River Severn

The mighty River Severn is Britain's longest river. It runs from the Welsh mountains, through the beautiful Shropshire and Worcestershire countryside and down to the flatlands of the Severn estuary.

The course of the river is mostly rural, but it does flow through the ancient cities of Worcester and Gloucester. At Worcester, it is overlooked by the magnificent red sandstone cathedral. At Gloucester, the historic docks are a link to its freight-carrying heritage.

It is famous for its tidal bore, the second highest tide anywhere in the world. At very high tides, the water is forced from the wide estuary into the narrower channel upstream, forming a wave or bore that travels inland as far as Gloucester and beyond.

The different sections of the River Severn are very different in character, offering something for everyone. The Canal & River Trust looks after the River Severn from Stourport to Gloucester. This section of the river is ideal for pleasure-boating, and is busy with narrowboats, motor cruisers and inland waterway boats.

Above Stourport, it is suitable for canoes and rowing boats. The section from Gloucester to Sharpness is dangerous for boats, and is bypassed by the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. The section below Sharpness is not recommended for inland craft, unless they are equipped for a short sea voyage and have experienced crews, or else with the help of a licensed River Severn pilot.

Find out why waterway writer Richard Fairhust thinks the Severn is Britain's greatest river.

Take a look at our live webcam at Diglis Lock, Worcester.

Find stoppages, restrictions and other navigational advice for this waterway.

Days out

Feeding the ducks or just watching the boats is a great way to spend time by the water with your youngsters. Best of all, a trip to one of our canals or rivers doesn't have to cost you a penny.

Download free activity guides to the River Severn

The history

The Severn was from time immemorial a ‘free river’, navigable without charge and unimpeded by mills.  Below Gloucester the navigation was estuarial, and boating was assisted by the fortnightly spring tides as far as Upton.  Boats of 60 tons burthen could reach the Ironbridge Gorge, and of 40 tons to Shrewsbury. In good conditions smaller boats could get up the river as far as Pool Quay, near Welshpool.

Traffic peaked in the mid-18th century, with some 100,000 tons of coal a year coming down from the collieries round Madeley and Broseley to the saltworks at Droitwich and the various riverside towns. Other significant traffics were pig iron from the Forest of Dean and the Ironbridge Gorge going to various forges for conversion into wrought iron, salt from Droitwich, timber coming downriver and the goods needed by the towns going upriver.

It was not an easy river to navigate. Water flows could be too high, especially in the springtime, or too low in times of drought, a problem made worse when banks were made to protect farmland from flooding. Shoals impeded boats in several places, especially in the Gorge. Towing was by teams of men. There was no towpath suitable for horses until 1800 between Bewdley and Ironbridge, and a dozen years later for the full length between Gloucester and Shrewsbury.

Nothing came of the plan drawn up in 1784 for building 13 or 14 locks between Worcester and Coalbrookdale in order to make the river navigable all year round for boats drawing four feet. Land-owners naturally opposed it, and boat-owners were reluctant to pay tolls.

Traffic on the river increased when canals from the Midlands opened: the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal in 1771 and the Worcester & Birmingham in 1815.

It was not until the 1843–5 that any locks were built on the Severn, when the Severn Commission constructed four from Diglis Lock, just below Worcester, to Bevere Lock, below Stourport. Upper Lode Lock, below Tewkesbury, was added in 1858.

Although traffic on the river above Stourport had ceased by 1900, steam-powered boats and tugs provided an effective service on the lower part of the river.  Grain, imported through Sharpness, became an important traffic, other significant traffics being imported ironstone and timber, and coal from the Forest of Dean. In the 20th century oil and petrol became a major traffic, but this largely ceased in the 1960's. 

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