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Heritage Harbour Festival

Free Event — Activities
Heritage Harbour Festival

Join us for a celebration of Exeter’s Heritage Harbour Status, with a packed programme of events taking place around the quayside.

Exeter boasts one of just a handful of Heritage Harbours in the UK, which are places of historic maritime significance that retain original features, buildings and facilities which help connect the public to the area’s maritime past.  

Wednesday 24 May

Jack Tar – Life in Nelson’s Navy

The seamen and marines were the backbone of Nelson’s Navy and Roy and Lesley Adkins will describe how men, women and some children lived, worked, fought and died. Their illustrated talk will include the dreaded press-gangs, maggot-ridden biscuits, grog, scurvy and other diseases, medicine and surgery, patriotic fervour and the exhilaration and horrors of battle.

Roy and Lesley are historians and archaeologists who live near Exeter. They have written widely acclaimed books on social, naval and military history, including Jack Tar, Gibraltar, Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England and When There Were Birds. They are Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries, Fellows of the Royal Historical Society and Members of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. Their website is
The Mint Methodist Church, Fore Street. 10.45am. £3 (for non-Forum members). Pay on door.

Quay Words presents Kim Sherwood

Literature Works welcome Kim Sherwood to the Exeter Custom House for a reading of her latest novel, A Wild and True Relation, followed by a Q&A. Combining smuggling and literary history, it fits perfectly into the Heritage Harbour programme.
The Exeter Custom House. 6.30pm. £4/£3 concs. Book here

Thursday 25 & Friday 26 May

Inland Haven

“Exeter’s lost route to the sea” will be celebrated through music, songs, stories and pictures. Expect an evening as fascinating, rousing and noisy as was the harbour itself. The Custom House Crew, a talented group of musicians, singers and storytellers will unravel the story, not as a dry economic history lesson, but via a unique combination of music, songs, stories and images.

An amazing cast of ‘salty’ characters have had connections with Exeter. Famous captains and admirals; infamous mutineers and smugglers; the fabulously rich and the grindingly poor have all over the centuries contributed to a tale of triumphs and disasters. “The best live show I have seen in years!
Cygnet Theatre. 7.30pm. £10 Book here

Saturday 27 May

Historic Quayside Walk

This free walk will take you around the river, the quay, canal and canal basin. It will show how the area came to be developed, the original use of the surviving historic buildings and introduce some of the fascinating characters that shaped the area’s history. Presented by the Exeter Red Coat Guides.  
Meet at the Exeter Custom House. 2pm – 3.30pm.

Memories of Exeter Quay & Canal

An illustrated presentation of the history of the quay, basin and canal through photographs from 1830 – 1970. The talk will describe the role of the port of Exeter from its heyday, up until the first World War. Learn about the problems of towing ships, using men, horses, and steam power. Hear the stories of the topsail schooners, Thames barges, and coastal traders that visited the port, and the people who crewed them.

See pictures of the last (surprisingly large) ships to use the canal in the 1970s, and what they carried in and out of Exeter. The presentation uses images from the collection of David Clement, founder of the South West Maritime History Society (SWMHS), as well as others from local history societies. 

The presentation is based on an anthology of eight articles published by the SWMHS over the last 39 years, which is being published for the Heritage Harbour Festival and will be available for £10 at the event.  
The Custom House. 2.30pm – 3.15pm.  Book your free place

Inland Haven

Your last chance to see this acclaimed production (see above).
Cygnet Theatre. 7.30pm. £10. Book here

Sunday 28 May


Bang goes the Quay

Throughout the day The Trafalgar Gun Company will be firing live cannons on the quayside. They specialise in staging artillery displays varying in size from small single cannon gun-drill demonstrations, right through large scale re-enactments, including events on HMS Victory herself.

​In addition they have also been involved providing equipment and expertise for film and television work including the Sharpe’s Rifles, the ‘Hornblower’ TV series and the Oscar winning ‘Master and Commander; Far Side of the World’ with Russell Crowe.

Throughout the day of the festival they will be demonstrating the firing of a 6pr cannon from a replica warship gun-deck.

The Quayside. 11am – 4pm.

The return of the ‘Blonde Bombshell’

In 1957, Exeter Quay was visited by one of the best known and most notorious women of the 1950’s – Diana Dors. The reason for her visit was to present the keys of the Prospect Inn to the lucky new owners. And they were lucky; they had just won the pub in a competition promoted by a national newspaper! The visit caused a sensation. After performing her duties, ‘Diana’ might just be persuaded to join us in song!
The Prospect Inn. 2pm

Songs of the Sea

Live music with a maritime theme,. presented by The Exmouth Shanty Men, Mariners Away and The Custom House Crew. The Exmouth Shanty Men describe themselves as ‘Devon’s original buoy band,’ while Mariners Away are based on the edge of Dartmoor and are singers of shanties and other songs of the sea.

They will be joined by The Custom House Crew who represent something of a Devon ‘all-stars’ ensemble. The present line-up performed The Inland Haven to considerable acclaim last year at The Exeter Custom House. The show was recently reprised at The Plough Theatre in Torrington, where it was hugely well received, and will be a feature of the festival at The Cygnet Theatre. Watch out for a bit of ‘swing’ and non-maritime ‘50’s Rock ‘n Roll in this performance.
The Transit Shed. 11am – 4pm.

Willow Workshop

Join the Weird Sticks CIC team to create your own ‘fish on a rod’ or ‘boat on a stick’ made from willow.
The Transit Shed. 11am – 4pm. Free.

Historic Quayside Walk

This free walk will take you around the river, the quay, canal and canal basin. It will show how the area came to be developed, the original use of the surviving historic buildings and introduce some of the fascinating characters that shaped the area’s history. Presented by the Exeter Red Coat Guides.  
Meet at the Exeter Custom House. 11am – 12.30pm.

Ahoy Polloi!

Join Burn the Curtain Theatre for a fun family outdoor performance. A letter brings trouble for three simple sailors – can you help this motley crew get ready for the arrival of the inimitable Captain Peacock?

Help them design an extravagant new sailing vessel and then pose for a genuine glass plate photograph, whilst surrounded by the great and good of Victorian society.  
The Exeter Custom House. 11am.

Maritime Market

Stalls include Topsham Museum, Exeter Red Coat Guides, South West Maritime History Society, Exeter Civic Society, Friends of Exeter Ship Canal, Exeter Canal & Quay Trust, Exeter’s West Quarter Project, Britannia Sailing Trust.
Custom House and Transit Shed. 11am – 4pm.

The Legend of the Custom House

Join Art Work Exeter for a family-friendly drop-in animation session. Bark, Bells, Brush Heads, Caraway Seeds, Coal, Drain Pipes, Frying Pans… Withies, Wire and Wool! Help animate an A-Z of goods from the Toll Table of 1829. The finished animation will form part of The Legend of Custom House artwork showing from 13 June as part of Art Week Exeter.
The Custom House. 11am – 4pm.  

Walkabout with Promenade Promotions

Throughout the day, look out for Captain Ginger and Cedric and Sally the cheeky puppet seagulls.
Quayside. 11am – 4pm.

Cathedral to Quay Walk

Starting from the heart of the city in Cathedral Close, this walk will take you via Southernhay and a walk on the City Walls down to the Quay, where the festival will be in full swing. On the way you will see fascinating medieval survivals and also some of Exeter’s finest eighteenth century developments. Presented by Exeter Red Coat Guides.
Meet at the Hooker statue, Cathedral Green. 2pm – 3.30pm.

Light up The Custom House

A world premiere! The Custom House will be illuminated by historic images of Exeter Harbour, but the main feature will be the first viewing of five newly created drawings by renowned archealogical illustrator Richard Parker. They will show the development of the harbour over five centuries, from 1530 to 1930. To wet your appetite, below is one of Richard’s fabulously detailed depictions of old Exeter Bridge. The event will be accompanied by music and song from The Custom House Crew.
Exeter Custom House. 9pm.
The Heritage Harbour Festival marks the start of a year of events celebrating Exeter’s historic harbourside, which will also see visits by some amazing heritage sailing vessels.

  • Date(s)

    • Wed 24th May 2023 11:00 am – 7:30 pm
    • Thu 25th May 2023 11:00 am – 9:30 pm
    • Fri 26th May 2023 11:00 am – 9:30 pm
    • Sat 27th May 2023 11:00 am – 9:30 pm
    • Sun 28th May 2023 11:00 am – 9:00 pm

  • Times

  • Location

    Exeter Custom House 46 The Quay, Exeter EX2 4AN

  • Age Range

    All Ages

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