International Ports & Approaches

Key Characteristics

  • Deep-water haven and approaches sheltered by prominent headlands with localised shallow
  • Underlying geology largely covered by
  • Heavily engineered shoreline with nature conservation interest limited to short stretches of remaining intertidal foreshore and areas of vegetated
  • Rich cultural legacy related to maritime trade and Multiple military structures indicate the strategic importance of the deep-water haven and reflect changing threats and military technologies over time.
  • Major port infrastructure juxtaposed with sailing and yacht clubs and in close proximity to residential and commercial land
  • Busy Large passenger ships, tankers and cargo vessels entering and leaving ports and anchorages contrast to much smaller passenger ferries, fishing boats and personal craft.
  • Despite scale of port operations, waters and adjacent coastal towns popular for a wide range of recreational pursuits and
  • Strong associations with historic
  • Aesthetic qualities dominated by large scale port infrastructure and shipping, juxtaposed with historic port buildings and private vessels.
Return to Map


The International Ports and Approaches SCT extends across the deep-water Harwich Haven and its approaches and along the coast as far as the Felixstowe seafront. The westward limits of the SCT are defined by the adjacent Inland Navigable Waters SCT, and landward by sea walls, port infrastructure and occasional sand and shingle beaches at Harwich and between Landguard Point and Old Felixstowe.

Physical Influences

The sand and shingle spit of Landguard Point and the Harwich peninsula create a sheltered, deep water haven at the head of the Stour and Orwell Rivers that is unique within the study area. Whilst the main channels are deep enough to accommodate some of the world’s largest shipping vessels, shallow waters also exist, such as the Harwich Shelf on the west side of the entrance to the haven, and Shotley Spit in the centre of the harbour.

The underlying geology is largely masked by superficial deposits of sand, gravel and mud, which are periodically dredged to maintain navigations for deep drafted container vessels and tankers. However, small sandbanks and rocky outcrops occur. For example, Cork Spit and Andrews Spit have been dredged for shingle in the past and Stone Banks and Felixstowe Ledges are a product of cemented volcanic ash within the London Clay.

The coastal edge has been heavily modified with timber and rock groynes, concrete step work, sea walls, piers and dock structures, meaning only limited areas of intertidal muds and shingle beaches are present. However, limited areas of seminatural habitat and biodiversity interest are present. Landguard Common is a sand and shingle spit with a stabilised vegetated beach and loose shingle foreshore that is designated in part to protect fragile and nationally scares habitats. The Harwich Foreshore is also significant; it is the best exposure of the Harwich Stone Band and is also of prime importance for London Clay fossilsciv.

Cultural Influences

The historic record, archaeological finds and standing structures show that Harwich Haven has been a source of national wealth and prestige over many centuries, and particularly at times when commercial or military interest was focused on the continent. A Roman coastal fort (the only one in Suffolk) is known to have existed at Walton, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a naval battle off Harwich in the late 9th century in which King Alfred’s forces defeated a Viking fleetcv. Following Henry VIII’s decision to appoint himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in the 16th century, the coast was vulnerable to invasion from France and Spain. This, along with the development of more effective gun technology, triggered the first modern national strategy for invasion defences. Harwich Haven, then a naval dockyard and the only large natural harbour between the heavily defended ports of London and the Humber, became a focus of attention. Landguard Point and Harwich on the Essex side of the estuary were identified for the creation of defensive earthworks and gun placements. The continued threat from the continent resulted in periods of rebuilding to maintain or update defensive capabilities. Landguard’s bulwarks were reinstated in 1588 in anticipation of the Spanish Armada and a new fort was constructed between 1625 and 1628 which incorporated ideas form the continent on military defensive and offensive design.

Landguard was instrumental in defeating the raiding Dutch army in July 1667.

Over the following centuries the Harwich Haven continued to be of military significance during periods of threat. For example, Martello Towers were built to repel an invasion by Napoleonic France. These were generally to a standard design. However, additional defensive features were added to the tower at Walton Ferry, now beneath the Felixstowe container port, possibly reflecting the high level of importance attached to defending the haven. Highlighting the significance of Harwich at this time, Lord Nelson visited the town in his ship Medusa to assist in the formation of Sea Fencibles, a local naval defence force.

Over the remainder of the century, batteries, redoubts, forts and guns were improved at Harwich, Landguard and Shotley Point. Innovative defences continued to be constructed during the 20th century and in particular during the two World Wars. Successive periods of building record the evolution of military design and tactics, which can sometimes be interpreted in the remaining fabric. Within the waters of the haven there are several recorded obstructions, including wrecks.

In addition to strong military and naval associations, there is a rich cultural and architectural legacy related to the movement of people and the trade of commodities over a long period, including historic buildings and structures associated with port activity, particularly in Harwich town. Much of the physical evidence of earlier centuries has been lost or is buried beneath later phases of port development. However, structural remains such as lighthouses, commercial buildings and piers are a reminder of the haven’s maritime history.

Today, the haven and approaches are busy waters and movements are continuous and dense. Vessels range from large container ships and tankers to passenger ferries and harbour authority launches. The Harwich Haven Channel (the deepest approach to any UK container port at 14.5m deep) is fundamental to the continued success of the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe. The haven and approaches are within the jurisdiction of Harwich Haven Authority. The main shipping channels are marked by buoys and dredged, along with berthing areas, for deep drafted vessels. There are also separate yacht entry tracks. The harbourside is characterised by stacks of containers awaiting shipment, warehouses and typical port infrastructure including docks, jetties and pontoons. Tower cranes are particularly prominent and can be seen from some distance from these ports.

Commercial fishing boats operate out of the port of Harwich, and fish the estuarine waters, rivers and offshore. Dover sole, flounder, bass, mullet and herring are targeted in the haven and potting for crabs and lobsters is also a focus for some crews.

In addition to sailing, the haven and surrounding areas are popular for recreation and contain several visitor destinations. There are a range of heritage sites, museums and nature reserves open to the public. Stretches of the Essex Way and Suffolk Coast and Heaths Path provide access to the water’s edge and there is a wild swimming club at Felixstowe.

Recreational angling is also undertaking from several stretches of beach with a catch including whiting, cod, sole, bass and garfishcvi. Despite the proximity of the busy ports, Felixstowe remains as a popular seaside town, with a pier and wide range of visitor facilities fronting onto a wide beach. The waters of the haven and approaches are popular for recreational sailing to and from inland quays and marinas and navigating the Rivers Stour and Orwell.

As noted above, the haven has strong associations with historical events, principally associated with the defence of the realm. However, cultural associations also include those related to travel and trade. Harwich was the homeport of the Mayflower which set sail from Plymouth to the New World in 1620. Its Captain, Christopher Jones, was also born in Harwich.

Fossils from Harwich have been collected and studied for more than 300 years making this important in the history of geology. In Arthur Ransome‘s novels of the late 1930’s ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’ and ‘Secret Water’, Commander Walker is a naval officer stationed at Shotley. The names of marine features and navigations are also evocative. For example, the Medusa Channel is named after Nelson’s flagship that was moored off Harwich.

Aesthetic and Perceptual Qualities

Views inland from the haven are limited to port related development. However, expansive views out to sea and into the haven are possible from coastal locations.

Tower cranes are by far the most prominent landmarks, but other features act as navigation aids, such as the tall steeple of Harwich Town Church, radar towers and Landguard Fort.

The juxtaposition of large-scale port structures and shipping to the domestic scale buildings within the towns of Harwich and Felixstowe and smaller private craft navigating these busy waters and approaches is a defining quality of the haven. The enormous scale of larger container ships can often only be appreciated when seen in the same view as a yacht at sail or against the backdrop of port infrastructure.