Our greatest river
The River Severn is Britain’s longest river but is it also our greatest? Waterway writer, cartographer, boater and cyclist Richard Fairhurst makes the case.
Rising high in the Welsh hills and taking an unhurried, circuitous course to the Bristol Channel, the Severn is acknowledged as Britain’s longest river. Yet it’s the runner-up, the Thames, which is routinely described as the ‘greatest’. The Thames has the capital city, the Queen’s weekend residence, the Boat Race, Tower Bridge. How can the Severn compete?
Well, I may be drummed out of the Amalgamated Society of Waterway Enthusiasts for saying so, but give me the Severn over the Thames any day. The Thames is all airs and graces, the tame, preening swan of the waterways. The waters of the Severn remain largely untamed, and are all the better for it - though the residents of Tewkesbury and Upton might disagree.
Historic canal architecture
Flooding aside, the Severnside towns are surely the best string of waterside pearls anywhere in Britain. Stourport is the furthest upstream that narrowboats and cruisers can reach (canoes, of course, are another matter), and is a delightful, rather curious, mix of historic canal architecture and Skegness-on-Severn. The best recreation, of course, is to hire one of the little wooden dayboats for an hour, load up with a picnic, and head upstream.
A cathedral, a cricket club, a racecourse – Worcester’s riverside could hardly be any more English. Just like the river, the city is a modest, unassuming place with a lot to offer. Local hero Edward Elgar, that most English of composers, wrote a ‘Severn Suite’ of five movements named after Worcester landmarks; the river returns the favour with a hotel boat called Edward Elgar which you might spot between here and Gloucester.
Elgar gives way to jazz at Upton-upon-Severn, a pretty little place on the west bank with a nice line in music festivals and riverside pubs. Then comes the market town of Tewkesbury, whose Abbey – a cathedral in all but name – sits fretting about the twin threats of the Severn and Avon when the rains come down.
Boats of every shape and size
Gloucester is the largest of the pearls and, despite a bit too much 1960s concrete, full of history. The Cotswold tourist guides will extol the medieval cross layout and the cathedral (one of Britain’s best, and heavily featured in the Harry Potter films), but those of us arriving by water are admitted to a veritable river city. In between the 15 Victorian warehouses are boats of every shape and size: sailing craft, historic narrowboats (courtesy of the Gloucester Waterways Museum), and on occasion, ocean-going tall ships who’ve made their way up the canal from Sharpness.
So: five reasons to visit the Severn. How should you go there? It’s a close call between boating and walking. Yes, there are those who don’t take to the sheer scale of the river: the tall banks, the deep, cavernous locks. But I find the slowly changing scenery a refreshing change from the miniature canvas of the canals. For me, the defining Severn experience is to while away an evening closeted in an isolated pub – the Boat at Ashleworth, maybe, or the Camp House at Grimley – then cast off early the next morning onto the wide expanse of the river, the slow-flowing channel spreading out in front.
Rivers are not always welcoming to the walker. Unlike canals, they rarely have a continuous towpath. But the Severn is an exception, thanks to the magnificent Severn Way. 224 miles long, it enables you to see the whole of the river from source to sea – not just the 41 miles regularly navigated by pleasure boats.
In its upper reaches, it braves the high hills of Powys, where the walker can shack up in remote valley towns such as Llanidloes. Shrewsbury and Ironbridge, two more pearls, lead to the familiar river at Stourport. But the shifting sandbanks below Gloucester, where narrowboaters fear to tread, are perhaps the river’s finest hour – especially for wildlife; it’s no surprise that Peter Scott chose Slimbridge here for his wildfowl haven. I’ve walked perhaps half the Severn Way, and to see it gradually evolving from a mountain stream into a mighty tidal estuary is, I’ve found, a genuinely magical experience.
So, boating or walking? Do both, and maybe you, too, will come to the conclusion that the Severn isn’t just our longest river, it’s also our greatest.
Richard Fairhurst is a waterway writer and cartographer, boater and cyclist. He’s editor-at-large of Waterways World and blogs regularly at canal.travel.