The little-known Kentish Stour sees a commemoration of Saint Augustine’s arrival by water some 1400 years ago.
It’s not often the opportunity comes along to join the re-enactment celebrating the arrival of Saint Augustine on English shores in 597 AD. And when Tim Coghlan rushed to join the event, he was delighted to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury
Having had an Irish father, we have a family saint. In our case, for reasons lost in bog mists of time, it is Saint Augustine – who never went near Ireland. All I know is that every ancestor I have been able to trace to my great, great, great grandfather each had Augustine as their middle name. And I have done the same to my son.
So when celebrations were afoot for the 1,400th anniversary of St Augustine’s landing at the Isle of Thanet in 597 AD, I took a close interest.
In life, you make your luck. Friends Irene and Roy Newing, who own the Boat House boatyard on the River Stour in Kent, learned of my interest in St Augustine. So they kindly invited me to join them aboard their boat Reneroy
III – their 36ft steel cruiser which they built with their own hands, and named after themselves, for the third time. Reneroy III was to join the flotilla of boats that would assemble for a reenactment of St Augustine’s landing. The list of dignitaries coming aboard the fleet was awesome, headed by Dr Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.
For security reasons, I was not told until I arrived that Dr Carey was to travel, and that we were to lead the fleet. I was somewhat overawed to find I was about to join such august company.
Dr Carey swept into the quayside in a motor cavalcade reminiscent of Royalty. And the ancient Cinque Port of Sandwich put on all its splendour of medieval pageantry to pipe him aboard. The thronging crowd cheered and waved, and we waved back, as we led away a flotilla of a half dozen boats downstream to the main muster station, where another ten or so boats awaited us.
All the boats were dressed in brightly coloured flags and bunting. Some of the older ones also flew the battle honours of Dunkirk, a reminder of how the boaters of the Stour were once called on to do their duty in Britain’s hour of peril.
We were now towards the tidal river mouth at Sandwich Bay, as close a spot as you can now get by water to the shingle bank at Stonar – now inland, where St Augustine is believed to have landed on a September day – perhaps as fair as this one.
Here we might digress to contemplate this remarkable man. In the
latter Roman times, the colony of Britain became Christian, along with the rest of the Empire. But with the withdrawal of the Legions in 410 AD, the country was rapidly invaded by the Saxon hordes from modern day southern Denmark.
Christianity was almost eliminated and replaced with the Nordic gods of Wagnerian operas, who held sway for nearly 200 years. The Saxons not only fought the ancient Britons but each other, selling surplus slaves on the international market.
Some even found their way to Rome, where Pope Gregory spied their blond Essex man looks in the slave market and proclaimed then surprisingly ‘not Angles but angels!’
He resolved to convert them to Christianity, and sent his good friend Augustine with a team of monks in 595 AD on a journey that today takes two hours by plane but was to take them two years. The reason for this long delay was the chaos of France after the Romans left the revolting Gauls to it.
Here, Augustine showed his patient skills that were to reward him with his great prize. He never moved from one warlord’s dominion to another until he was certain of being well received.
When he finally reached Paris, he got his big break. The Frankish king’s daughter Bertha had married King Aethelbert of Kent, and by her marriage contract, was allowed to keep her Christian faith. This provided Augustine with his way in. Once there, it was mutual tolerance that won the day – a lesson even for today. Aethelbert allowed Augustine to preach publicly at the ancient church of St Martin in Canterbury, which remarkably had remained a Christian church through all the Saxon invasions, but himself remained a pagan.
And Augustine followed Pope Gregory’s instructions to retain from the Saxon religion ‘whatever is pious, religious and right’. In time, Augustine’s example prevailed, and Aethelbert himself became a Christian, and used all his influence to support Augustine’s mission.
As a result, Canterbury became the focal point of Christianity in Britain, which it has remained to this day. Augustine died in 604 AD with only a bridgehead of Christianity in Britain, but he had achieved it by persuasion and example, coming very much into a hostile environment on his own, and not as part of the baggage train of a conquering colonial power.
Now to return to our mainstream tale. When Augustine arrived on the shingle bank at Stonar, he sent messages to the king at his capital Canterbury – the then head of navigation on the Stour, asking for permission to enter his kingdom.
According to the Venerable Bede, Aethelbert was suspicious of Augustine’s magic and would not receive him ‘in any house’ but in the open air halfway down the Stour in the former Roman castle at Richborough. So off they, and we went.
We turned the boats in the swiftly flooding tide, already cracking six knots. High reed banks were used to push stubborn bows round. And then I saw it – a snake larger than I had ever seen before in Britain, swimming across the river its head protruding a foot above the water. Roy announced it was a grass
snake and that they grew to three feet or more in the reeds by the river mouth. It was a relief as I thought it was another exotic species of the mink/ninja turtle/ zander variety about to destroy the British eco-system.
The archbishop had by this time joined the commotion of sightseers gazing at the snake over the wide stern of Reneroy III. Then as we headed upstream for Richborough, and once into the flat open reed waters beyond Sandwich , Dr Carey took time to come and talk to each of us in turn.
Sadly, he comes across in the media as a cold fish – but this could not be further from the truth.
He is delightful company, with whom I would happily have a pint any day of the week. I explained my interest in St Augustine with its Irish connection. He seemed curious: “As far as I know, St Augustine never went further west than Reading.”
Once he learned I was in marinas, and possibly inspired by the snake, he told me an hilarious story of his last trip in a small boat.
During the summer he had been staying with friends in Carolina, who had a boat on a creek which ran through their land – this part of Carolina is stuffed with swamps. As he got off the boat, Dr Carey turned round and accidentally knocked his wife off the pontoon and into the creek.
His host turned ashen white in horror. Not only was the creek full of filthy mud and slime, but it was also inhabited by alligators! (They are a protected species in this part.)
In no time, the two men pulled out Mrs Carey, who was covered in mud. They then went back to the house whereupon the host announced that Mrs Carey could not go through the house like that - they had just put in new carpets. To use the Archbishop’s own words: “My wife then stripped off on the terrace – without a moment’s thought. She left her dirty clothes there, and went inside to wash and change”.
The friend’s wife was away during the whole incident, but when she returned and discovered what her husband had done to the wife of the archbishop of Canterbury, she went mad.
“Just imagine if people ever heard about this! What would they think of us?” said the friend’s wife.
“But my wife calmed her down, and took the whole event in her stride as an amusing adventure, in which all had come right in the end,” said Dr Carey.
With the tide now in full bore, and Roy knowingly announcing eight knots of it, we sped through the marshes and drained country reminiscent of Dutch polders, with the engine in little more than tickover to keep us in the right part of the river.
Suddenly we swung round a bend and arrived. But the only way to get ashore safely was to turn the boat round into the oncoming tide, a master mariner manoeuvre that Roy accomplished with little fuss.
The landing jetty was made of simple wooden stakes and planks, something possibly very similar to what St Augustine would have used to go ashore. The climb to the castle was by a steep, rough path through thickets that also might have changed little. But once in the massive grounds of this Roman fort, one of the finest ever built, it was different. Hundreds of schoolchildren from all over south-east England were there to celebrate and re-enact the whole story of St Augustine’s life and journey to Kent before his current successor, Dr Carey, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury.
When all was done, the flotilla reassembled and headed up river for a picnic that Roy had organised at his boater’s picnic park, a feast which Ratty would have been proud of. Whilst the day remained idyllic, Roy told me of the troubled times the Stour boaters were experiencing on this most ancient of navigable rivers.
Hostile fishermen, anti-boating environmentalists, councils who knew nothing about boating and had even less sympathy and the horrendous expense of the new boat safety regulations driving boats off the river.
It all had such a familiar ring to it. It seems that 1,400 years later, St Augustines message of tolerance seemed to have been forgotten and needed to be relearned.
Sturdy Maria – one of the little ships which went to Dunkirk in 1940 – joined the celebrations
Dr Carey lead the way as the re-enactment got under way
Roy Newings joined other boaters to provide a feast on landing stages and in the picnic park
Children – in full monk garb – escorted Dr Carey into Richborough Castle
Two fleets united at Sandwich Bay. Below: Ready to come ashore in praise of the saint