|The freighter Wilson Tees eases its way into Sharpness Lock|
The canal forks as it arrives at Sharpness; right was the old exit to the estuary, now a small marina while left heads into the heart of the docks and then exits to the estuary via a much bigger, newer lock. You have to walk all the way round the edge of the docks to find it, past grain stores, cement silos, stacks of timber and a scrap metal depot which illustrate that this is still a busy little docks.
|Sharpness was quiet today but it's normally a busy little docks|
First you have to negotiate what locals call 'the island', the sizeable area of land between the two arms of canal. It's all semi-derelict now, save for the Dockers' Club, and there's just a decaying sign on a fence to recall the camp of the HMS Vindicatrix sea training school that was based here. All that could change for CaRT has ambitious development plans for the whole of the dockland estate with housing and, on the island, leisure facilities.
|A plaintive reminder of the sea training base that was here|
Arriving at the lock we missed a narrowboat and a big cruiser who left for the trip to Bristol just before high tide but a cargo ship, the 1500 tonne Wilson Tees from Lithunia carrying a load of fertiliser was inching its way patiently in.
The incoming tide runs fast – even for a big coaster – and it had turned, positioned itself against the arm of the mole (the pier as we landlubbers call it) and was using bow thrusters and engine to pivot slowly round against the force of the tide.
Quite a little crowd had gathered to watch. There's an immaculate picnic area there to watch the ships or just view the river – across to Lydney or down beyond the two Severn bridges. Apparently you used to be able to walk right to the lockside, until someone sadly committed suicide by driving their car off the harbour edge!)
After the lock it was time to head for the nearest small town, Berkeley and its Co-op. There's a tiddly shop at Sharpness docks and a marginally better Mace and PO at Newtown on the hill behind them but for a proper shop that sells stuff like vegetables, it's Berkeley four miles away up a busier than expected B-road on a hotter than expected afternoon.
Remarkably, little Berkeley had two charity shops, which kept Harrywoman happy and a decent Co-op wherewe bought lunch (including a Little Caesar meal for Seadog Brian), and stocked up on fruit and veg.
Looking for somewhere to have our picnic lunch we discovered there was a whole lot more to Berkeley than a Co-op. Like a Norman castle, lived in by the same family who built it – a family who can trace their lineage back to Saxon times. And a stunning 13th century church. And the house where Edward Jenner, the man who invented vaccination, lived.
|The magnificent Berkeley Castle lived in by the family for 900 years|
Robert Fitzharding, first baron of Berkeley, was an Anglo Saxon nobleman and he built the present keep and wall with much of the rest added in the 14th century. Remarkably his descendants still live there though as there isn't much call for noblemen to fight in battles any more, the place earns its keep as a wedding venue and filming location for the likes of Wolf Hall these days.
|A beautiful 13the century church but its bell tower is out of sight|
Unfortunately it's well screened from view unless you're a paying visitor, which we weren't today. We contended ourselves with a look in the beautiful church. Note the lack of a bell tower in the photo – the baron of Berkeley didn't want townsfolk peering into his castle from the tower so it's built separately on the other side of the churchyard.
|Tomb of the 8th Lord of Berkeley who fought at Crecy and his wife|
The church has impressive Berkeley tombs. There's an eerie sense of historical immediacy standing by the tomb of the 3rd Baron who fought alongside the king at the Battle of Crecy. Outside are some fascinating tombs, too, including that of Dicky Pearce, the Earl of Suffolk's fool and last court jester who died after falling from the minstrels' gallery of the castle's hall. Or, as some say, was he pushed – just as a joke? The inscription on his tomb was written by Jonathan Swift.
|Tomb of Dicky Pearce, the last court jester in England|
Edward Jenner lived very nearby. He noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox, a very mild cousin to smallpox, never caught the virulent disease. He scraped the pus of the milkmaid's cowpox blisters and injected them in patients – who were successfully immunised against smallpox.
A return trip along the busy road to Sharpness loomed until Harrywoman had the brilliant idea of returning along the Severn Way. Some Google-mapping and querying of locals confirmed that it could be done: the small stream by the castle led to the oddly named Berkeley Pill – a Severn tributary whose tidal waters once allowed trading craft right up to Berkeley and the castle. And from the Pill, the path led along the estuary side back to Sharpness.
|Among the flotsam, this curious item of iron tipped timber|
It was a great walk, through sheep fields and along the estuary bank, where lines of flotsam timber, some virtually tree trunk size, begged to be collected for firewood. Finally we were back at the docks picnic area for a last sit down and look at the ebbing river before heading home.
* A self-indulgent play on words to remind me of my uni philosophy course on Messrs Locke, Berkeley and Hume.