The Power of the Water: Surfing in the Severn Estuary

By Alexander Portch

This blog post was very nearly never written. Setting an alarm for 5:30 the night before my heart was already beginning to sink at the prospect of such an early start on a Sunday morning, and thus it was no surprise when I eventually emerged from beneath the covers at five past six. A scolding shower and a brisk trot down the road to my waiting steed, a loyal if somewhat ageing Rover 416, both served, however, to refresh my body and awaken my still-slumbering mind to the reason for such peculiar behaviour in the half-light before dawn. Today, Sunday 2nd February, is a key date in the diary of surfers, “severnsiders” and half-mad PhD students alike; a once a year occurrence that, for a matter of minutes, transforms sleepy Severnside into the heart of a media circus (by Gloucestershire standards at least): a 5* Severn bore.

Bore silence

Peace and tranquillity on the river prior to the Bore’s arrival, as seen from the water’s edge near Arlingham looking towards the church at Newnham.
Photo: Alexander Portch

 

No mere 2 stars this time. Whilst the bore of the 6th December 2013, witnessed by myself, PI Coates and PDRA Payne, was undoubtedly spectacular and an experience both to savour and remember, its lone avian passenger was testament to its relative insignificance in contrast to the real star of the show (pun intended). Admittedly, when seen first-hand there is little to differentiate a 5* bore from its lesser cousin the 4*, an example of which has already occurred this weekend, with a repeat showing first thing tomorrow; and should such a wave coincide with the right conditions, namely strong south-westerly winds and a sizable swell from the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel, a lower rating can quickly become something much more substantial. But it is the 5* that draws the crowds, including surfers, kayakers, paddle-boarders and smartphone-wielding spectators, and it is that unorthodox congregation that generates a wholly unique and inspiring atmosphere.

Not that I would know as, in anticipation of queues of traffic and masses of tourists, replete with screaming children and yapping dogs, I decided against the Severn surfing hub of Newnham as my bore-watching site of choice, opting instead for the quieter and more remote location of The Old Passage Inn near Arlingham on the opposite shore. Arriving shortly before 07:30 I was gifted with a tranquil half hour to enjoy a flask of tea whilst listening to the dawn chorus and the muffled conversations of the handful of surfers and spectators who had already made their bleary-eyed way to that spot on the banks of the Afon Hafren. After only a brief stroll upriver to stretch cramped limbs and breathe the fresh morning air, the waterside was already filling with spectators as the last few available parking spaces were rapidly secured and the first groups of surfers made their tentative way down to the water’s edge. By eight o’clock a sizable crowd had gathered after all, including the occasional screaming child and the less occasional yapping dog, but it was clear from the gathering on the far shore that the majority of committed bore-watchers were merrily welcoming the first rays of sunlight (yes the sun really did shine) closer to Newnham.

Crowds gather on the riverbank

Crowds gather on the riverbank at Newnham whilst surfers make their way down towards the frigid waters of the Severn.
Photo: Alexander Portch

Thereafter a seemingly long and tense wait ensued. In reality it was only another 30 minutes until the bore came thundering around the Arlingham horse-shoe from the direction of Frampton-on-Severn; the roar of its crashing waves and surging white water audible long before it reached the point at which I stood, camera poised, finger fixed to the shutter release, but the handful of minutes prior to its arrival were characterised by a remarkable sense of anticipation, excitement and even uncertainty. Only hours before, warnings had been issued by the Environment Agency and the Severn Area Rescue Association (SARA – the Severn’s equivalent of the RNLI), advising against surfing the bore, or even witnessing it as a mere spectator, due to concerns over the likelihood that the rising waters that succeed the passage of the bore wave would overtop the banks and potentially sweep the unwary bystander off their feet and into the clutches of the River Goddess herself. Given the recent flooding throughout much of the Severn valley and the Somerset levels there was every reason for the emergency services to be concerned. Thankfully, however, no such disaster befell the onlookers and water sports enthusiasts at Arlingham and Newnham this morning. The bore proved to be every bit as awe-inspiring as expected, with waves perhaps as high as two metres or more propelling those in the water with great force far up-river whilst simultaneously pounding against the cliffs of Newnham and the handful of boats resting on the banks nearby.

First sight of the bore!

First sight of the bore!

Surfing

Despite its turbulent and unpredictable nature; the bore still provides an ideal wave for surfers, enabling them to remain upright for much longer than would ever be possible on the breakers of Fistral Beach or Polzeath.
Photo: Alexander Portch

Twice a day throughout the year the River Severn is transformed, in these estuarine reaches, into the Severn Sea; but to witness that process taking place quite so rapidly and in such a spectacular fashion is a privilege and a delight. It is also particularly heartening to see so many enthusiastic people, both local and those drawn from much further afield, being brought together along the shores of the Severn on a crisp morning in the middle of winter. Whilst the river can often seem windswept, lonely and almost forgotten by the fast pace and high tech of the 21st century, the bore is a clear reminder of just how central it can be to the lives of so many people. The recent proposal to construct a barrage across the estuary may have been rejected for now, but if the past century or more is anything to go by it is far from being taken off the agenda and the estuary is still the focus of on-going efforts to harness the power of the tides in British coastal waters. What will be the implications of such developments for the one truly natural feature of the modern Severn estuary and for the future of bore watching and bore surfing in the British Isles?

Wave

Is this a river, or the Sea?
Photo: Alexander Portch

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