CRUISE GUIDE: RIVER SEVERN AND GLOUCESTER & SHARPNESS CANAL
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
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