wasn’t our initial intention to completely renovate a property. The house is actually made up of two properties, also known as numbers 29 and 30 Kings Quay Street, and when we bought it 14 years ago, sadly it was in a bit of a state. In the past, it had been used as bed sits and apartments. However, from the very first moment we saw it we knew we wanted it. A combination of its unique location, grandeur and history, views out over the sea and the huge potential of transforming it into one big family home drew us in. I was able to do most of the internal work myself, which made it viable from a financial perspective. So we thought why not?
How did you find the property?
When we first moved to the area from Dover, we always admired High House when walking on the seafront. We felt that this house would be the ultimate place to live with its fantastic location and sea views, but never actually imagined we would ever be able to realise our dream so didn’t give it much thought. When Rosie spotted an advert by Fenn Wright in the local newspaper we couldn’t resist viewing the property, and the rest is history.
What were your inspirations behind the build?
Like many people we wanted to try our hand at property restoration. There were still so many beautiful and original Georgian features in the house, many hidden away under hardboard and paint, that inspiration was never far off. We both felt very excited about sympathetically restoring everything back to its original pristine condition and in so doing, reinstating the grandeur of this lovely house.
We also became fascinated by the history of the house and the people who had lived here previously. We researched the deeds, family trees and local history to inspire us further.
How long did it take to refurb High House?
In total it took about two and a half years to renovate the property. We started almost on the very day we moved in! Frustratingly, the purchase process had taken rather a long time, but on the bright side had afforded us a perfect opportunity to carefully plan the refurb. We had tradesmen poised ready to start work straight away so November 2001 saw the house alive with people installing central heating and rewiring. By the following summer we had moved onto replacing the roof and carrying out external repairs.
Were there many changes to the original design?
As the house is a Grade II* Listed building, (one of only 5.5% of listed properties in the UK), we had to carry out all of the work in a considered way and approved by the local council to ensure none of the changes affected the original listing of the house. We concentrated on one room at a time with the hardest part being the endless interior design and colour scheme decisions needed for so many different rooms.
Did you find anything during the renovation that showed its age and history?
Yes, we found quite a few things actually. For example, we discovered ornate plaster work in the Breakfast Room depicting wheat sheaves and poppies which had been lost under layers of distemper. We spent three weeks on a scaffold platform painstakingly revealing the original detail. At the same time I learned how to make plaster moulds to replace any damaged sections. We also found original interior woodwork such as over-cornice and corner paterae in the style of Tudor roses set within reeded door and window surrounds, and there are, of course, plenty of feature fireplaces. In our Master Bedroom when researching the history of its listed fireplace, we were delighted to find a picture of the very same one in a library book, listed as an Art Nouveau fireplace c1890 with sculptural plant forms augmented with a pair of owls, typical of the style. Other quirky features include 1ft tall skirting boards, 10 ft 6 inch high ceilings, and two magnificent cantilevered open well staircases.
There’s also a peep hole that leads through to the four barrel-vaulted coal cellars that are found under Kings Quay Street. We are still looking for the entrance to the secret smuggling tunnels that reputedly lie under “olde Harwich”!
Our Dining Room may also house one of the most unusual and interesting local art collections in the town. Since living here we have enjoyed sourcing 17 different pictures to date, each one featuring High House, some dating back to its early years, some more recent. The house is a very popular subject for art groups and is one of the most sketched properties in Harwich, so there is plenty of scope for the new owners to carry on the tradition.
What is your favourite room and why?
Rosie’s favourite room is the kitchen as it is the hub of the house where everyone likes to sit and watch the ships go by. My favourite is the Drawing Room on the first floor as it is the perfect party room for entertaining family and friends. We currently have a 9 ft tall Christmas tree in one corner, which looks stunning!
A house of this age must have some history?
Oh yes! Our house was built in 1820 by Harwich packet boat captain Thomas Bridge, whose family were well known in the town. Thomas had a colourful life including being a spy during the Napoleonic Wars, running secret messages across The Channel and behind the lines in France and Belgium. There are many plaques dedicated to Bridge family members in nearby St Nicholas Church, and the house is a regular talking point during guided tours of the town conducted by The Harwich Society guides.
High House’s most illustrious former owner was Thomas’ grandson Sir Cyprian Bridge, an eminent admiral in the Victorian Navy and founder of the Navy Records Society. He was awarded the Order of the Bath in recognition of his achievements. One of our most prized possessions is a copy of his autobiography “Some Recollections” which has been invaluable in researching the Bridge family history. We also own a print published in 1886, showing HMS Colossus, one of his commands. We have even been in touch with the late Lord Bridge of Harwich and his family to research the history of the house.
What about the Harbour itself?
Harwich Harbour was the only deep water harbour on the East Coast between London and the Humber and is accessible in any tide or weather. It has been of strategic importance throughout its history. It has always been a refuge from the stormy North Sea and was said by sailors of old, that “When you cannot make Harwich there is nothing but death before you”.
Around 400 years ago a ship yard was established on the town quays and it is thought the Mayflower was constructed here. Captain Christopher Jones who commanded the ship on the famous voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers lived and married in Harwich, his house still stands. The ship yard continued to build ships for the Admiralty including HMS Conqueror that took part in the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelsons presence in Harwich, both on and off the water is well documented, but my favourite story about him was while he was in command of HMS Medusa laying at anchor in the harbour. He received orders from the Admiralty to proceed to Boulogne to “trouble” the French. The wind was blowing from the east which made departure from the Harbour under sail impossible until a fisherman advised him of a shallow channel outwards to the south. Nelson took this route and from then on the shallow channel was named the Medusa Channel and is called this today.
During the First world war the Harwich Force was based here and the at the end of hostilities the German submarine fleet surrendered and up to 100 U boats assembled in the River Stour off Harwich.
Harwich itself has a rich history of being a port with links to the continent. It was the base of the famous Harwich Packet boats, so called because they shipped mail to and from the continent. These evolved into ferry services sailing to Gothenburg, Esbjerg, Hamburg, Hook of Holland, Zeebrugge, Ostend and Antwerp. Sadly, only the Hook of Holland route exists.
Talk to us about Harwich itself… why is it such a great town to live in?
Harwich is a little known gem of a place with a real community spirit. A five minute walk can offer you a selection of great award winning pubs and restaurants, or a film at the beautifully restored Electric Palace, one of the oldest working cinemas in the country. There are quirky antiques shops and galleries, and the town has lively Sailing and Yacht clubs for those who love being on the water. If history is your passion, the town is awash with links to Elizabeth I, the Mayflower and its voyage to America, its MP Samuel Pepys, and even Admiral Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. There is also a buoyant arts movement in the town and an annual Festival of the Arts. It has blue flag beaches at nearby Dovercourt with stunning coastal walks, swimming pool and gym, a golf course and active rugby, football and cricket clubs. If offers a safe and stimulating environment to bring up a family, yet is only 1.5 hours from London by train. There are 3 train stations in Harwich!
Every summer giant cruise ships berth at Harwich and their late afternoon departures are worth experiencing. Standing on Halfpenny pier at Harwich, they seem to pass so close it feels you can almost reach out and touch them! Across the water from Harwich is the Port of Felixstowe, Britain’s largest container port. The world’s largest container ships regularly visit and the promenade at Harwich provides a grandstand view of these leviathans manoeuvring in the harbour. The harbour and the surrounding waters produce some of the best sailing I know of. I rate this area better than the Solent not only for the variety, but sometimes you can have a river to yourself. We particularly enjoy sailing up creeks in nearby Hamford Water to observe the many seals and wildlife that lives there.
Why are you selling High House?
Now that all of the children have moved out, we are hoping to downsize but still remain living in Harwich. We’re not looking for another refurb project but want to carry on being part of this unique community where history and the sea side go hand-in-hand with the convenience of pubs and restaurants on our doorstep. We always said this wouldn’t be a forever house but we are still very sad to be leaving.
What do you love the most about your home and its position?
We love the house and all its original features and will really miss them and the amazing views. High House has superb curb appeal and if you like watching ships sail past like I do then it really is the house for you. It is a brilliant family home with lots of space for visitors. I play in the Colchester Brass Band and in the past we have had as many as 13 visiting band members from Holland staying and rehearsing.
One thing I shall particularly miss is coming home after an evening out on a warm Saturday night, and getting into my swimming trunks and trotting down to the beach for a midnight swim. There is nothing quite like it!