The title of this blog isn’t some kind of random conceit; the River Severn is a kind of spiritual home to me. For all its ugly brown tides, and industrial development it rules majestically over the ephemeral, human landscape, putting us in our place. It’s the liminal and contested space between England and Wales, with a border that loops so much you’re likely to find yourself entering and leaving one kingdom for another without any apparent rhyme or reason. East of the river runs my home county of Gloucestershire, and the western edge swerves in and out between Gwent and the western part of Gloucestershire. I served here as a Parish priest for 25 years and I could stand in the churchyard at Littleton on Severn, just a little bit north of here and look across the river to see the sun setting over the Welsh hills. I hope that my remains will rest within sight of the river when the time comes – not too soon I hope.
Thirty years ago you could still see salmon putchers and nets stretched across the river in places. There was a regular but dwindling supply of salmon running the river. Higher up there were an abundance of elvers, now sadly overexploited and endangered by their extraordinary popularity in Japan. They’re worth a lot of money and so they’re almost fished out, but I knew the man who caught the last salmon in a putcher on our side of the river, and I knew several others who had eaten elver omelettes not so many years ago. Doughnut (the nickname given to him when he wore a white T shirt with a red horizontal stripe, to primary school; it was a name that stayed with him for the rest of his life), Doughnut who also made cider like his father, told me once that the salmon had started to develop ulcers and lesions on their flanks as a result of the chemicals being pumped into the river further downstream.
When I was 17 I worked with some of the men who built the first Severn Bridge. They were as hard as hell, and quite fearless on the steel. Almost exactly on the spot where the photo was taken today, there used to be an amusement arcade run by a traveller family who I got to know well many years later. There was also a bathing lake called the Blue Lagoon which (incredibly) was a massively popular place. A little further downstream again there was a line of brightly painted beach huts on the promenade where fortunate Bristolians could come on their half-days and holidays. I used to take communion to an elderly lady in Knowle who had a picture of her family bathing hut on the mantlepiece – she always spoke very warmly of it. The Second Severn Crossing was built during the time I was working in the area.
We had two nuclear power stations – now decommissioned but still “hot”, and more cider orchards than you could shake a stick at. But – and here’s the thing – it’s a hotspot for migrating birds, once again dwindling, but the sound of a skein of geese flying upriver at dusk would make your blood run backwards. I first went there, to the amusement arcade, as a young teenager – driven there on the pillion of a motorbike driven by a man who turned out to be well dodgy, and that’s enough on that subject! I did my only burial at sea at a point just above the first Severn crossing where the Balmoral, an old paddle steamer paused a mile upstream of their usual turning point and allowed me to scatter the ashes of a man called Peter, a Severn Pilot who knew the river as well as anyone alive. As we laid him to rest the skipper gave three long moaning blasts on the steam whistle to send him off. In his younger days during the war, he would walk the banks on his days off in order to navigate what’s always been a treacherous river in the darkness of the blackout. You’d have to have the heart of a bishop not to be moved by it.
And so these wild, semi industrial places seared their way into my heart and although I love the mountains and the more conventionally romantic views, for me there’s no greater joy than finding a couple of common scrubby plants eking out a living on the sea-wall battered by salt and wind.
We were there today because we needed to charge the batteries on the campervan. While we were waiting for the gennie to do its work, we went for a stroll along the prom and then for what was supposed to be a short drive acros the bridge into Wales. As we crossed into Wales we noticed that there was no oncoming traffic because they were resurfacing and so we were obliged to take a thirty six mile drive up the Welsh Side to Gloucester and back down the English side to where the campervan is stored. But it was a lovely day and we enjoyed the unexpected trip.
Where we live now, next to the river Avon, is still connected to the Severn Estuary which it joins about twenty miles downstream at Avonmouth. We’re also on a track that leads directly in fifteen miles to the back garden of the house I was born in. I’ve spent most of my life within the landscape that can be seen from the top of Dyrham Park. Hefted, I suppose, and tied by my dialect into an instantly familiar culture. It’s home.