Context 170 - December 2021

22 C O N T E X T 1 7 0 : D E C E M B E R 2 0 2 1 An archaeological tour of the Severn loop around Shrewsbury (Photo: Drummond Outdoor) NIGEL BAKER Paddling into the urban past With unpowered river leisure traffic increasing, the age of the aquatic tourist may be about to dawn for our historic river towns on the River Severn and elsewhere. The number of inland pre-industrial towns that are not sited on a major river, or at least a locally significant watercourse, is vanishingly small. The reasons are almost universal: rivers formed barriers and effective natural defensive features, but equally could be, and were, used as communication arteries, both by boats on the actual watercourses and by road traf- fic following routes along the valleys. Recent archaeological research has emphasised that all but the very smallest watercourses could be used by boat traffic, often for stages of longer routes in conjunction with the Roman and later road system. As a consequence, the travellers’ experience of many towns would often in past centuries have been based on a waterborne approach, and it is arguable that this particular urban ‘visitor experience’ is not one that is now often shared. Catching sight of distant spires after a long jour- ney, the end destination finally in sight but still very distant, is unlikely to have the same meaning to a motorist as it does to someone on foot or in a boat propelled by muscle power, or facing an adverse wind. Arrival too would be measurably different, the impact of tall buildings enhanced by the simple height difference between the watercourse and the townscape overlooking and dominating it. As Gordon Cullen would have put it, one is below-datum, looking up at the town as if it were set on a plinth. At the water’s edge too, the boat-travellers’ lower perspective accords much more emphasis to features that allow access to and from the water. For the land-traveller, quays and quayside steps have little importance other than for a bet- ter, more immediate, but still essentially passive view out, over the water. But for the boat travel- ler, they are of supreme importance as offering potential routes off the water into the interior, for exploration, re-supply, business or relaxation. In short, towns look and feel different from the water, and when accessed from the water. While it is routine for river towns to boast of and capitalise on the presence of their river, it is rarer for them to actively encourage its use by visitors, or even locals, except perhaps by a small number of licenced commercial tour operators. On the Severn the waterborne urban visitor experience is substantially different from town to town. Shrewsbury, on the middle-upper Severn, is the most rewarding to visit in this way