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
Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4
Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, the advent of steam had increased the degree of reliability of transport up and down the estuary. Several city-to-city shipping services were up and running; the St George Steam Packet, which called in at Tenby on its way from Bristol to Ireland; the Merthyr Packet, which sensibly ran from Bristol not to Merthyr but to Cardiff; and the Bristol and Chepstow Steam Packet, whose 'fast-sailing iron steam packet WYE' offered a passage in under two hours for anything from a foot passenger (1s 6d) to a four-wheel carriage (15s), and a linked coach service to Monmouth. But the timetabling of the services was, as ever, subject to the tides.
Then came the railway tunnel. Construction began in 1873, and, despite serious flooding when a huge underground spring was struck near Sudbrook, followed by inundation by a tidal wave in 1883, passenger services began in 1886 "without fuss or demonstration of any kind... with a freedom from smell truly marvellous." This spelt the end for ferry services, which would not revive until motor vehicles started making their presence felt.
Messing about in boats became a popular recreational activity, though. In 1887, P&A Campbell moved to Bristol from the Clyde, where their passenger service had likewise been rendered obsolete by the railway. They operated a fleet of paddle steamers, which ran into pretty well all the Bristol Channel ports until 1971, when they withdrew from the upper Channel. Today a summer pleasure cruise service is provided by Balmoral, an old Clyde motor ferry; and, occasionally, Waverley, a paddle steamer from that same region.
We Britons are proverbially endowed with a genius for queueing; looking at old photos of the
steamers, one sees this genius in its expression. Long, long ranks of trippers stand stoically along quaysides and decks from Bristol to Barry (not in one continuous queue, obviously), awaiting their turn to embark or disembark. Scarcely to be wondered at, then, that, when motoring became affordable to the masses, those masses took readily to the relative freedom of the road. The native genius could not be kept down, though; presently, the little ferry boats carrying cars across the Aust Passage enjoyed their own ranks of stoic supplicants. Queues, now, for the Modern Age; at once in close proximity to our fellow citizens, and cut off from them, ensconced in their beloved motor cars. Presently the passengers were able to entertain themselves, while awaiting their turn on the boat, by watching the construction of the new Bridge, right there above them. When the Bridge opened, in 1966, people came in their cars from miles away for the privilege of queuing up to drive across it. And then off they went to queue somewhere else. Until so many of them were doing it, that the Bridge itself became a bottleneck, and a second one was deemed necessary. And behold, in 1996 it too opened. But this time, not so many people came to queue up for the first mad scramble to, or from, Wales. Alas, we are become old and cynical. Campbell
Back at the observation platform at Aust, I wiped the lenses of my field glasses, which had become spattered with rain, and looked again at the little boat chugging to and fro just below the Bridge. From the pier where the electricity pylon hefted its lines far above the water; across to the islet at Beachley Point where the ruined chapel of St Tecla failed to look romantic; then round and back again. What was he up to? Taking soundings? Practicing for an invasion? Well, whatever; who could say; we had problems of our own.
Richard peered glumly through another pair of glasses. P, my partner and, for the purposes of this expedition, transport manager, turned in disgust from the coin-in-slot binoculars which she had just fed, and which had repaid her with a fuzzy and not-very-magnified view. Sprout snuffled in her harness, snug inside my coat, and dislodged her hat. We were a ghastly crew. I thought of that bit in the film "The Battle of Britain", when the head Nazis stand on a clifftop in the Pas de Calais and peer at England through their great big binoculars, smacking their lips all the while in a Hunnish sort of way. I hoped that our projected expedition would enjoy better success than their little venture.
From the south-west came a vigorous breeze, which felt every bit of the Force 4 which had been foretold on the shipping forecast that morning. It harried the grey clouds towards us. It chivvied the flood tide in the direction of Gloucester. Round the bridge piers, the grey water eddied and churned into a lighter shade of grey. The distant hills were grey, before they became blotted out by the mist. Only the complex of chimneys and inscrutable tall structures at the Avonmouth chemical works, a few miles downstream, failed to look soluble; but they made up for this with the vapours which emerged from their top ends and contributed to the general airborne greyness.
The plan had been to launch the canoe at the old Aust ferry slip. It being four miles from there to Chepstow bridge, I figured we'd need an hour to get there, and that, if we started an hour before high water, we'd be carried up the Wye on the dying flood. It was now apparent that this would be impossible, a prognosis which confirmed the admonitory tone of my Bristol Channel tide table;
"In position 51º 36'N; 2º 36'W* (The Shoots), Tidal Streams attain between 3 and 8 knots. There is virtually no slack water period."
At least we could savour the descriptive nature of place names like 'The Shoots', whence the tidal stream was even now being propelled up through the straits towards Whirls End, a point a little beyond the Hen and Chickens, a rock formation the inspiration for whose nomenclature required a prodigious leap of imagination; and then, should the water, having tired of whirling, choose to veer to the left a little, it would find itself travelling along the enticingly-named Slime Road, hard by Sedbury Cliffs. As, indeed, should we, were we foolish enough to try paddling from Aust.
An alternative plan suggested itself. The turbulent and fast-flowing nature of the water here was exacerbated by the constriction of the river at this point; a mile from shore to shore, rather than the two miles or so which were more the norm for some distance both upstream and downstream. Were we to launch from New Passage, a few miles down the coast, we could paddle in a north westerly direction; the tide would carry us to the north east; and, in the elegant way of those vector triangles which were such fun to draw in long-ago maths lessons, we should find ourselves propelled rapidly to the north, straight up the Wye to Chepstow.
go to Part 4
* I would not knowingly reproduce incorrect information without qualifying it. These co-ordinates actually give the position of a field between Aust and Littleton upon Severn, Gloucestershire. The field contains an electricity pylon and the Old Splott Rhine. The Shoots may be found at 51º 34' 30"N, 2º 42'W. I am a bit of a pedant, as you see.