With limited time in the city, would a Canterbury River Tour be worth it?
All Photos (c) Donna Dailey
‘I am your guide and engine for the next 40 minutes,’ said George (above), rowing his boat out into the River Stour. ‘The river’s protected by the Environment Agency, and that means there are no motorised boats on it… which is why I have to row. This also keeps the river healthy and in it you’ll find brown trout, eels, pike, dace, herons, cormorants, moorhens, and even otters.’
We found the guys from Canterbury Historic River Tours standing on the King’s Bridge, and before we knew it we were in a boat and our guide, George, was rowing us under the King’s Bridge. It was the start of what proved to be a fascinating glimpse into Canterbury’s history, and from a very different angle: river level.
We heed George’s warning to duck as we go under the bridges, and float beneath the King’s Bridge that we’d been standing on a few minutes earlier. ‘The middle section of the bridge,’ George tells us, ‘dates back to 1134, and is the oldest road bridge still in use in the UK. Till a few years ago it formed part of the A2 which went right through the centre of Canterbury. Below the bridge on the right is where King’s Mill once stood, one of the city’s earliest and most important mills. It was owned by the King, and city residents could have their corn ground there. The city’s first public lavatory was here, and the city's swans were kept nearby and fattened up for banquets.’
George’s commentary was a pleasant mix of the factual and the fun, with a few corny jokes for good measure. At one point he also demonstrated how the boatmen of old would push their barges under a bridge, where the towing horses couldn’t go. George lay down on his back and, upside-down, walked along the bottom of the bridge to propel the boat along, a feat which earned him a round of applause. Our fellow passengers were a mix of local and overseas visitors, some from Germany, some from the USA, and they were all clearly enjoying it all as much as we were.
George explains that the name of the river, the Stour, is a very common one in England. There are several of them, and that’s because Stour is a Saxon word meaning fast-flowing water. Not that Canterbury’s River Stour is fast-flowing these days – just fast enough for a gentle journey, and to keep George fit when we’re going up-stream. The Stour splits in two as it flows through the old part of Canterbury, and rejoins again at the other side, giving plenty of variety to this Canterbury river tour.
We learn about the arrival of the Franciscans, and their later departure, and see the oldest remaining Franciscan building in Britain. We hear about the oldest school in Europe, the playwright Christopher Marlowe (born in Canterbury), discover why Assisi Cottage only has one window on each side, and learn that in Canterbury even the Pizza Express is in a 17th-century forge.
As we return to the start there’s one last feature George points out to us. It’s sticking out of the wall of the Old Weavers Restaurant, next to which Canterbury Historic River Tours has its base. The strange object is a ducking stool. ‘Husbands could pay to have their wives ducked in the river,’ George explains, ‘if they were nagging too much. Anyone accused of witchcraft was also ducked on this stool. If they drowned it proved they were human, not witches. But if they survived,’ George adds with a smile, ‘it proved they were witches, so they were dried off and burned.’
We were delighted to discover how much fun and how entertaining and informative this short river trip was. It was a lovely, relaxing way to learn about Canterbury’s past and present. Definitely recommended as one of the best things to do in Canterbury.
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