Friday, 5 June 2015

Because it was there

Our little fleet of narrowboats lines up for the Severn Bridge
We started off loving the Kennet & Avon; by the end we were thoroughly fed up with it. Sadly, I don't think we'll be rushing back. That's what I wrote after our last trip down the K&A.
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
The expense? Well you need a Severn pilot for the channel is pretty zig-zag and the tidal swirls are daunting in places. That's £190. A four hour lay-over in Portishead Marina was £22; it'll be more if you have to stop overnight and three nights mooring in Bristol floating harbour is an eye watering £79. You can stay for fewer but there's a lot to see and do (and spend even more money on).
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
The tide races in high and fast up the Severn and this was a Spring tide so of the higher and faster dimensions. Under the guidance of Tim Butten, our pilot we pushed out of the lock and turned to face the last of the incoming tide. Even hugging an inshore route it was slow going for the first 20 minutes until the ebb began. While the others raced ahead I chugged along at the rear, unwilling to over-exert the grand old JP3 too much.
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
Or of taking one of the tall ships up to Gloucester and hoping he'd got his sums right as crew members stood in the mast 'tops' while they passed under the Severn bridges with not too many feet to spare.
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
But that was nothing compared to what was ahead. Swirling around the new Severn Bridge was a turbulent mass of eddies, back eddies, calm spots and fast flows, like an underwater launderette all churning at different points of their cycle. Tim was helming now, thankfully, and even he struggled to negotiate a massive baulk of driftwood which floated back and forth and refused to get out of our path wherever he steered.
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
There are actually two docks here, Avonmouth to the north of the Avon and Portbury just beyond it. Both can be busy but the only sizeable ship we saw was a harbour dredger that plods in and out of Portbury.
Off the Severn and into Portishead's huge lock
And so, little more than two and a half hours after leaving, we were lining up to enter Portishead lock. And what a huge lock it is, easily swallowing all the narrowboats. We tied up on floating pontoons that rise as it fills – a Niagara of water pouring in but still taking a good 15 minutes to raise us up. Pilot Tim didn't bother to wait: we paid him and he was off, up the lock ladder.
Tug Harry among the glossy plastics of Portishead
Portishead is another former boatyard now transformed into a glossy coastal marina where we steel cigar tubes looked seriously out of place. But they still took our cash!
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
Finally we came out of the woods and the mud banks and into the gorge where coloured dots on the rock face turned out to be climbers inching their way up the sheer face. And I thought we were daft.
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
Finally at 8pm we were into the harbour – to be met with  marine mayhem. Every sort of boating activity was underway: dinghies, wind surfers, paddle boarders, eagerly rowing sea scouts, kayakers, a rowing eight, plastic cruisers. We threaded our way carefully among them, tied up on the floating pontoons opposite SS Great Britain and I scurried off to find some fish and chips.
A wonderful sight to end the trip, the SS Great Britain
Which made me think about rushing off for fish and chips after our last estuary crossing: The Wash. I have to say that one was a much more memorable trip - watching the seals on the sandbanks, the cockle boats, beaching on the sands to wait for the tide change and the sheer sensation of being properly out to sea.
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.


  1. Great report of your trip. Having done the Wash too it would take a lot to beat that. We were thinking of doing that crossing at some stage but I'm not sure.. I don't know why, gosh I have done some stuff! Maybe one day, but well done you!

  2. I think we should have done it when we first came down the K&A to Bristol but the weather seemed iffy and we didn't want to get stuck at costly Portishead. So long as you have a Severn pilot it's fine. One day then, eh.

  3. Sorry I missed you when you were in port. Had a great day on the SS Great Britain though.

  4. An interesting report Kevin.

  5. Thanks - very interesting. I've just done the Wash (quite choppy!) and am thinking of adding the Severn to my list....

    1. Definitely worth doing - esp as an up and back trip on the K&A can be a chore. But the costs do mount - 3 nights in Bristol harbour was £79!