Many faces of despair in the Severn floodplain

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An old Welsh song tells of three sister springs that rise high on a bleak mountain, and, one evening, plan a trip to the sea.

An old Welsh song tells of three sister springs that rise high on a bleak mountain, and, one evening, plan a trip to the sea.

The next morning, the first sister sleeps late and has to rush to the sea by the fastest route. The second gets up on time and travels south but straight, while the third gets up early and takes a long, leisurely route which takes her north before she too heads south.

This third sister is the River Severn. It is Britain's longest river and this week it has fulfilled its reputation with a devastating display as the one most prone to flooding.

One local newspaper headlined a story about this week's floods - the worst for at least 50 years - "The River of Despair".

"The nature of the Severn is that it floods in different ways," said Andy Walford, the chief engineer with Worcester City Council, one of many communities along the river which has suffered this week.

"Further up from us, Shrewsbury, Bewdley and Bridgenorth are all in tight places in valleys which flood more quickly and here there is a wider flood terrace. It means in Worcester the floods arrive more slowly but stay longer." Late yesterday the severe flood warning on the river was extended as far south as Gloucester city centre.

The alert, now stretching from Bewdley in Worcestershire to south Gloucestershire, had been upgraded because of the swelling volume of water.

The source of the Severn is a vast peat bog, covered in coarse shrub grass on the northern watershed of Plynlimon near 2,427ft Machynlleth, in the Cambrian Mountains.

In Welsh, the spot is known as Blaenhafren, and a few miles to the south is the source of the River Wye. To the south-west is the source of the River Rheidol. These are the Severn's two legendary siblings.

At its start, the Severn is no more than a small brook running down through the steep and sterile conifer plantations of the sprawling Hafren Forest, but by the time it joins the Bristol Channel near Chepstow, 220 twisting miles away, it is more than a mile-and-a-half across.

After turning north, the Severn heads east into Shropshire, passing through Melverley, a village so historically prone to flooding that apocryphal stories abound of coffins being washed away from the graveyard of the 16th-century timber-framed St Peter's Church.

Yesterday the water was lapping near the headstones and villagers had been forced from their flooded homes.

"It is very distressing but what can you do?" said Sheila Williams, who was arranging temporary accommodation at the local pub. "The insurance people are being very good but we need electricians and builders to come in but they are all busy - everybody wants them."

The first major town on the Severn's route is Shrewsbury, parts of which were still closed off yesterday after the worst flooding to hit the county town since 1947.

"We always get it here first," said Derek Bliss, a retired schoolteacher enjoying a half-pint in the Swan Inn.

"It has receded but they are talking about more rain this weekend so it could get worse. But my view is that the flood defences here are cock-eyed."

The river then turns south, passing through the historic communities around the Ironbridge Gorge, cradle of Britain's industrial revolution and home to the world's first major iron bridge.

At the nearby village of Jackfield, the Boat Inn, complete with its motto "Unspoilt By Progress", had water halfway up its front door, though a sign on the door revealed the height of previous flooding - the worst being on 10 February, 1946, closely followed by 2 March, 1947.

Martin McNamara, 66, a retired electrician, who was surveying the churning waters rushing past at an estimated 20mph, said: "It might look bad but on Wednesday the water was just two inches below the highest point. I reckon it has fallen a metre since then."

Bewdley, south of Ironbridge, was one of the communities visited this week by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who saw for himself the effect of the floods which wrecked 200 properties. Yesterday the Environment Agency said 470 cubic metres of water per second was passing through the town compared to just 80 cubic metres last Friday.

A spokeswoman for the agency - which yesterday issued four severe flood warnings for the river - said: "This gives you an idea of the amount of flow the town is experiencing and we think the peak has actually passed at Bewdley.

"What happens next depends on the weather - how much rain we get, where it falls and how long it lasts."

By the time the Severn reaches Worcester, 12 miles further south and famous for its sauce and Royally-approved porcelain, the river has normally adopted a more sedate pace.

But yesterday morning soldiers from the Territorial Army were still in action, ferrying people through the floodwaters which had cut off the town's main bridge in a military truck.

One cynical observer commented that the Army's policy appeared to be to carry young, attractive women in the driver's cab while middle-aged men and their bicycles were forced to sit in the back. But it would be wrong to think of the Severn simply as the most troublesome of the three sisters.

Even today the river is an important waterway for a range of craft and it supplies water to six million people, mostly in the West Midlands conurbation and Bristol. It also supplies water for business and industrial customers including the Ironbridge B power station.

Exactly where the Severn becomes the Bristol Channel is a matter of conjecture though most maps put the mouth of the river on a parallel with Bristol. One of the last Severn villages where the river is still represented by a single blue line rather than as a broad estuary, is Westbury-on-Severn, where this week, Diana Langdon waded to work at the local Post Office through flooded fields.

"It's a regular thing," said Mrs Landon. "We get floods pretty well every winter though not like this. My point of view is that this is beautiful part of the world and this is the price you pay. It's lovely in the summer."