The Severn Bore, Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, 6 December 2013
Project strand 1 (Bristol) excursion: Peter Coates, Alexander Portch and Jill Payne
By Jill Payne
On 6 December, the Severn bore (the regular tidal surge that sweeps up the River Severn) made its way past Minsterworth as a relatively benign, if inexorable, swell of a few feet high. Without a crest, and moving at no more than a stately speed, its surge hauled upstream a procession of substantial logs and branches interspersed with a surprisingly limited amount of visible plastic.
As the Severn bore goes, this was unexceptional, the river acknowledging neither the previous night’s destructive storm and tidal surge to the east nor the passing of Nelson Mandela thousands of miles to the south.
It can be a capricious thing, the Severn bore. At times ‘heralded by a reverberating roar’, it has been described as a ‘huge foam-crested wave’ (The Times, 30 October, 1924) and a ‘great river monster’ (The Times, 12 April, 1927). In March 1934, spectators at Stone Bench were rewarded with a ‘wall of water…fully 12ft in height’ that flooded the river banks, but the even more noteworthy bore predicted for the following day failed to meet expectations (The Times, 19 March, 1934).
In the course of efforts to pin down the bore, it has been analysed, compared and predicted to within an inch of its life. Like bed and breakfasts, there is a rating system for bores. 6 December was predicted to be a medium or ‘two star’ affair. Next 2 February may, with the right conditions, bring a very large or ‘five star’ event. However, while science and twitter feeds do their best to provide advance knowledge, down on the river bank we are simply one more set of creatures watching to see what nature presents us with. Stand too far down the bank and we are liable to be swept off our feet to join the driftwood convoy. In September 1954, the poet and politician Lord Rufus Noel-Buxton, known for fording the Thames and the Humber, almost failed in his crossing of what he believed to be the Roman ford across the Severn between Alvington and Sheperdine when he missed his footing near the far bank just as the bore reached him (The Times, September 16, 1954).
While there is a degree of localised/specialised interest in the Severn bore, alongside a measure of media coverage, it has had a reasonably minor role in the construction of the identity of the regions that surround it. This in spite of the extent to which the Severn, estuary and river, has always been the watery jugular of the nearby parts of England and Wales; together with the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel, its influence is of course even more far-reaching.
Proponents of the much-disputed Severn Barrage envisage a further critical – but boreless – role for the Severn, harnessed and, arguably, producing as much tidal energy as several nuclear power plants.
Faced with the uncertainties of fracking, and further nuclear energy development just a few miles down the coast at Hinkley Point, we may have much to gain from making the Severn a more manageable and energy-productive creature – but (other environmental implications aside) will our farmed river compensate us for the flat-lining of yet another sliver of natural unpredictability?