The Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world (up to fifty feet), and at high tides – notably the Neap Tides of Spring and Autumn, around the equinoxes, this creates a natural phenomenon called the Severn Bore, a wave that increases in size as it is squeezed up the winding bottleneck of the estuary. This year the highest of these was due on 2nd March (8.55am at the Severn Bore Inn) – and despite it being a ‘schoolday’, Tuesday, I decided to go up. Happily Monday and Tuesday happened to be two days of spectacular Spring sunshine. I rode up in the late afternoon sun on my Triumph after class to stay at my friend’s Miranda’s place overlooking the Severn plain. This meant we could set off at a sensible time the following morning, as it was only a few miles from her lovely cottage. The frost was on the fields when I looked out first thing, but the sun had already flooded the plain and would soon burn it off. We quickly got ready and set off – dropping off Miranda’s son first in Stroud, which meant we hit the rush hour traffic there, and then on the way into Gloucester. Realising we probably would miss it if we ran the gauntlet of that city, I persuaded my driver to try the backroads and find a viewing spot on this side of the river. We struck lucky, following a car which hared along the lanes – clearly on a mission to catch it as well. We ended up at a place called Stonebench, parking up on the roadside along with the many other cars and walked to the riverside, finding it hard not to get caught up in the excitement – some were running, desperate not to miss it. But we needn’t have worried – it was a little ‘late’ (it can vary up to twenty minutes either side of the scheduled time, apparently). We had time to find a spot, by a large houseboat and tuck into our breakfast of coffee and chocolate croissants. The atmosphere was good-humoured. A group of guys next to us where sipping on cider. Alot of families were there. Men with serious cameras. It had the wonderful English air of something faintly ridiculous that we all find ourselves doing in public – fully aware of how daft it is.
A speedboat caused some excitement – we expected it to be preceding the bore, but it was just a group of surfers in wetsuits, maybe the ones featured on the BBC News that day, looking cool, surfing the bore in the early morning sun. I spotted a paraglider – a great way to see it. A couple more boats came up and this time, the wave was close behind. Everybody got excited as the level of the river suddenly surged – you could see the wave breaking against the shore opposite. It roared past us – as it approaches there’s a moment when you don’t know if it’s going to stop, or completely drown you. A feeling of the raw power of nature. Humbling. A taste of what locals experience four centuries ago…
In 1607 what became known as the ‘Great Flood’, possibly caused by a tsunami, sent a massive wave up the Severn Estuary. It is estimated 200 square miles (520 sq km) of land were covered by water. Eyewitness accounts of the disaster told of “huge and mighty hills of water” advancing at a speed “faster than a greyhound can run”. It caused massive destruction and the loss of two thousand lives. At its peak it was travelling at thirty miles an hour and sending up waves over twenty five feet, reaching fourteen miles inland to low-lying parts of Somerset.
Today was far gentler – a pleasant day out. We could all go home or to work having witnessed one of nature’s wonders. Most of the crowds dispersed immediately afterwards but we sat and watched the waters, changed ‘from a river to a sea’, as it observed – surging angrily like a stormy harbour. The levels were still rising – in an hour, when the tide’s at its peak we were told it breaches the river bank and floods the lane where several cars were parked. The bore carried alot of flotsam with it. At one point I spotted what looked like a head – turned out to be a football. I joked it was an unlucky surfer who hit a low-lying bridge. In the gap between the boat and the quayside we noticed a large pike flapping about – clearly dying. The bore carries alot of salmon upriver, who use its energy to return to their spawning grounds up in the Welsh hills. The owner of the houseboat seemed stoic about the whole thing. ‘I just let it happen’. Miranda had spotted some little paw-prints in the silt – we asked him about them. He hadn’t a clue – possibly rats? As Ratty said in The Wind in the Willows: ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING–absolute nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ And Moley had an epiphany, watching the River for the first time:
‘He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before–this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver–glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea’
An event like today’s bore makes us see the river again as if for the first time. It suddenly becomes like Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’ – a force to be respected. Let’s hope the planners of the proposed Severn Barrage and the Hinkley Point development realise that too.
The largest River Severn bore in eight years has been surging through Gloucestershire.
Hundreds of people from all over the country have lined the river bank to witness the spectacle.
The huge wave, caused by the incoming tide being funnelled up the narrowing Severn Estuary, was expected to reach more than 5.4 metres (17.7ft) high.
Scores of surfers tried to ride the five-star bore as it headed upstream earlier.
The Severn Estuary experiences the second highest tide anywhere in the world and the bore’s average speed is 10 mph.
Bores can range between one star, measuring 4.5 metres (14.8ft) to 4.6 metres (15ft), and five-star, measuring 5.4 metres (17.7ft) and above.
An Environment Agency spokeswoman said the last five-star Severn bore on record was in March 2002.