Context 170 - December 2021

24 C O N T E X T 1 7 0 : D E C E M B E R 2 0 2 1 Norwich’s historic townscape awaiting the small boat user in the Fishergate/ Quayside district Nigel Baker (see Vox pop, page 52) is a freelance archaeologist based in Shropshire. He has worked in the university and local government sectors, and in private practice, and has been responsible for English Heritage/Historic England projects in Shrewsbury, Worcester, Bristol and Hereford. One of the grotesque heads at Bishop Bridge, Norwich, visible only to the users of small boats The River Wensum and Bishop Bridge, Norwich, looking upstream. This is the limit of navigation for powered vessels. the historic city and offering, for a few hundred metres within the historic core, the relative peace and opportunity to potter that is denied most landward visitors. That is, once the physical obstacles to placing a boat on the Fosse (locked gates and so on) have been overcome. This distinction between the city river acces- sible to powered craft, or not, plays out most satisfactorily for the small-boat user on the River Wensum in Norwich. There, powered, mostly holiday hire, vessels dominate river traffic in the south-east quarter of the walled city. The divide comes at the exquisite Grade II*-listed Bishop’s Bridge, essentially the medieval back-door to the Cathedral Close. The small-boat user, gleefully passing the ‘no hire craft’ notices, is instantly rewarded by a view of the medieval corbel-tables with their grotesque heads that can only ever have been seen by passers-by like themselves in small unpowered craft. Further into the city, past the Cow Tower, Quayside and Fishergate offer rewarding multi-period townscapes/riverscapes away from the principal visitor destinations and away from most – or even all – other river traffic. The most extreme form of visitor experience in which historic townscape is accessed via its watercourses – the polar opposite of the York Ouse cruise – falls within the realm of the ‘urban explorer’. This is access to culverted watercourses under towns, using small boats. At its simplest, this may involve nothing more than a short section of river or canal, for example, running under a station – offering a brief, mildly exciting, test-the-echo experience. In its most extreme form, lengthy networks of culverted watercourse can be found that are accessible, although not necessarily (one assumes) with the sanction of the public body responsible for them. And not recommended by the writer of this article. The City of Bristol offers excellent mainstream small-boating opportunities in the Floating Harbour with diverse historic commercial and post-commercial townscape on offer, not to mention water-level views of historic and mod- ern shipping. It is nevertheless a busy, wide and potentially choppy body of water that has to be taken seriously. It also offers opportunities of the urban explorer variety. Some years ago, the moat of Bristol Castle (culverted in the 1840s) was accessed by kayak off the Floating Harbour, under a medieval bridge up to its underground junction with the River Frome, a distance of around 500 metres. A second expedi- tion followed much of the length of the Frome underground through the medieval built-up area before the trip was terminated out of health and safety concerns (an accelerating current and the sound of a weir in the darkness ahead) somewhere in the Rupert Street area. One serious conservation-related observa- tion arose from these possibly ill-advised urban visitor experiences. This was the realisation that historic bridges that have long since vanished above ground may still be present below ground, their arches trapped in culverts built up against each side. At least two long-lost Bristol bridges were glimpsed in the trip described; examples are known anecdotally from Shrewsbury, and the phenomenon may well be almost universal in densely built-up historic areas. The experience of the last two years suggests that, with the staycation boom, unpowered river leisure traffic is increasing. While conventional kayaking is in slight decline, the use of open canoes and, in particular, sit-on-top canoes and paddle boards is expanding rapidly, perhaps because these are perceived as less in need of specialist instruction, and are more easily transported. It may be that the age of the aquatic tourist is about to dawn for our historic river towns.