26 September 2009

From the West Country - Severn Beach and Beyond

I last visited Severn Beach some twenty-five years ago, and certain details are etched on my mind.  There was a shingle bank along the Severn, behind which crouched some houses, most of which seemed then to have seen better days.  In the distance could be made out the smokes of Wales and the towers of the old road bridge, which was in fact quite new (opened in 1966) and, as the seventh longest suspension bridge in the world, it was something of a wonder as well.  I trudged along the riverside, wondering if the place had actually had better days, and then I returned to Bristol, full of slightly salty fresh air, and forgot about Severn Beach for years and years.

However, courtesy of the 9.20 train from Redland, whose station has been colourfully decorated as part of an unofficial youth occupation scheme, I recently returned to the same location, to find that many things have changed.  Some of the same old houses behind the beach are still there, but they won’t be for long.  New buildings and new roads are the order of the day, and there’s a growing community around the railhead.  The second crossing, as it seems to be known, carrying the motorway to South Wales and back, snakes across the Severn at almost the same place as the mainline rail tunnel burrows under.  The bridge is a colossus of concrete, awesomely beautiful in its grandeur and daring.  There is, indeed, a visitor’s centre, planted on some waste ground just behind the last derelict vestiges of my earlier visit, and in the shadow of the new bridge.  This centre is operated by the Severn Bridges Trust, and it is advisable to telephone on 01454 633511 if you are planning a visit.  (In the winter it is only open from 11 to 4 on Saturdays and Sundays.)

On this visit it is freezing cold, with crystals of ice on the rock.  Steam blows out to sea from the industrial areas of Avonmouth; vapour trails scar the powder blue sky.  The bridge gleams in the sun, spectacular, seeming alive with the persistent sound of the traffic pouring across in both directions. The tide is up; the high water swirls close to Binn Wall, which is decorated with debris of branches and seaweed, evidence of previous flooding.  Near the bridge two commemorative stones have been set side by side.  The first bears the date 1815, and simply bears the names: “E Williams, Surveyor, and F Calthan, Mason.”  The second bears the inscription: “This stone was unveiled by Mrs KJA Brown, Head of Regional Services and Defence Group, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, to commemorate the completion of improvements to the Binn Wall by the Midlands Region of the Environment Agency between 1993 and 1998.” 

I now have a clear view of the “old” bridge gleaming white ahead of me.  Close to the wall there is an old farm - Severn Lodge Farm - a substantial building with 28 chimney pots, outhouses and a walled garden; it has an elegant portico to shield the front door and a neat little twin lawn front garden. Before the new wall it must have had its own defences, and there is still an old sign saying “unsafe for bathing, mud and currents.”  Out on the jetty, with the current flowing fast and muddy below, I can’t think why anyone would have thought that bathing might have been at all acceptable!  Two plaques on tell stories of past crossings from this point.  The first commemorates, “the crossing of John and Charles Wesley founders of Methodism, their journeys to Wales and Ireland from the ferry near the English Stones during the Eighteenth Century.   Dedicated for the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of their conversion May 28th 1988.” The English Stones lie under the new bridge, just beyond Goblin Ledge and just before the Shoots, a channel through Crab’s Bay.  The second plaque is inscribed:  “South Wales Union Railway:  This is the remains of the terminal pier where train passengers embarked for Portskewett 1863-1885, Pilning Severn Stage Parish Council.” 

Down on the shore between the two bridges, the Pill issues into the Severn, with Red Ledge on one side and Sugarhole Sand on the other, leading up to Northwick Oaze, the mudflats which continue to the pier under Aust Cliff, from where the Aust Ferry used to ply, right up until the 1966 opening of the first bridge.  It is amazing to think that only 45 years ago, the only way to cross the Severn below Gloucester was via this route.  The shore is dotted with grassy tussocks; ice on the Pill that formed at high tide now flops down amongst the vegetation.  The grassy meadows are frosted, scavenged by flocks of Fieldfare while Dunlin and Oystercatchers scour the stones and mud.  A well-wrapped fisherman tries his luck and dog walkers steam up and down the footpaths.  The Severn way continues on from here right to the source of the river, some two hundred and ten miles in all.  It is one of the longest way-marked walking trails in Britain, offering exceptional access to areas of historical and ecological interest, and providing endless opportunities for observing bird life.

Perhaps another day!  I turn back towards Severn Beach, facing down towards Portishead and the Ocean, and the hills of Gordano.  Nearer the village the signs of habitation increase: “No cycling,” “Safety Notice:  No Parking - Area must be kept clear for emergency vehicles;” “Danger – Razor Wire.” The birds on the mud flats pursue their prey regardless; likewise the fishermen.  It is peaceful and, despite the changes all around, it is timeless.  Severn Beach has changed, and is still changing.  There are neat rows of modern houses, shops and caravan parks.  The Post Mistress assures me that there are wonderful sunsets, information she delivers with pride.  It seems a calm and settled place, even the loss of the local pub to more housing development does not seem to have caused outrage:  the nearest pub now is at Pilning, a couple of miles away – what’s a couple of miles? 

As I wait for the bus to return to the train at Avonmouth, I notice that passing drivers do not seem to be wearing seatbelts.  I board the bus, which is helpfully provided with lap restraints, but notice that the driver does not wear his.  I am the only passenger.  As we draw away, the rivers fall behind me: rivers of traffic over the bridges, the river Severn, the river of time.