Fol­low Bri­tain’s long­est river as it de­scends through quiet coun­try­side and his­toric towns and cities to Glouces­ter Docks, then the canal which con­tin­ues the jour­ney to Sharpness

Canal Boat - - This Month - TEXT & PIC­TURES BY DEREK PRATT

With bridges few and far be­tween, Bri­tain’s long­est river of­fers a peaceful pas­sage to the es­tu­ary

The Sev­ern is the long­est river in Great Bri­tain, ris­ing in the Welsh moun­tains and flow­ing through Shrop­shire, Worces­ter­shire and Glouces­ter­shire to the Bris­tol Chan­nel and the sea. It passes through Iron­bridge, one of the birth­places of the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion, where it was once busy with sail­ing barges called Sev­ern trows; nowa­days for any­thing but small craft it only be­comes part of the nav­i­ga­ble sys­tem just be­fore Stour­port.

In its com­mer­cial hey­day the nav­i­ga­ble Sev­ern and its com­pan­ion the Glouces­ter & Sharpness Canal (built in 1827 to by­pass the shift­ing sand­banks and tricky tides of the lower river) pro­vided vi­tal trans­port links to and from Birm­ing­ham and the Mid­lands.

The river car­ried coal from the For­est of Dean, tim­ber, grain and veg­eta­bles. In Jan­uary 1956 a Bri­tish Wa­ter­ways pub­li­ca­tion re­ported that half a mil­lion tonnes of bulk liq­uids were car­ried an­nu­ally on the River Sev­ern and the Glouces­ter & Sharpness Canal, with waterside de­pots built to store petrol and oil.

That trade has gone, although for the last decade a regular short-dis­tance gravel traf­fic has op­er­ated be­tween Ryall and Rip­ple (south of Up­ton); but both river and canal are busy with plea­sure boat­ing in the sum­mer months.

The River Sev­ern nav­i­ga­tion is 42 miles long, its five wide locks keeper-op­er­ated with a traf­fic light sys­tem. Some sec­tions are very beau­ti­ful with wooded cliffs while other parts have high flood-banks with less to see.

Bridges are few and far apart, and moor­ing can be dif­fi­cult away from des­ig­nated ar­eas. But it’s worth it for the towns and cities of Stour­port, Worces­ter, Up­ton-on-Sev­ern, Tewkes­bury and Glouces­ter, where we join the Glouces­ter & Sharpness Canal. All of these are worth an ex­tended visit.

We be­gin our jour­ney at the canal town of Stour­port, by the junc­tion of the Stafford­shire & Worces­ter­shire Canal. The town has plenty of shops and pubs eas­ily reached from the canal basins. Flights of wide and nar­row locks link the canal to the Sev­ern.

Leav­ing the canal, you turn left onto a lovely stretch of river lead­ing to Lin­comb Lock, with steeply wooded hills and in places

over­hang­ing red sand­stone rocks. On the west bank a small set­tle­ment called The Burf has a river­side pub. In the next three miles the river passes through beau­ti­ful wooded and hilly coun­try­side es­pe­cially on the western bank.

It’s a re­mote reach, un­in­ter­rupted by bridges and roads un­til Holt Fleet. Holt Lock’s beau­ti­ful set­ting is fol­lowed by Telford’s Holt Fleet Bridge, with a large pub with restau­rant, gar­den and moor­ings nearby.

Now the river passes through more open coun­try­side, pass­ing the junc­tion with the Droitwich Barge Canal, now re­stored cre­at­ing a new cruis­ing ring via the Worces­ter & Birm­ing­ham Canal. Be­vere Lock was a regular prize win­ner in the Bri­tish Wa­ter­ways lock com­pe­ti­tion.

Just be­yond the lock is a de­light­fully se­cluded river­side pub. Vis­i­tors to this lit­tle gem share the gar­den with pea­cocks, ducks, geese and chick­ens.

The north­ern sub­urbs of Worces­ter be­come more ev­i­dent as the river passes the race­course and the Sab­rina foot­bridge where there are moor­ings. The county cricket ground stands next to the fivearched road bridge. From here there is an ex­cel­lent view of Worces­ter Cathe­dral with its 14th cen­tury tower.

There is a lot to see in Worces­ter: the mag­nif­i­cent cathe­dral, the Porce­lain Museum (see inset), the Guild­hall and the Com­man­dery museum by the canal at Sid­bury. The en­trance to the Worces­ter & Birm­ing­ham Canal can be seen at Diglis; boaters cruis­ing the Avon Ring leave here and re­con­nect with the river at Tewkes­bury.

Back on the Sev­ern, Diglis Locks are paired and just be­low them is the junc­tion

with the un­nav­i­ga­ble River Teme. In 1651 the Bat­tle of Worces­ter, the fi­nal con­flict of the English Civil War, was fought here be­tween Pow­ick Bridge and the Sev­ern.

Af­ter Worces­ter’s south­ern road bridge, there are no more road cross­ings un­til reach­ing Up­ton, eight miles away. The river gen­tly me­an­ders past Kempsey and Sev­ern Stoke in open coun­try­side with oc­ca­sional rocky sand­stone out­crops and views of the Malvern Hills to the west.

Up­ton upon Sev­ern pro­vides vis­i­tor moor­ings near the road bridge, although these can be busy in the high sea­son. There is also a ma­rina with all boat­ing fa­cil­i­ties. Up­ton it­self is a real gem of an English coun­try town with in­ter­est­ing shops and an amaz­ing collection of pubs, many of them near the wa­ter­front.

The his­tory of the town and its part in the Civil War can be found in the half­tim­bered Tu­dor House Museum op­po­site the Pep­per­pot Tower that over­looks the bridge. Trip boat Con­way Cas­tle runs daily river cruises from a pier near the bridge.

Af­ter Up­ton the only bridge cross­ing the river in the next six miles is the M50 mo­tor­way viaduct. This splen­didly iso­lated course ends at Mythe Bridge, an­other Telford struc­ture in a lovely set­ting be­low the wooded Mythe Cliff. Tewkes­bury is just around the next, bend, where vis­i­tors for the town should turn left and en­ter the River Avon.

The town is dom­i­nated by its 12th cen­tury abbey and also has a num­ber of me­di­ae­val build­ings. All the usual fa­cil­i­ties for shop­ping and good pubs are avail­able.

Up­per Lode is the last lock be­fore Glouces­ter. The river is semi-tidal from here to Glouces­ter, and the lock-keeper will ad­vise if a spring tide is im­mi­nent.

Be­tween Tewkes­bury and Glouces­ter the banks are gen­er­ally high; at Wain­lode Hill they rise cliff-like from the wa­ter’s edge. The only cross­ing point is at Haw Bridge where there are two pubs. The en­trance to the for­mer Coombe Hill Canal can be seen shortly be­fore the tow­er­ing wooded cliffs of Wain­lode Hill

At Ash­le­worth Quay there is a lovely

waterside pub in an old cot­tage. Look for the huge 16th cen­tury tithe barn next to the stone built Ash­le­worth Court, just down the lane from the pub. This fine group of old build­ings also in­cludes a black and white half-tim­bered manor house and a church.

At the Up­per Part­ing the river splits into east and west chan­nels. The west chan­nel is now un­nav­i­ga­ble but once led to the

Here­ford­shire & Glouces­ter­shire Canal, long aban­doned but un­der restora­tion. The nav­i­ga­ble east­ern chan­nel nar­rows as it ap­proaches Glouces­ter; then a wide bend fol­lowed by a flurry of bridges brings you to Glouces­ter Lock and your first view of Glouces­ter Docks.

Glouces­ter is a glo­ri­ous city to visit and cer­tainly ranks as one of the premier high­lights of the in­land wa­ter­way sys­tem. It has been an in­land port since medieval times but it was the open­ing of the Glouces­ter & Sharpness Canal in 1827 that brought it into promi­nence.

Glouces­ter Lock leads into the main basin which is sur­rounded by splen­did old ware­houses, now con­verted to of­fices, an­tique cen­tres and the Wa­ter­ways Museum. Sev­eral old build­ings have been de­mol­ished and re­placed by restau­rants, shops and pubs. There are lots of moor­ings es­pe­cially in the Vic­to­ria Basin which is lined with colour­ful boats. Be sure to visit the mag­nif­i­cent Glouces­ter Cathe­dral (see inset).

Leav­ing the docks, you will soon en­counter a large re­tail de­vel­op­ment that in­cludes a waterside supermarket. This is next to High Or­chard Bridge, opened in 2008. It’s a good place to stock up with pro­vi­sions as shop­ping fa­cil­i­ties are few and far be­tween on the Glouces­ter & Sharpness Canal, a 16-mile wa­ter­way orig­i­nally de­signed for ships and other large com­mer­cial traf­fic.

The only locks are at each end of the wa­ter­way, but to add in­ter­est it does have 14 swing bridges which are mostly manned. One of the dis­tinc­tive fea­tures of the canal is the se­ries of bridge keep­ers’ cot­tages dec­o­rated with strange Doric style por­ti­coes fac­ing the canal.

The first of these is Hemp­sted Bridge on the out­skirts of Glouces­ter. This is soon fol­lowed by two more be­fore reach­ing Sel­lars Bridge where there is a pub with a gar­den over­look­ing the canal. Sel­lars Bridge, like the pre­vi­ous ones at Rea and Sims, are high enough for the av­er­age canal boat to pass be­neath with­out the bridges be­ing opened, but boats should wait for a sig­nal from the bridge op­er­a­tor.

The canal con­tin­ues south­wards for three miles through flat, empty coun­try­side be­fore reach­ing Saul Junc­tion. This is usu­ally a hive of ac­tiv­ity with a boat­yard, a cafe in an old sta­ble block and the Cotswold Canal Vis­i­tor Cen­tre.

This is where the Glouces­ter & Sharpness once crossed the Stroud­wa­ter Nav­i­ga­tion, which in turn led to the Thames & Sev­ern Canal. At present, only the first short length of the Stroud­wa­ter is nav­i­ga­ble, used for moor­ings and ac­cess to a larger ma­rina; but the Cotswold Canals Trust is restor­ing both wa­ter­ways, with the aim that one day they will pro­vide a con­nec­tion right through to the Thames above Lech­lade. The Vis­i­tor Cen­tre will pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about the pro­ject.

Saul Junc­tion is also the start­ing point for the Wil­low Trust boats which take dis­abled peo­ple for cruises.

Freth­erne Bridge at Framp­ton on Sev­ern was once the site of Cad­bury’s fac­tory, which used the wa­ter­way for trans­port­ing pro­duce to Bournville. Framp­ton is a lovely vil­lage which has one of the long­est vil­lage greens in the coun­try.

Next comes Shep­herd’s Patch, with a

pub, a café and a boat­yard. Don’t miss the Slimbridge Wild­fowl and Wet­land Trust (see inset), a half mile walk along the road from the swing bridge.

Af­ter Shep­herd’s Patch the canal passes along a flat two mile land­scape to Pur­ton, where in 1909 the sta­bil­ity of the River Sev­ern at Pur­ton was threat­ened by a mas­sive land­slip. Sev­eral old barges were sunk to shore up the bank, more were added in later years, and the as­sort­ment of re­mains are known as the Pur­ton hulks.

Con­tin­u­ing along the canal, you will see a stone tower on the right bank and an abut­ment on the left: the re­mains of a 21 span railway bridge which once spanned the Sev­ern and the canal. In Oc­to­ber 1960, two large barges car­ry­ing oil and petrol col­lided with the bridge in thick fog and ex­ploded, killing five crew and dam­ag­ing the bridge be­yond eco­nomic re­pair.

Sharpness Docks re­ally de­vel­oped in the 1870s when ships were be­com­ing too large to pass all the way along the canal to Glouces­ter. The orig­i­nal en­trance to the canal had no pro­vi­sion for cargo han­dling, so a new lock was built into the tidal basin. The length of canal which led to the old en­trance is now a ma­rina with ex­ten­sive moor­ings.

Sharpness Docks con­tin­ues as a work­ing port, al­beit at much re­duced ca­pac­ity since its hey­day, with old ware­houses re­placed with more mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties, while a ma­jor waterside re­gen­er­a­tion scheme is planned for the area north of the docks.

Be­yond the docks, the ship lock leads into the Sev­ern es­tu­ary, a wa­ter­way un­suited to typ­i­cal in­land craft and not to be con­tem­plated with­out ex­pe­ri­enced crew and a pi­lot; best to turn around at Sharpness and head for to Glouces­ter.

Up­per Lode Lock, the last be­fore Glouces­ter

Glouces­ter Lock, the en­trance to the docks

Nar­row­boats don’t need Sel­lars Bridge opened

Fine old ware­houses at Glouces­ter docks

Saul Junc­tion, where boats will one day join the Cotswold Canal

The oddly-named Splatt Bridge, with keeper’s house

Re­mains of the railway bridge at Sharpness

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