Inside the Mystic River: Riding the Severn Bore

By Peter Coates

When thinking about rivers – and trying to think like a river – I like to compare (with apologies to Arthur Miller) the (more detached) View From the Bridge with the (more involved) View From Under the Bridge. Last Thursday morning (29 October) there was a 4-star bore on the River Severn, which is not as big as a 5-star bore (the highest rating), but impressive enough. This was my third bore. But the previous two occasions had been mainly visual experiences (with a bit of an aural accompaniment thrown in as the onrushing waves scoured the sides), standing on the bank near St. Peter’s Church, Minsterworth and then at The Old Passage pub on the Arlingham horseshoe bend.


All aboard the rollercoaster. Photo: Leona Skelton

This time, though, with my colleague, Marianna Dudley, I got on and (somewhat) in the river, thanks to world record-holding Severn Bore surfer Steve King and master mariner Duncan Milne of Epney, whose 4-metre RiB (rigid inflatable boat) with an Evinrude outboard sometime glided across the smooth surface yet also bounced around on the bore in both directions. At times, unbidden, the water filled up the boat nearly to the gunwales; then, within seconds, the boat emptied of its own accord.

Duncan delivered us safely back to the bank where, though soaked, we were none the worse for our experience. Deliverance is the title American writer James Dickey chose for his first and best known novel (1970), about the adventures and misadventures of four middle-aged suburbanites from Atlanta who take a weekend canoe trip down a turbulent river in the Appalachian wilderness. Like John Boorman’s 1972 screen adaptation (starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voigt), the book has lost none of its power to thrill and shock (I bet they all wish they’d decided to play a few rounds of golf instead).

But Dickey was also a poet of the river. ‘Inside the River’ (1966) invites the reader to ‘follow your right foot nakedly in to another body’ and to ‘put on the river like a fleeing coat’ [1]. After taking a tumble, Marianna put on a coat of the more conventional kind: a dry suit. Yet whether or not you were literally dunked in the Severn estuary’s big muddy waters, the ride injected a healthy dose of material meaning into that hackneyed phrase, immersive research.

Upper limit Severn

The view downriver from Maisemore Bridge. Maisemore Weir and Lock are the upper limit of the tidal Severn. Photo: Leona Skelton

As we chased the Bore, tacking back and forth across the head of the tide, we got as thoroughly soaked to the skin as Dickey’s four friends who hurtled pell-mell down the fictional Cahulawassee River in northern Georgia. I hasten to add that the similarity between Gloucestershire and Georgia ends there (Epney is a far cry from Aintry). Well, almost. The river whose rapids the foursome decide to shoot is about to be impounded by a dam. I knew that a barrage across the Severn to harness its tidal power will kill off the Bore. But to hear it from the river’s mouth – the surfers who’ve been riding it for decades and of whom it’s said that their veins run with muddy water – drove this ominous prospect home with eloquent force. For the bore is a source of wonder as well as a site of exhilarating recreation.

In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Mark Twain recounted his pre-Civil War career as a steamboat pilot (the ultimate dream of every boy raised on the banks of the river T.S. Eliot called a ‘strong brown god’ in ‘The Dry Salvages’ [1941]). Sipping tea in the café at Saul after we got off the river, listening to the likes of Duncan, Steve and the two Stuarts talk about the enigmatic tidal flows and infinite variety of subtle and unpredictable permutations and differences between stretches of water, referring to the data bank of fluvial knowledge stored in the head of every experienced bore surfer, I was reminded of the passages that left the strongest impression when I first read Twain’s reminiscences as a callow youth.

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day [2]

But then he speaks of his growing disenchantment and sadness as he gets to know the river better and becomes more accomplished. Mastering the ‘language of this water’, though a ‘valuable acquisition’, came at a heavy price.

I had lost something too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river…The romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat [3]

I was never convinced by that supposedly inverse relationship between enchantment and knowledge, between poetry and prose. And my recent experience on and off the Severn in the company of boatmen confirmed that knowledge and enchantment can happily co-exist on a mystic river, whether over there or over here [4].



[1] From Drowning with Others: Poems (Middlebury. Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1966), 91.

[2] Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Airmont Publishing, 1965), 57-58.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Mystic River is a short river in Massachusetts, whose Wampanoag name (muhs-uhtuq) translates as ‘big river with waters driven by waves’.


  • Erika

    I really enjoyed reading this post and having thoughts about the different ways I have known rivers. My longest relationship has been with the Liffey, I river I got to know perpendicularly. It is a city I make sense of through crossing and re-crossing the river, and when I think of the city I think of the river viewed in cross section, stretching out towards Dublin bay and the sea. It is perhaps unsurprising that the principal bridge over the Liffey is wider than it is long.

    More recently I became closely acquainted with the Danube, spending nine days with it on my right had side as I cycled from Ulm to Vienna. This different perceptive gave me a much more intimate sense of how the river changed: famously black towards the river’s source, a mix of colours as it meets the Inn at Passau, enveloping the cities it passed through with an ethereal early morning mist.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have never been in either river.

  • Marcus Hall

    Of course urban surfing at its finest may not be on the Severn but at Munich’s Eisbach as it issues from the power plant. Here is a truly wild river that rivals any:
    And if you are in the surfing mood that puts you in search of the Beach Boys and Santa Cruz, don’t forget the video classic, The Endless Summer (1966), for a slice of global environmental history as seen through the eyes of two surfer bros.

  • Peter Coates

    Thanks, Marcus, for reminding us of Munich’s status as the ultimate inland Surf City and of the Beach Boys’ relevance to water history.
    Their 1971 ‘Surf’s Up’ album was a far cry from the band’s softer and sunnier early sound. Typical of their newly acquired social and political consciousness was one of the album’s two eco-protest songs, ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’ (the other one was ‘A Day in the Life of a Tree’, which tried to communicate the pain of a tree dying a slow death from pollution). Curiously, the substances targeted in ‘Don’t Go Near the Water (which featured as the B-side when another track from the album, ‘Student Demonstration Time’ [inspired by the Kent State shootings], was released as a single) are toothpaste and soap, ‘which will make our oceans a bubble bath. So let’s avoid an ecological aftermath’.
    There’s no mention of oil as a reason why ‘our water’s going bad’. But the recent spill at Santa Barbara must have been in songwriter Brian Wilson’s mind. Though since superseded by the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters, the slick resulting from the blowout at the Union Oil drilling platform in the Santa Barbara Channel in January 1969 is still the worst in California’s history and was pivotal in the advent of environmentalism in the USA.
    Search on YouTube and you’ll find some grainy footage of the band performing the song on a pier in chilly conditions. The Beach Boys look more like trawler men from Grimsby than Californian rock stars (no Hawaiian shirts) and the scene resembles Southend more than Southern California.

    • Marcus Hall

      An environmental history of the Beach Boys! That is waiting to be written, and the royalties would buy plenty of shoes for the children. I’m serious.

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