A cautionary true story about my favourite river.

On 30 January 1607, around noon, the coasts of the Bristol Channel suffered from unexpectedly high floodings that broke the coastal defences in several places. Low-lying places in Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and South Wales were flooded. The devastation was particularly severe on the Welsh side, extending from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow in Monmouthshire. Cardiff was the most badly affected town, with the foundations of St Mary’s Church destroyed.

It is estimated that 2,000 or more people were drowned, houses and villages were swept away, an estimated 200 square miles (51,800 ha) of farmland inundated, and livestock destroyed, wrecking the local economy along the coasts of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary.

The coast of Devon and the Somerset Levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles (23 km) from the coast, were also affected. The sea wall at Burnham-on-Sea gave way, and the water flowed over the low-lying levels and moors.

Wikipedia

Of course, you might think, it could never happen again here. You might think it but it would be wishful thinking. I’ll come to that in a moment. The domain name for this blog is “Severnsider” for a reason. I’ve loved the Severn since long before I found myself working in a parish whose boundary ran somewhere in the middle of it. I knew the parish boundary well enough to guide the skipper of the paddle steamer MV Balmoral to the spot where I once slipped the ashes of a retired Severn Pilot called Peter into the swirling waters, to the mournful sound of three long blasts on the ship’s steam whistle.

The river Severn is Britain’s longest river at 220 miles and it can be dangerous; overtopping its banks regularly as floodwaters pour down from the Cambrian Mountains, joined by its many tributaries. The estuary itself, is vulnerable to the South westerly prevailing winds and has the largest volume of water flowing into the sea of any river in England and Wales. When the enormous downstream spring tides meet gale force winds blowing upstream, flooding will follow as night follows day. Not often, but often enough in the past and in the last decades becoming the norm.

As a river it’s been hammered by industrial developments and pollution, warm water from a couple of (now closed) nuclear power stations and more recently by the eutrophication of large stretches by intensive farming – especially in the River Wye which joins the Severn beside the first modern Bridge carrying the M48. I knew the last putcher fisherman on our side of the river and he once told me that salmon were turning up with terrible sores on their flesh. Before he gave up he said he’d only caught three fish in several years.

Nobody in Government seems at all keen to tackle the pollution, but the many thousands of homes on the floodplain are a real political problem when, year after year they’re being inundated for weeks on end by filthy polluted water – and so in these decades of austerity, the combined forces of local, regional and national funding have found £100 million to improve flood defences . Amazon have built a huge warehouse in the middle of one of the affected areas and their astute tax lawyers will have made quite sure that none of their profits are diverted into protecting their own warehouse.

Notwithstanding all these problems the Severn still manages to be a hauntingly beautiful river; visible from miles away as a silver ribbon threading down through small farms and villages with their patchwork fields divided by rhynes and cider orchards along with one of my clutch of country parishes whose church and churchyard were sensibly built on a prominent knoll from which I expect to spend eternity keeping an eye on the river from my high vantage point – immune to winter storms and exalting in the sounds of migrating geese.

Anyway, enough maundering; my point is that the river floods but over the past years £100 million are being expended on keeping our feet dry. Except …….

For the past eight years we’ve kept our campervan in a locked compound barely fifty yards from the sea wall. There were occasions, before the works began, when we kept an anxious eye on the weather forecasts and then after a couple of major floodings up and down stream we joined an automatic warning service which sends out a text message when flooding is expected. We hadn’t expected that yesterday – well outside the normal flooding season – we would receive this text message.

Flood Alert Issued. Severn Estuary at Severn Beach. floodline.uk/112WATSVN1. To hear more information on this Alert, call Floodline 0345 9881188,8

UK Floodline alert.

Once again, the same scenario as 1607. A flood tide meeting stormwater plus a Southwesterly upstream gale heaps up the water (106 cubic metres a second at Apperly on a normal day – that’s a lot of double decker buses!) – and the defences are broached – even after all that money is being spent!

The point of all this is that we’re not preparing for the catastrophic effects of global climate change, we’re limping along after it; parsimoniously spending too little and too late while doing nothing to address the causes. Here we are again as politicians gather in Egypt for COP 27 and make promises they’ve no intention of keeping, while the lobbyists and their tame journalists spend billions persuading us that there’s no cause for alarm – it’s all a long way away and somewhere else. Well it isn’t. It’s right here and right now

But to say a little more about Peter, the Severn pilot. I discovered that during the 2nd World War he would pilot the petrol barges up from Avonmouth to the lock at Purton, just below the old railway bridge. In wartime this was a terribly hazardous journey against fierce tides, numerous underwater shallows and a winding course without the benefit of radar or even lights. Peter – who was a quiet and thoughtful man, would walk the banks of the Severn whenever he had some time off – to memorise the hazards. At his funeral service one of his old friends told me that one day he was prowling the bank in thick fog and as a ship drew near he heard a voice calling – “Is that you Peter?” On  25 October 1960 a couple of petrol barges misjudged the lock at Sharpness and were swept out of control upstream, colliding with one of the piers of the Severn Railway Bridge which, in the ensuing explosion and fire, collapsed. Five crew members died that night. The Severn has claimed many more victims over the previous centuries and we can only hope that she will not take many more lives as a consequence of our wishful thinking about climate change.

Storm Dennis – counting the cost

So leaving Birmingham we decided to drive south and west across to the Malvern Hills and go for a walk with our son.  We used to visit the Malverns frequently when the children were young but we haven’t been there for at least four years since we moved to Bath – it’s that little bit too far now for a spontaneous walk. This place, on the border between Herefordshire and Worcestershire overlooks the Severn Valley to the East, forming the the Vale of Evesham with the River Wye to the West so it was as good a place as any to see the effects of the flooding from the vantage point of the hills.  There was no doubting the effects on the roads – there were warning signs of road closures all the way down the M5 and there was much more traffic than usual on the motorway – not least lorries trying to find an unblocked way west.

The whole area is regularly beset with flooding, but in the last few years it’s got progressively worse. The relentless rain during this winter has left the valleys waterlogged and unable to cope with the additional flow. What makes it even trickier is the fact that there are always two peaks of flooding – the first coming directly off the land locally and the second, a couple of days later, is formed by the floodwaters flowing down from the mountainous catchment area around Plynlimon in mid-Wales.  What that means, of course, is that the long term remedy for flooding needs to be sought in changes in farming and building practices in the most populated areas downriver, but also in the headwater region.  The Malvern Hills which occupy the area between the Wye and the Severn is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and has 15 SSSI’s within its boundaries. It’s also managed by the Malvern Conservators founded by act of parliament in 1884 – so you can see it’s a pretty heavily regulated area.

IMG_20200218_120834That’s just to set the scene a bit – yesterday we set off from Hollybush in deteriorating weather and by the time we got to the top of the first climb it was sheeting down, blowing a hoolie and extremely cold.  We carried on and the weather slowly improved and by the time we got to Sally’s Place (great refreshment hut) at British Camp, the sun had put in an appearance. But looking out towards the Severn from the vantage point of the hilltop we could see how much flooding there is at the moment. It’s not possible to discern the actual course of the river unless it’s by the tops of the bankside trees.  For the most part the flooding extends for several fields either side, and of course larger towns like Upton on Severn, Tewkesbury and Worcester (OK I know it’s a city but writing the list any other way looks pedantic!) – are severely affected once again. After a four hour walk out and back we arrived at Hollybush again just as the rain got organised and we drove home in opposite directions, both of us – it turned out – in appalling driving conditions.

Back in Bath, the river is continuing to fill, and we discovered that yesterday it covered Pulteney weir for the first time since 1960 when 7 people died in the floods. Bathampton Meadows are underwater again – doing exactly what they’re meant to do, which is to store floodwater.  It still amazes me that even as late as 2017 the local authority were still trying to turn this nature reserve into a park and ride scheme. If you’re looking for an example of cognitive dissonance look no further. The latest flood risk assessment sounds breezily confident that the risk isn’t rising, and there are plans to decommission the floodgates at Pulteney weir. The strategy for dealing with the climate crisis at government level seems to be to tell us to stick our fingers in our ears and shout “la la la la” very loudly. Those of us who remember the similarly laughable “protect and survive” campaign will recall that the then government advised us that the best protection against all-out nuclear war was to whitewash the windows and hide under a table. That was what we were meant to do at least, the government plans for themselves involved moving into nuclear bomb proof shelters, curiously named “regional seats of government” and sitting it out until it was safe to emerge and govern the smoking radioactive ashes. One recently discovered criminal repurposing of an abandoned nuclear shelter was to use it to grow cannabis on an industrial scale – you couldn’t make this stuff up!

Anyway, if all this doesn’t constitute a crisis I don’t know what does.  Everywhere we looked we could see the stubble from last year’s fodder maize crop.  The land is too wet to sow seed and consequently the top soil is being washed into the rivers, further depleting the earth. I read through a couple of the many official reports concerning the Malvern Hills when we got home, and one of them suggested that one effect of global heating might be to allow farmers to take two crops a year.  Merciful heavens! that surely means we’ll simply exhaust the soil that much quicker unless we make radical changes.

Traditionally, Japanese potters would dig porcellanous and stoneware clays and store them for their grandchildren to use. These clays lacked plasticity and prolonged storage after initial preparation made them easier, although never easy, to use. We need politicians to move to a similar timescale. We need to stop asking what will be the case in five or ten years time , and soberly consider what it might be in fifty. To paraphrase an earlier teacher:

For what will it profit us if we hoard our savings but lose the whole earth?

 

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