Tag Archives: Bore

Environmental History of Tidal Power in the Severn Estuary

Plan for Severn Barrage

Thomas Fulljames’ watercolour of his plan for the Severn Barrage, 1849.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In recent decades the interest in renewable energy from sources such as wind, solar and tidal power has steadily increased. However, this interest in harnessing “mother nature’s” energy is not new. Over the past 160 years the Severn estuary has been the focus of numerous proposals to provide a transport route over the estuary, improve navigation and to exploit its large tidal range to generate electricity. As a potential source of predictable, renewable and carbon-free power with the potential to supply up to 5 per cent of current UK electricity needs, such interest is understandable. Despite its potential, the latest proposals, like all its predecessors in the past century and a half, have failed to secure government and public support to build a barrage in the Severn estuary.

How is it that a barrage still has not gone beyond the drawing board? And why are companies, scientists and politicians still willing to invest time, effort and money in further proposals?  Alexander Portch, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Bristol University, investigates these two questions. Although the past 150 years is the main focus, Alexander also investigates earlier efforts to harness tidal power of the Severn and how the activities of people whose lives were bound up with the estuary’s daily tides have shaped the estuary and lands bordering it. This episode of the podcast features an interview with Alexander Portch and his work on the history of the Severn Estuary.


Further reading and resources

Blog posts by Alexander Portch on the Power and the Water website.

Severn Barrage Tidal Power”, The Renewable Energy Website

The Severn Bore website

Charlier, R.H., Menanteau, L., ‘The Saga of Tide Mills,’ Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 1:3 (1997), 171 – 207.

Godbold, S., Turner, R.C., Hillam, J., Johnson, S., O’Sullivan, A., ‘Medieval Fishtraps in the Severn Estuary,’ Medieval Archaeology, 38:1 (1994), 19 – 54.

Video showing example of tidal mill: Craftsmen: The Tide Miller, 1951 Woodbridge, Suffolk.


Music Credits

Stockholm” by timberman, available from ccMixter

Begin (small theme)” by _ghost, available from ccMixter

Easy Killer (DGDGBD)” by Aussens@iter, available from ccMixter

Exploring environmental History podcast


This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

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’.

Making waves: will ‘wavegardens’ change surfing? Exploring artificiality and commercialisation in water-based recreation

By Marianna Dudley

Planning consent for a ‘wavegarden’ in Bristol was big news in the city (See: Bristol Post). Perfectly placed between the beaches of Cornwall and Devon to the southwest, and Wales to the west, Bristol is home to a committed surfing community who regularly exodus the city at weekends in search of waves. The Wave: Bristol promises ‘perfect’ waves on their doorstep, breaking on demand in an artificial lake just outside the city. But already the idea has generated plenty of discussion that gets to the heart of what surfing is about and what it means to those who practice it.


Waves of the open ocean. Photo by Marianna Dudley

Does it matter that the wave is generated by machinery, not winds, tides and swells that cross oceans? Artificiality offers some benefits: regularity, predictability, repetition. Surfers are used to poring over swell forecasts and weather charts to anticipate where the best waves will be on any given day. This takes time, but it also breeds an understanding of meteorological information, and how it affects certain waves and beaches. As a result, experienced surfers demonstrate a nuanced knowledge of the geographies of their local breaks, and can transfer their ability to read conditions to new or unfamiliar places. But if there is no motion in the ocean then surfers are at a loss (friends of mine get noticeable twitchy if they haven’t been in the water for a while and spend a lot of time scanning the horizon for a line of swell that never comes). A wavegarden provides waves no matter the weather.   This will appeal to many surfers, particularly during those flat spells when they are wave-starved.

I recently visited the Museum of British Surfing and chatted to its founder Peter Robinson about wavegardens. I was fascinated to see in the museum an illustration from the 1930s of a ‘wavepool’ in Wembley. The 1920s and 30s were the golden age of swimming, with outdoor pools, lidos and river swimming clubs providing many communities with opportunities for water-based recreation. A strong belief in the health benefits of swimming and being outdoors was prevalent at this time. Pete told me that these wave pools were not unusual, particularly in Germany, where swimming in ‘natural’ moving water was preferred. ‘Surf-riding’, what we now call body-boarding (catching waves lying down on short boards) was also popular on beaches across England at this time, and the museum has a great number of photographs, boards and even bathing costumes from this period. We don’t have evidence to show that people took their boards into wave pools at this time – but they may have. In any case, there are historical precedents to the modern wavegarden, and re-locating activities previously enjoyed in ‘natural’ environments such as rivers, lakes and the sea to a safer, more regulated environment of a pool was a feature of the modernization of recreation in the 1930s and 40s.

Surf bath London 1930s

‘Surf-bathing in a London Suburb’, The Illustrated London News 1934. Photo by Marianna Dudley. Source: Museum of British Surfing

Swimming pools allowed swimming to develop from a recreation to a competitive sport. Regular pool sizes, rectangular shapes, lanes and diving boards all allowed swimmers to practice their technique and directly compete against each other. A wavegarden has this potential, as surf journalist Roger Sharp notes in his article for Carve magazine. The waves produced in the test facility in the Basque country are long enough for an experienced surfer to do up to 6 turns per wave. Wave after wave, all day long. By contrast, if you are surfing in the ocean, you catch a wave, surf it for as long as you can (in all likelihood, a few seconds), paddle back out, catch your breath; it all takes time. Meanwhile other surfers in the line up are competing for waves with you. Catching waves in the ocean depends on paddling and positioning. These skills are accrued over time – a lot of time – in the water. The better surfers catch more waves, and have more time on waves to improve their technique. Beginners have to find their place in the hierarchy and wait for waves. And once they are on one, all too often they fall off after a couple of seconds. It is a lot of effort for, often, little reward. Those without access to waves struggle to progress.

The Wavegarden of Eden from CARVE Magazine on Vimeo.

Wavegardens will level the playing field. In a controlled environment, beginners will be able to learn, and enjoy more time actually surfing, while experts and pros will take advantage of the opportunity for repetitive practice and video analysis to work on the technicality of their surfing. But, the ‘indoorisation of outdoor sports’[1] isn’t for everyone (*though wavegardens are not ‘inside’, they do create an artificial surfing environment). ‘Wild’ swimmers have rejected the chlorinated confines of the indoor pool to return to the open water, in increasing numbers. For them, it is swimming as part of a watery environment and living ecosystem that gives pleasure. Surfers already experience and value that connection with their environment. For many, the idea of surfing taking place any where other than the sea is an anathema.

Surf competition

Crowds watch a surf competition on a French beach (Hossegor). Photo by Marianna Dudley

So is the notion of paying to surf (though at least one exclusive surf resort exists, on Tavarua Island, Fiji). Waves have, traditionally, been viewed as a free product of environmental conditions and a strong surf-environmentalist identity exists and works to promote water and environmental protection: see Surf-Aid and, closer to home, Surfers Against Sewage. Will wavegardens normalize the concept of pay-per-surf? The commercialization of other recreational waterscapes has already taken place. The popularity of angling by the mid-19th century, and decreasing stocks of fish, allowed landowners to charge fees to access good fishing spots, and the government introduced rod licences to control numbers and receive revenue. Anglers now enjoy propriety rights to the riverbank, for which they pay handsome sums. And the perception that other users – canoeists and swimmers, for example – use the river for free contributes to the ongoing conflict that exists for recreation on British rivers. The controlled space of a wavegarden facilitates the commercialization of the sport. The public space of the beach and the sea resists this.

But Bristol already has a wave that is surfed: the Severn Bore. It is not in the sea – though it comes from the sea, as tidal waters push up the river and create the wave – and it is anything but perfect, but it is regular (timetables are published online), and, unlike the wavegarden, it is free. I am researching how a community of surfers has centred on the Bore and am interested to see if and how a wavegarden in Bristol will affect this vibrant branch of Bristol’s local water culture. Will Bore surfers welcome the wavegarden as a shorter and better-behaved cousin to their beloved ‘Sabrina’ (the Roman name for the Severn)? And will the wavegarden encourage more people to seek out the river bore, connecting the static environment of the wavegarden to the dynamic environment of the tidal river? The wavegarden promises long rides per wave, but the Bore can offer a wave that progresses for miles, not metres. But as with surfing elsewhere, the close community of the Bore recognizes the efforts its members go to in order to surf the occasional wave – again, studying conditions and tide timetables, waking in the dark on cold winter mornings, travelling to the destination, where finally, effort is rewarded with an exhilarating surfing experience – one closely tied to place.

Bristol has a thriving water culture, with a lido and an outdoor swimming club at Henleaze (both are membership-based, but with provision for guest access), a triathlon training lake at Bristol Open Water, numerous indoor pools, and the Bore surfing community. It makes sense that a wavegarden should succeed here, and planning consent has been met with interest and excitement. Examples from the past show that innovations like the creation of pools and facilities can alter sports and the cultures that they generate. Wavegardens certainly offer a potential new space in which to contest surfing. But something tells me surfing will never lose its spiritual connection with the ocean. Ocean waves may be temperamental, sporadic and frustrating, but they are also dynamic, challenging and endlessly forming. The experience of sitting in the ocean patiently waiting for the gift of a wave is not one that can be re-created. It is where effort meets patience and energy meets calm. The moment an ocean wave takes you with it is flow incarnate, a gift from nature that draws people to the ocean. Wavegardens are interesting, and will make money, and provide a leisure service. But they can’t match the great Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans – or even the muddy river Severn.



[1] Maarten van Bottenburg and Lotte Salome, ‘The indoorisation of outdoor sports: an exploration of the rise of lifestyle sports in artificial settings’, Leisure Studies 29:2 (2010), 143-160



The Severn Bore – anything but

By Marianna Dudley

I had done my Bore homework (checking the timetables, watching YouTube videos, even logging in to Bore surfers’ forums to get the latest gossip of where to watch and surf the river wave).  But, by the time the crest of water surged into view from our riverbank viewing point at Arlingham, all prior knowledge fell away during what was a much more exhilarating, raw and absorbing experience than I had prepared for.  A moving wall of water, surging against the downstream flow of the river at a conjuncture of time and tide, channeled by the land either side until, with nowhere to go, the energy behind the surge forms into a wave?  This truly was a natural spectacle.

Preparations for the Bore

Carpark preparations at Arlingham. Photo: Marianna Dudley

This was the second Team Power and Water trip to watch the bore, and my first.  Over the next two years I am investigating our seemingly insatiable and imaginative need to turn to water for recreation, and the hardy river surfers of the Severn are a group that I want to connect with, talk to, and understand in a historical context.   I grew up in Cornwall and have surfed for years; I know the unique rewards of climbing into wetsuits and braving cold seas through winter. But, stood, shivering, on the riverbank watching men dressed head-to-toe in

Walking to the river

Getting down the riverbank is tricky. Photo: Marianna Dudley

rubber sliding, inelegantly but necessarily, on their bottoms down the muddy bank and entering the brown river water, I admit that I wondered why they did it.  (Note: I counted forty surfers in the water at Arlingham.  Some drifted over from the village of Newnham on the opposite bank; but all those who left from Arlingham were men.  There was a level of ‘blokey’ camaraderie, and plenty of back-slapping and greeting of (old?) friends.  I’ll be looking into the dynamics of the river surfers’ relationships with each other as well as the water; the ‘who’, as well as the ‘why’ and ‘where’.)

Severs enter the water

Surfers make their way out to the water. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The men sat on their longboards in waist-deep water, and we spectators chatted amongst ourselves. I’d estimate that there were at least as many of us watching as there were in the water.  Over the river at Newnham, there was a visibly larger crowd. Cameras and phones were poised to capture the last 5* Bore of the year (there is in fact another one in September, but it happens at night).  It was 08.19 in the morning, and we’d brought packed breakfasts and flasks of tea.  Some people had binoculars, and someone else was filming with a camera set on a tripod (the latter was positively identified, enventually, by Alexander – though we didn’t want to interrupt him – as Antony Lyons, an environmental artist who is currently a Leverhulme Trust artist in residence at the University of Gloucestershire’s Countryside and Community Research Institute, where he’s working on a project entitled ‘Sabrina Dreaming (Severn Estuary Tidelands)’). There was a sense of occasion befitting a sporting event.  Then someone remarked ‘There it is!’, and all focus turned to the water.

 Bore begins to pick up surfers

The Bore begins to pick up the waiting surfers. Photo: Marianna Dudley

It moved fast. It picked up the surfers and propelled them upriver at a speed that almost shocked me.  It was noisy, a wall of sound as well as water. It churned and changed form, the wave forming clean faces in some sections where it passed over sandbanks, crumbling at other places into a broiling brown-white mess of water.  The surfers were carried by this liquid energy, arms waving as they tried to keep their balance.

Line of surfers

The surfers line up as they pass Newnham church. Photo: Marianna Dudley

At one point, they lined up beautifully just as they passed us, gliding in harmony. Shortly after, most of them were off their boards and beginning the most difficult stage of their journey: that from river to shore, paddling against the surge rather than riding with it.  One man we chatted to said that his personal record was surfing a 3-mile stretch. The pitfall of success when surfing the Severn Bore is that the farther you surf, the further you have to trudge back to your car in a cold and clammy wetsuit.

After the wave itself passed, the spectacle wasn’t over.  Water rushed across the riverbed and filled it.  It was also a very high tide; the riverbank couldn’t contain the water, and it eked over to fill the grassland before coming to a stop at a man-made embankment (there to protect the farmland and houses behind).  Eyes tuned to watch the water now picked out floating logs, debris and seabirds moving, for a change, upriver.

Aftermath of the bore

Aftermath: the river floods the embankment. Note the submerged bench in the middle ground. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The experience of the Severn Bore was a sensory display of the power of water, and of the human determination to harness some of that energy for pure joy. It occupies a place in the local calendar (timetables are published yearly), but the regularity of its occurrence hasn’t diminished the excitement of experiencing it.  People travel to see (and surf it), and those who don’t are still able to view it.  This year, a Sky News helicopter filmed aerial footage of the bore – by 4pm two days after the event, it had received 374,829 views on YouTube. I enjoyed the commentator’s observation that it was a bit like the Grand National, cheering on the surfers and willing them not to fall. This bore is a phenomenon in many ways, nature being just one.

Returning surfers

The surfers return to their cars, and waiting friends and families. Photo: Marianna Dudley

Barrage Boosting

By Peter Coates

Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous 1922 novel about George F. Babbitt, the peppiest realtor in the burgeoning Midwestern US city of Zenith, is often credited with popularizing the term ‘booster’. On their lapels, he and zealous fellow members of the Zenith branch of the Boosters’ Club wear buttons that read ‘Boosters – Pep’. Whether you’re mixing a cocktail or pursuing a business opportunity, it’s all about putting some pep into it.

In a large lecture theatre in Bristol University’s Department of Engineering, one recent evening (18 February 2014), Professor Roger Falconer certainly put plenty of pep into a well-attended talk on the Severn barrage. Professor of Water Management and the Director of Hydro-environmental Research Centre at Cardiff University, Falconer is a leading expert on Severn tidal power and prominent advocate of a Severn Barrage – the subject of project student Alexander Portch’s research –  the most recent proposal for which (Hafren Power) was turned down in June 2013 by the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee.

Falconer’s lecture (‘Recent Considerations for a Severn Barrage’) was eagerly anticipated by Bristol-based project team members (three of us had just returned from an outing related to Jill Payne’s project on Somerset’s energy landscapes, which included a visit to the showroom in Bridgwater of EDF Energy, the company building two new reactors at Hinkley Point). We were not disappointed, and those seeking a lively and accessible introduction to the barrage controversy could not have asked for more.

Severn Barrage

Artist’s impression of the Severn Barrage
Source: Wikimedia Commons/David Kerr

Falconer firmly believes that the Severn estuary offers the ideal UK site for the large scale harnessing of tidal energy. His support for a two-way power generation proposal (as distinct from ebb tide generation only) was broadly contextualized within remorselessly rising global energy demand, the imperative to ditch dependence on fossil fuel, and with reference to ambitious EU targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (by 80% by 2050) . He then ran through alternative options for harvesting the Severn’s prodigious tidal power, such as a series of tidal lagoons, all of which he found wanting (alternative estuarine sites, such as the Mersey and Humber, also fall well short in his view). Not least, as a Welshman speaking in Bristol, he spoke to how a barrage would act as a magnet for regional economic growth, encouraging a westward shift of population from the overcrowded, water-stressed southeast.

Without mentioning salmon by name, Falconer admitted that the impact of a barrage on fish, especially migratory species, remained a major unresolved problem. And he quashed hopes that barrage construction would provide a magic bullet to keep at bay future inundation of the nearby Somerset Levels. Toward the end of his lecture, he conceded that he may not see a barrage built in his lifetime (he’s in his early sixties). But he feels that the time and energy he has devoted to boosting the project (most recently as a member of Hafren Power’s regional board and expert panel) will all have been worthwhile if he has managed to bring the project a bit closer to reality.

Severn Barrage with windmills

Artist’s impression of a Severn barrage (2008). Courtesy of Ecotricity

Falconer wrapped up his presentation with some footage of a bit of barrage promotion by the prominent environmentalist and writer, Jonathon Porritt. The former chair of the UK Ecology Party (forerunner of today’s Green Party) and former director of Friends of the Earth UK is a staunch booster of renewable energy development. Perched on a rock at what looked like the northern, Welsh terminus (Lavernock Point, south of Cardiff) of many recent barrage proposals, Porritt argues that, in a world of climate change that must rapidly decarbonize its energy supply, the benefits of a barrage outweigh its costs. (I’ve not been able to establish the exact source of the footage, but it could have been taken from a 30-minute programme Porritt presented on proposals to barrage the Severn that aired on BBC Wales’ ‘Week In, Week Out’ programme in October 2008, a time when he was chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, a government advisory body.) Porritt’s support for a barrage also meshes with his criticism of nuclear power: one of the statistics Falconer cited was that a barrage could generate power equivalent to the output of four nuclear power stations.

As you can imagine, a forest of hands went up at the start of the question and answer session. Project team member Marianna Dudley got hers up early and asked about the fate of the charismatic Severn Bore. Falconer readily concurred that the Bore would effectively disappear if a barrage was built. I got mine up a bit too late and just missed out on being called on to pose the final question. What I had wanted to ask about was how, precisely, the barrage would create the fresh recreational and tourist opportunities he’d touted. What was going to compensate for the loss of the recreational and tourist resource represented by the Bore and the sport fisheries of the Severn and its tributaries, the Usk and Wye? Luxury hotels on the banks of a placid, pellucid, lake-like inner estuary?

Though he opened his lecture by stressing that the beauty of tidal energy from an engineering standpoint was its complete and utter predictability, one area of barrage debate that Falconer’s lecture did not address was aesthetics. Babbitt opens with a paean to the ‘towers of Zenith’, which ‘aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings’. The breath-taking ‘high modernist’ aesthetic of dams, visible in places such as the Elan Valley of mid-Wales, Kielder in Northumberland and Hoover Dam  on the border between Arizona and Nevada, can also be detected in artists’ impressions of the barrage. Whether an appeal to the technological sublime in future barrage advocacy will win over sceptical hearts and minds remains to be seen.

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!


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?


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