Thursday, 20 August 2015

Where the Avon meets the Severn

Hide the yellow lines and it could be 1600
Tewkesbury stands at the meeting point of the River Avon with the Severn. These days that can mean only one thing – it floods. And badly.
In days of yore, rivers were the natural place to build townships and Tewkesbury is indeed an ancient settlement, with a huge and spectacular Norman abbey dating back to 1087 and a town centre with an impressive array of medieval timber framed buildings – all of which seemed to have survived successive generations of flooding.
The 2007 floods were as high as the houses across the river
And, if you look at aerial photos of the worst recent floods, in 2007, you can see why: the abbey and surrounding streets stand on an island surrounded by floodwaters. It's quite a statement about the foresight of the builders and the shortsightedness of their descendants today who happily build estates on flood plains.
It was raining as we arrived yesterday but fortunately that stopped overnight so we could take a stroll around some of the 350 listed buildings in the town centre.
The oldest pub in Gloucestershire
Among them are the oldest pub in Gloucestershire, dating from 1308, and a coaching inn, The Royal Hop Pole, that's now a Wetherspoons but was a favourite dining spot of Dickens' Mr Pickwick in 'Pickwick Papers' who probably enjoyed 'curry night'. Queen Mary stayed here in 1930, though probably not on a 'twofer' as George V was seemingly not with her.
And the Wethersoons where Mr Pickwick had an ale or two
Battle of Tewkesbury banners fly from houses
Timber-framed buildings, some with their street frontages sadly messed about with to become shops, jostle with more modern buildings along the main streets; wherever you turn you seem to find another. Many are decorated with large heraldic flags: Tewkesbury was the scene of one of the critical battles of the Wars of the Roses and every July holds a massive re-enactment (the biggest in Europe, apparently) and the flags are those of the knights who took part back in 1471.
Alleys here
And alleys there

The town is also famous for its alleys, which go back to the 17th century and were a ways of squeezing in more housing into the tight confines of the old town. As well as being the only source of light and air for the overcrowded houses built down them, they also acted as drains and rubbish dumps. Cholera and diptheria became rife at the peak of overcrowding in the 19th century.
The magnificent Abbey boasts Europe's tallest tower
The Abbey is a massive, solid and impressive building – it claims the largest Norman tower in Europe. The interior quite takes your breath away; the wide nave is lined by massive columns, supporting the roof on decorated columns, with intricately carved figureheads at every juncture. The sense of space and strength is remarkable.
A stunning interior; the decorated roof on huge columns
The interior holds some intricately chapels dating back to the 14th century, built as memorials to various local nobles and churchmen. Most famous is 'the kneeling knight' - a statue of Edward Despenser who fought with the Black Prince and was rewarded with various baronial titles as a result. He is carved kneeling in prayer on the roof of his chapel and facing the high altar.
The kneeling knight on top of his chapel
The Abbey escaped Henry VIII's bulldozers because the townspeople bought it from him. He took the cash but turfed the monks out all the same so only the church survives. Aside, that is, from the Mill Avon, a stretch of river cut by the monks to supply their water mill. There's still a mill building there, though non functioning, but now the stretch provides boat moorings and the lock through to the Severn.
The huge Healings Mill near the lock, built in 1869 and originally steam powered, continued the town's tradition of corn milling, with grain coming from Canada and the USA and then transhipped by the firm's barges upriver from Avonmouth and Sharpness. Sadly in 2006 it closed and the building lies empty awaiting some sort of redevelopment.
A fascinating couple of days in a very enjoyable small town, albeit one living something of a fragile existence where watching the weather forecast must be a daily essential.
However the high spot of the stay must be, finally after so many attempts, getting a decent photo of a kingfisher. Not on the branch of a tree or tucked in a riverside hedge but on our way to Tesco. Carrying my camera, just on the off chance, we spotted one perched on a mooring bracket across the river and he posed graciously while I stood on the bridge and snapped him.
And highlight of the day - at last I get a kingfisher photo

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