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

Canal Boat - - Editor's Letter -

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

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