Immersing in the cultural and natural heritage of the River Severn

By Alexander Portch

Much like the flow of a river as it follows a course from its headwaters to the sea, the past two and a half months, since registering as a postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol, have been characterised by change, movement and interactions with new people and new places. After almost two years in a variety of roles in British commercial archaeology, from geophysical surveys of medieval settlement in the English midlands to intrusive excavations of Bronze Age burial and ritual activity in Cornwall, the sudden shift in focus to the intensive study of a specific region, namely the River Severn and its estuary, and a specific subject area – efforts over the past century or more to find ways in which to harness its energy for electricity generation – has proved challenging but also surprisingly liberating. The range and variety of literature on the estuary, encapsulating its cultural and natural heritage, its physical geography and geology, its role as both an office and playground for countless generations, and its position at the heart of debates over the future of Britain’s supply of sustainable electricity, is vast and growing daily. However, within this material particular themes have begun to emerge, first and foremost being the element upon which the majority of interest in the power and energy of the estuary is dependent: the tide.

Severn estuary

The Severn Estuary looking down- river from Sharpness Docks to the Severn Bridge and the Second Severn Crossing. Photo: Alexander Portch

With the second highest tidal range in the world, the constant ebb and flow of the tide represents an element of temporal continuity which stands in stark contrast to the dynamism of the peoples who have settled the river’s banks and foreshore for the past 10 millennia and the physical environment upon which they have made their living: Mesolithic inhabitants of Goldcliff on the Welsh side of the estuary experienced the same tidal cycles that propelled Severn Trows upriver to Gloucester in the 19th century and could one day power the turbines of a barrage or tidal lagoon for the purpose of illuminating the homes of the river’s 21st century inhabitants. Perhaps the most conspicuous and well-known manifestation of this phenomenon is the Severn Bore, which thunders upriver twice monthly, varying in size and character with the passage of the Moon around the Earth and the Earth around the Sun. Whilst descriptions of the bore are numerous, and the results of a Google image search are seemingly endless, it was felt that only through first-hand experience could the power and significance of the bore be adequately understood and appreciated. To that end three members of the project team – PI Coates, PDRA Payne and myself – embarked on a field visit to witness the bore for ourselves. This comprised the third key event of the project thus far, being preceded by attendance at the annual forum of the Severn Estuary Partnership (SEP) in mid October and the first project team meeting in London at the beginning of November.

Severn Sun rise

Minsterworth in the early morning light. Photo: Alexander Portch.

On the morning of the 6th of December 2013, shortly after 10am, a 2 star bore was viewed surging past the church at Minsterworth, downstream of Gloucester on the western bank of the river. Whilst larger bores can attract massive crowds and a veritable clan of surfers, kayakers and high-speed watercraft, creating, no doubt, an almost electric atmosphere, we were accompanied only by a small group of local sight-seers and a lone swan who seemed remarkably unconcerned by the sudden appearance of a 4 foot wall of water approaching rapidly from the direction of Newnham. Despite its relatively inferior status in comparison to the 4 and 5 stars typical of spring tides around the spring and autumn equinoxes, this mere 2 star bore was still a memorable spectacle and a refreshing start to my exploration of the river and its history.

Awaiting the Bore

PI Peter Coates waits in anticipation as the Severn Bore approaches from the direction of Newnham. Photo: Alexander Portch

A brief, yet poignant insight into the past lives of so-called “Severnsiders” and the perils inherent in living and working within such a distinctive environment was later provided by a tombstone encountered close to the entrance of Newnham churchyard, located several miles downriver of Minsterworth and overlooking the horse-shoe bend of Arlingham and the estuary as it opens out towards Berkeley and Lydney to the southwest. Although apparently unremarkable when viewed from afar, upon closer inspection the memorial revealed the story of the loss of two young local mariners in a collision between their Newport-bound trow, the Argo, and a steamer, the Wye, as they plied their way along the Bristol Avon, a few miles from its confluence with the Severn Estuary. Both Daniel Merrett, 24, and Samuel Jones, 17, befell the fate of so many seafarers and travellers on the treacherous tidal waters of the Severn and its tributaries as they attempted to navigate their way through thick fog in the narrow channel on the night of the 29th of August 1848. The tides eventually deposited their bodies on the far side of the Severn, many miles from the constricted waters of the Avon where they met their end. It was thus the tides that delivered them to their friends and families for proper burial; a final show of gratitude perhaps by the river’s Goddess, Sabrina, for some of the last mariners to truly respect and work with the tide, but who nonetheless fell foul to a new non-natural technology, the steam engine, as it propelled ships up and down river against its flow.


Headstone in the churchyard of Newnham, Gloucestershire, depicting the fateful event which lead to the deaths of Daniel Merrett and Samuel Jones on the night of the 29th of August 1848. Photo: Alexander Portch

Whilst the next few months will be characterised by a more detailed study of the bigger issues afflicting the Severn and occupying the thoughts of individuals far from its shores, including the barrage and the two suspension bridges that have already been successfully constructed, alongside a consideration of existing tidal generating facilities in northern France and eastern Canada, the story of Daniel Merrett and Samuel Jones is an important reminder that, for many people, the estuary is far more than just a barrier to be traversed or a source of energy to be exploited. It is also a home, a place of work, and even perhaps a source of identity. The idea of “Severnsiders” as a people and the concept of an estuarine or tidal culture are themes that I also hope to explore as the New Year, 2014, progresses.

For a more detailed account of the collision between the Argo and the Wye see: Pultey, J. (1999) A Maritime Grave at Newnham. Glevensis, 32, 19 – 21.

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