|Our little fleet of narrowboats lines up for the Severn Bridge|
So why, less than two years later, are we back? To be honest, I'm really not sure but we spent a few days staring out at the Severn Estuary from Sharpness and kept thinking "we'd love to do that" so now we have!
Like mountaineers, we did it because it was there.
The only date in our diary is mid-September when we have to be back in the Midlands. Originally we'd planned to go from the G&S to the Avon and see how things shaped up from there. But, looking at the estuary, I mused "we could go down to Bristol, up the K&A, the Thames, the Oxford, a bit of the GU, the southern Stratford, down the Avon and up the Severn to the Midland canals once more." It's just a bit of a longer way round!
The estuary isn't a simple trip – and not a cheap one either. It can only be done in favourable weather (which is light winds; even lighter ones if they're from the SW). It's a two-leg trip, using the ebbing tide from Sharpness, then a lay-over in Portishead to pick up the incoming tide carry one up the Avon to Bristol itself.
|Five narrowboats and a clutch of cruisers at Sharpness|
So, to the trip. After several days of unfavourable winds there was quite a gaggle of us waiting at Sharpness at 8 a.m. on a flat calm morning: five narrowboats, with three pilots, and a clutch of high speed cruisers doing it DIY and heading for Cardiff.
|Tim our Severn pilot knows its every tricky inch|
Tim directed us on a course diagonally across the river towards the west bank. Everything is done by steering for markers. These are critical on big ships: Tim, a former merchant navy captain, told tales of easing big ships up and down the estuary in fog with barely any clearance either side of the channel and not a lot from the bottom either.
|The old bridge with the new one in the distance|
Soon we were aiming towards the old Severn road bridge and passed under this slim and elegant suspension bridge about an hour into the trip. From here we were into the 'Shoots Channel' where the waters from the River Wye meet the Severn and create a turbulent stretch.
|Beneath its span is a turbulent maestrom of waters..|
|..which pushed and pulled this huge baulk of timber in our path|
The bridge is an impressive structure though less elegant in its design I think. All the legs that carry the road out each side to the central structure actually stand on solid rock above the water line at low tide, which demonstrates the proportions of the tidal change. Interestingly, the nearby Severn railway tunnel which is four miles long has only its central 400 yards fully submerged at low water.
After the bridge things got a bit choppier as the headwind increased, though never to any uncomfortable extent, and soon we had the distant cranes and buildings of Avonmouth docks in view away to our left and, further in the distance, the modern blocks of flats that surround Portishead.
|To the right of the small lighthouse hides the Avon entrance|
|Just keep clear of stuff like this when you're near the docks|
|Off the Severn and into Portishead's huge lock|
|Tug Harry among the glossy plastics of Portishead|
Four hours later we were locking out once more for the final dash to Bristol. Cautious boaters might want a pilot for this bit (another £150) but there's really no need. Tim pointed out the route to the Avon's mouth on our way in and it was easy to follow. It seemed extraordinary, though, to be steering at 30 degrees upriver to counter the incoming tide as it kept pushing us strongly towards the shore.
As we turned right close to the north wall of the Avon a couple of tugs were coming out of the dock and, looking back a few minutes later, I watched a big cargo boat cross what had been our path. I'm glad we didn't meet him!
The Avon follows a twisty route that gradually narrows as it nears the city. I expected more push from the tide but was having to run quite hard to keep anywhere near the boats ahead.
|Brunel's marvellous Clifton Suspension Bridge is under repair|
Under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, one tower bandaged mummy-like for repairs, and we were at the huge lock. It's a complicated operation to let boats into the harbour: the two gates of the lock, then a hefty road bridge to be swung and a further flood gate to open. A lot of work for maybe just one little boat.
|Marine mayhem. Boats of every sort at play in Bristol dock|
|A wonderful sight to end the trip, the SS Great Britain|
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the Severn estuary; I'm glad we did it and I'd recommend anyone to give it a go but, as lifetime experiences go, it's not in the same class.