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.

Moody old Severn day

IMG_6246

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.

IMG_6245When 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.

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