From the archives... this is an account of a canoeing trip from Severn Beach to Chepstow that Richard and I did, ten years ago. Serialised, for ease of digestion.
Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4
The canoe seemed tatty but chiefly sound. We took it to Bristol Harbour to test it. Ten yards out, the blade of my paddle snapped off. Thrown off balance, I dropped the remainder of the paddle. Richard back-paddled, but both parts had sunk without trace. We meandered about in the freshening breeze, getting splashed by the odd overenthusiastic wavelet. The sky turned even more grey than it had been. Odd drops of rain spattered us. It was a cheerless prospect. But we didn't sink. So we went to a dockside pub instead, and toasted our endeavour. Richard, at least, seemed sanguine. I was being ambivalent, although I wasn't going to let on. I thought of the words to the old Royal Flying Corps song, "...a drink to the dead already, Hurrah for the next man who dies."
People have been going to Wales by boat from Bristol for ages. Just up the way from where I live in Bristol, at Sea Mills, or Abonae as they called it, the Romans did it, initially as part of their vigorous foreign policy, biffing the Silures, the Celtic tribe of the Fisher Kings, who occupied the south east corner of the country and looked out from their hilltop fastnesses across the rich coastal plain to the Severn, or Hafren, at once a barrier and a handy source of food. The Silures took some beating; they were defeated under Caradoc in 51 AD, but were still being turbulent until Agricola moved west in 78 AD, when, it is to be presumed, they stopped their nonsense and settled down under the Pax Romana.
Time passed, but there was not necessarily much improvement in the cross-channel service. When Daniel Defoe wrote, in 1724, of his journey to Wales from Bristol, he told how he opted to go the long way round via Gloucester rather than risk
...an ugly, dangerous, and very inconvenient ferry over the Severn, to the mouth of the Wye; namely, at Aust; the badness of the weather, and the sorry boats, at which, deterred us from crossing there.
He was not alone in his misgivings; in the early 18th century, an alternative service was inaugurated from Chissell Pill, just north of Bristol, to Black Rock in Monmouthshire. It was called the New Passage. (The Aust service, naturally enough, became known as the Old Passage.) By 1820, the New Passage service had gained the contracts for carriage of the mail. Reliability remained a problem, though; and the mail did not always reach the Welsh side promptly enough for the Milford Haven coach which carried despatches from London for the Irish packet. A Select Committee was convened to look into the problem. They found in favour of the Old Passage, improved by the construction of stone piers and the introduction of a steam vessel; the wisdom of their choice was demonstrated in 1839, when the sailing packet Jane was lost there with all hands in a squall. In 1855 came another disaster with serious loss of life. Then in 1864 the Great Western Railway opened a steam ferry at the New Passage, and the Aust ferry closed down, not to re-open until 1927.
Richard had finished his cigarette, but the butt was keeping us company, bobbing companionably alongside as we idled further, crunching barley sugar to keep our blood sugar levels up. It was a fine day, and we were in no hurry for the moment, having already crossed the invisible dividing line and entered, as it were, Welsh territorial waters. They didn't seem that different from English territorial waters. Nor, for that matter, did the shore which we had left look much different from the shore to which we were headed, beneath the superficial differences; a steelworks here, a nuclear power station there, a chemical works over there. Between the business parks and the burgeoning housing estates on both sides lay similar water meadows, grazed by similar cattle, separated by similar hedges of thorn and withy, intersected by similar rhines in which similar herons stood impassively.
go to Part 3