The complete guide: The River Severn

Did you know you can surf up Britain's longest river on a tidal wave at this time of year? Natural phenomena aside, there are many good reasons to follow its course

The river
Where does the severn flow?

Britain's longest river begins its journey at a boggy spot just over 1,968ft above sea level on Plynlimon in the Cambrian mountains. The source is marked by two huge wooden posts, one inscribed in Welsh and one in English. From there, it descends into the agricultural valleys of eastern Wales and crosses the Shropshire plain, becoming tidal to the north of Gloucester. Two hundred and twenty miles from its source, the river fans out to form the Severn Estuary before flowing through the Bristol Channel. The Severn's tributaries include the Teme, Stour, Wye, Vyrnwy, Tern and Avon.

The river Where does the severn flow?

Britain's longest river begins its journey at a boggy spot just over 1,968ft above sea level on Plynlimon in the Cambrian mountains. The source is marked by two huge wooden posts, one inscribed in Welsh and one in English. From there, it descends into the agricultural valleys of eastern Wales and crosses the Shropshire plain, becoming tidal to the north of Gloucester. Two hundred and twenty miles from its source, the river fans out to form the Severn Estuary before flowing through the Bristol Channel. The Severn's tributaries include the Teme, Stour, Wye, Vyrnwy, Tern and Avon.

What happens on the Severn?

Historically, the Severn was an important trade artery, used to transport anything from alcohol and tobacco to iron and coal. Sadly, though, the last grain barges on the Severn have now been laid up, and river traffic today is composed mostly of pleasure boats. Watery events on the Severn include dragon-boat racing and river festivals. From 23-26 August, the 12th annual water festival takes place at Upton upon Severn in Worcestershire ( www.upton.uk.net). Land-based attractions include street entertainment, face-painting, a falconry display and ferret racing. Perhaps the most dramatic sight on the Severn, however, is the spectacular phenomenon of the bore, a huge wave which sweeps upstream when tides are high.

How can I take to the water?

The Severn is navigable between Stourport and Sharpness – a distance of 50 nautical miles. The navigable route avoids the dangerous stretch of the river below Gloucester by using the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. Gloucester Leisure Cruises, based at the National Waterways Museum (01452 318012; www.nwm.org.uk), runs 45-minute boat trips from Merchants Quay, Gloucester Docks, travelling down the canal on the Queen Boadicea II. Trips leave at 12 noon and then hourly from 1.30-3.30pm and include a commentary on the landmarks that line the route (£3 per adult; £2.50 per child or OAP; £10 for a family ticket). For a longer pastoral trip, hire your own narrowboat from Viking Afloat (01905 610660; www.viking-afloat.com). Set off from Lowesmoor Wharf in Worcester and head down the river Severn to Tewkesbury where you can join the river Avon and continue towards Stratford-on-Avon. Prices vary according to the boat you choose, but typically a six-berth boat for seven nights in September costs between £800-£900.

Should I bring my hiking boots?

Definitely. The Severn Way is the longest riverside walk in Britain, tracking the river all the way from its source in Plynlimon to the sea at Bristol ( www.severnway.com). If 220 miles sounds too far, you may be relieved to learn that the route is divided up into 39 sections, so you can select a section to suit your own requirements. There are plenty of places to break your journey, including Newtown, Shrewsbury, Telford, Worcester, Tewkesbury and Gloucester. For a comprehensive guide to the complete route contact the Environment Agency in Shrewsbury (01743 272838; www.environment-agency.gov.uk/regions). The demand for accommodation in the peak summer season is high, so make sure you book in advance.

And a fishing rod?

The Severn is a fair salmon river and there are trout in the upper reaches, but it is best known for coarse-fishing, particularly for chub and barbel. Elver (young eels) are another speciality, particularly in March and April. In days gone by many elver, after drifting across the Atlantic for three long years from their place of birth in the Sargasso Sea, ended their lives at the annual Elver Eating Contest at Frampton-on-Severn. Scarcity and cost has now put an end to this event, and today most elvers are exported to continental Europe and Japan for restocking.

Will I see any wildlife?

Birders (as serious birdwatchers prefer to be known) can see buzzards, kestrels and sparrowhawks hovering above the upper reaches of the river, while otters and mink can be spotted along the banks. The mink are not native, having been imported from America in 1929 for farming purposes. Some escaped, however, and bred in the wild. The common brown rat is a less popular inhabitant. To guarantee bird sightings, stop off at Slimbridge (01453 891932, www.wwt.org.uk/visit/slimbridge/; open daily 9.30am-5pm, 4pm in winter). Overlooking internationally protected wetlands, this site is an important wintering area for migrating waterbirds. Entrance is free to WWT members, but otherwise costs £6.30 for adults, £3.80 for children, or £16.40 for a family ticket.

How do I cross the river?

There are 100 bridges across the Severn, including the eponymous Severn Bridge. There are other road bridges, railway bridges, footbridges, farm bridges, toll bridges and aqueducts. In Roman times, the Severn was seen as a useful natural defence, so few permanent bridges were built. The first records of bridge-building date from the 13th century, but none of these bridges has survived. The most famous surviving bridge is at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, in what is now known as the Ironbridge Gorge. Here Abraham Darby III, a local ironmaster, built Ironbridge ( www.ironbridge.org.uk), opened in 1781, to a design by Thomas Pritchard. Thomas Telford was responsible for many of the other major crossings, including the cast-iron Mythe Bridge and Haw Bridge.

Any cultural attractions?

Coalbrookdale has survived virtually intact since the birth of the Industrial Revolution, and for this reason the Ironbridge Gorge has now been designated a World Heritage Site. The Gorge is home to 10 museums (01952 432166; www.ironbridge.org.uk) relating to the Industrial Revolution, including a new interactive attraction called Enginuity where you can pull a real locomotive, control the flow of water to generate electricity, pitch yourself against the speed and accuracy of a robot, or work as a team to run the Crazy Boiler. Exhibits are open from 10am-5pm daily from 23 March to early September, apart from the Broseley Pipeworks which opens from 1pm-5pm. Although it is possible to buy tickets for single sites, the most economical way to see the museums is to buy a passport ticket which costs £10.50 for adults, £9.50 for over 60s and £6.50 for children and students. You can also get a family passport ticket for £32.50 (two adults and up to five children).

The National Waterways Museum (01452 318054, www.nwm.org.uk), housed in a Victorian warehouse at the Gloucester Docks, charts the history of Britain's canals. Enter through a replica lock chamber, complete with running water, as exhibits, interactive computers and videos give you a taste of what it was like to live and work on the waterways, and visit the historic boat collection. The museum is open from 10am-5pm seven days a week excluding Christmas Day; tickets cost £5 for adults, £4 for concessions and free for under fives. You can also buy a family ticket: two adults plus one, two or three children costs £12, £14 and £16 respectively.

The Severn Valley Railway ( www.svr.co.uk, 01299 403816) follows the course of the river Severn for 16 miles between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and, Bridgnorth, Shropshire, crossing the river at the 200ft Victoria bridge. The trains were once used for trade but now serve as a fun way to see the countryside around the river Severn. A return ticket from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, which gives you unlimited travel for the day and allows you to break your journey at any station, costs £10 for adults and £5 for children or £27 for a family ticket (two adults and up to four children).

Other historical points of interest along the river include Berkeley Castle (01453 810 332, www.berkeley-castle.com), open 11am-5pm Monday-Saturday; 2-5pm Sunday. It is shut every Monday in September and only open on Sunday in October. Admission to the castle and gardens costs £5.70 for adults, £3.10 for children, £4.70 for senior citizens, and £15.50 for a family ticket. Also of interest is Gloucester Cathedral (01452 528 095; www.gloucestercathedral.uk.com), open daily from 9.30am-6pm, and Tewkesbury Abbey (01684 850 959; www.tewkesburyabbey.org.uk), open daily 7am-5.30pm. The medieval town of Tewkesbury is well worth a visit. Just eight miles north-west of Cheltenham this small town is full of timber-framed buildings and narrow alleys and courts.

Where can I stay?

The White Lion, Upton upon Severn (01684 592 551): highly recommended for food; a former coaching inn that dates back to 1510, mentioned in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. Within reach of Worcester, Tewkesbury and Stratford-on-Avon. A double room with breakfast costs £82.50.

The Tewkesbury Park Hotel (01684 295 405): a manor house set in 176 acres of parkland. Facilities include its own 18-hole golf course, indoor swimming pool, gym and health and beauty salon. Double rooms with dinner, bed and breakfast start at £56 per person per night.

For those with a smaller budget, the Ironbridge Youth Hostel is an imposing alternative, offering accommodation in either the 19th-century Literary and Scientific Institute at Coalbrookdale or the old China Factory at Coalport (01952 588 755). A bed in a dorm room costs £11.25; £32 for a two-bedded room; £42 for a four-bedded room. You must be a YHA member first, which costs £13 for adults or £26 for a family ticket.

National Trust Cottages: 2 and 3 Bonemill Cottages (0870 458 4422; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cottages). Cottages sleep up to three people and are rented on a weekly basis. Prices vary depending on the time of year but are around £400 per week in August and September. It is advisable to book well in advance. Short breaks can occasionally be booked although only a couple of weeks before since priority is given to week-long bookings.

One of the world's biggest bores

When's the best time to see the severn's tidal waves?

What causes the bore? The bore is formed when the river rapidly decreases in width and depth. When the tide comes in, it forces large amounts of water into a very small space, which is then pushed upstream in a huge wave. Air pressure and wind strength and direction affect the height and timing of the bore.

When can i see the severn bore? There are about 260 bores on the Severn each year, usually two a day on about 130 days a year, around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (February to April and August to October). There are especially large bores on about 25 days a year, between 7am and noon, and between 7pm and midnight. Predicting big bores is difficult, but 8 and 9 of September and 7 October this year are good bets. A timetable can be found at www.severn-bore.co.uk.

Is it unique? Lots of rivers have bores but the Severn Bore is one of the highest in the world. The tallest is on the Ch'ient'ang'kian, a river in China.

How big is it? The bore can reach 10ft high in midstream and up to 820ft wide in sandy estuary channels.

How fast is it? At its fastest the bore can move at 13mph.

How long is it? The bore travels 21 miles from Awre to Maisemore Weir.

Can I harness the bore? Since 1955 surfers have been vying for the record for the longest bore ride. The present holder is Dave Lawson who rode the wave on a surfboard for 35 minutes over a distance of 5.7 miles.

What if I just want to watch?

Join tourists anywhere between Overton near Fretherne and Maisemore near Gloucester. Two of the best spots are at Stonebench on the east side of the river and Minsterworth on the west bank.

Research by Anthea Milnes, Laura Street, Hannah Kuchler and Elizabeth Winding

Shrewsbury's famous sons

Darwin, clive of india – and an unlucky showman

When professional showman Robert Cadman hurled himself from the top of St Mary's spire on a badly designed rope bridge in 1739, he was attempting a short cut across the Severn to the fields now used by Shrewsbury Town FC. Sadly, the rope snapped when he was half way across and the only thing cut short was his life. These days, you don't need to go to such lengths to cross the water that almost completely surrounds Shrewsbury. With three road bridges (a Welsh one, an English one and one where you have to pay a 10p toll), a railway line and footbridges, there are lots of escape routes from the capital of Shropshire.

Which is appropriate considering that throughout the town's history, people seem to have made a habit of leaving. Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury in 1809 but is now remembered only by a statue outside the library and a shopping centre that bears his name. John Benbow, meanwhile, was a tanner's son who ran away to sea in the 17th century and ended up a rear admiral. In terms of memorials, he fared better than Darwin, with the excellent Admiral Benbow pub on Swan Hill just a short stagger from the admiral's weather-worn grave in Old St Chad's churchyard.

But not all the town's residents have been so unappreciative of its attractions. Robert Clive (of India) was MP here in 1761 after returning, rich and infamous, from the east. And, more recently, Alan Titchmarsh's forerunner, Percy Thrower, remained in his hometown long enough to see the Shrewsbury Flower Show blossom into a successful annual event.

One of the best things about Shrewsbury is that much of what would have been here when its most famous sons were alive, still is. In fact, although Shrewsbury has all the features necessary for any modern town, it is ultimately a historian's nirvana. Set in true fighting territory between England and Wales, the town was originally a Saxon settlement known by the name of Scrobbesbryrig (which probably explains why residents today are still divided over whether to pronounce it "Shroosbury" or "Shrowsbury"). The Normans added a castle, the Victorians a station, the Benedictines an abbey and the prosperous Tudor wool merchants, benefiting from a surfeit of nearby Welsh sheep, some of the town's grandest buildings.

To get a feel for it, start at its hub, The Square, which has an open-sided Market Hall where trade was done until the mid-19th century. Behind this is the Music Hall, which now houses a cinema and the tourist information centre. To the side is one of Shrewsbury's most impressive half-timbered houses, Ireland's Mansion, and, opposite, Grope Lane. Named for the way people would haul themselves up through this narrow alley, it leads on across Fish Street and up Bear Steps to St Alkmund's Place.

Here, if this gentle ramble back through time has made you thirsty, stop at the Loggerheads pub to sit on an old wooden settle and sip a pint of Shropshire Gold.

Rhiannon Batten

The Shrewsbury Flower Show is on 16 and 17 August. River King runs 45-minute boat trips around the town (01743 343444). Shrewsbury Tourist Information Centre (01743 281200, www.shropshiretourism.info)

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