The river that flows backwards.

The first day I slipped down the muddy banks of the river Severn donned in wetsuit and board under my arm I could have never imagined what a journey of discovery lay before me, I was there just to catch an unusual wave, but the river was going to show me so much more.

That first grey day, I missed the bore but was astonished and alarmed to find myself being swept away by the immense current that follows, what I now know to be, the ‘head of the tide’. I paddled desperately to reach the bank and went whizzing past my entry point as the trees sped by. As panic started to subside I reasoned that it was ok as I was being swept inland not out to sea and therefore the river would get narrower and the worst that would happen was a long walk. As I clutched at the passing rocks and hauled myself and board out of the chocolaty water I knew I had to find out what other surprises the river held for me.

The of the questions I had to answer was, why does the river flow backwards? I could understand that it was the tide, but why was it going so fast, why was it making a wave and what is the tide?

The quest to answer these questions led me to meet some amazing people. Tom Wright, was a regular bore surfer, had studied philosophy, set up the Tidal Bore Research Society and the Bore Riders Club – he had all the answers for me. He explained that the tides are caused by the rotation of the earth. When the moon and Sun line up their combined gravitational pull creates bulges in the oceans (imagine an egg shape). These are held stationary in space and as the world rotates the landmasses crash into the bulges and the water is forced inland. This means that when you are on the beach and you have to move your towel as the tide comes in, it’s actually your beach that is moving not the tide. This is the basic concept, so why does the Severn create a wave and why does it move so fast? And why are some tides bigger than others?

Tom explained that the funnel shape of the Severn Estuary ‘scoops up’ a wide body of water and focuses it into the river. So the water from the tip of Cornwall and the tip of South Wales is ‘squirted’ up the Severn, a little like a water pistol. As this water meets the out going flow it creates a wave, technically this is called a ‘hydraulic jump’, we know it as the Severn Bore. He also showed me that we share this phenomenon with other rivers in the UK such as the Parret in Bridgewater and the Dee on the Wirrel, but the Severn is our biggest one. Other parts of the world such as China and the Amazon have huge bore waves and in France a spectacular and fast moving wave travels up the Dordogne and Garrone. Amazingly up until the early sixties a bore of up to 4m traveled regularly up the Seine. It was lost due to canal works at the entrance to the river and is a great loss to the region. We were later to travel to France to share their wave and they have visited the Severn. This international friendship spawned an expedition to the Amazon to surf the famed ‘Pororoca’. It was an expedition of three Englishmen, three Frenchmen and three Brazilians and has bonded the three rivers with common traditions.

So why different sized tides? Tom got into great technical details involving baffling words such as ‘peregrinations’ and ‘declinations’ of the moon. Simply put, the moon is in an elliptical orbit so some times it’s closer to the earth thus exerting a stronger pull and lifting the bulge of water higher. All this amazing solar system activity is the power beneath my feet every time I surf our magnificent Severn Bore.

Whilst surfing I discovered that the tide brings more that just surfboards up the river. This was shown to me by a Grey Mullet leaping out of the wave and draping its silver body across my feet as I sped past Broad Oak. Over the roar of the tide I shouted to my friend, Steve King, with amazement. He smiled sagely and nodded. Steve has surfed the river for almost 30 years and was once the world record holder for the longest surf. This is now held by our friend, Segio Laus, in the Amazon. Yet Steve managed a ride of 7.3 miles in 2006. Steve’s Grandparents ran the last ferry across the tidal Severn at Elmore Back and his other Grandparents worked boats on the Sharpness canal – it seems that his blood runs brown. The tradition of bore surfing was started on the Severn by Colonel ‘Mad’ Jack Churchill in 1955. On another occasion a Harbour Porpoise followed me up the river as I surfed. The tide also delivers a bounty in the way of Elvers (baby eels) and surprisingly Salmon.

My perception of the river had always been one of a rather savage and wild place. I was intrigued to find out it nurtured such a wealth of life. I needed to find out more, so tracked down, John Powell, secretary of the Netsman Association. He has a glint in his eye and seems to ‘feel’ what is going on in the Severn with his heart. He is full of a gentle passion for his river and I have often found him sitting on his bench over looking the river spotting Salmon and full of a soft rapture for the life that surrounds him. He leads his life to the rhythm of the tides. He explained how the method of catching Salmon on the Severn is ancient and unique. Conical traps about four feet long are woven from hazel and willow. These are placed in the river in ‘weirs’ or ‘ranks’. In the past they could have contained hundreds of individual traps called ‘putchers’. Amazingly you can see these traps in garden centres. We now use them to grow sweet peas up and I think people would be astonished to know they are actually vestigial Salmon traps! In the river, the wide end of the trap points inland. As the tide comes in the traps are submerged. As the tide recedes Salmon that have not made it up to the safety of deep water are swept back downstream and into the open end of the putcher. As the water level continues to drop the fish are left high and dry and you can walk out across the mud and retrieve them.

John told me that the rights to fish in this way are hereditary and it was not until the 1400’s did his family have to prove they had rights. His family has held the ‘riparian rights’ to the horseshoe bend around Newnham since then. Every year the Salmon men catch around 700 ‘fish’ as a salmon are known using the traps and the athletic ‘Lave net’, which is held over the shoulder and the fish are chased at low tide. The salmon men, using their knowledge of the river, leap from sandbar to sandbar to intercept their prize. These traditions once sustained the independent and hard working families of the Severn.

With the coming of the railways in the 1800’s, a wider market was available and the fishing effort increased. In 1860, 28,000 Salmon were caught in one season in the tidal section alone. It was deemed that this level of activity was unsustainable and fishing was regulated to traditional areas and level and new traps were removed. So sustainability is not a new idea!

I met, Nick Bull, from Awre who makes Severn Cider and is also a Salmon man. One beautiful early morning, nurturing a post party hangover, I joined him at the river to empty his traps. This has to be done at low tide which can be at any time day or night. Luckily it was about 7am on a Sunday morning so not too bad! I was expecting to just help him clear his catch of sea weed. This builds up in the traps to a point that the drag created can pull the whole structure over. To our delight there were three shining salmon in the putcher rank. Nick was thrilled and said I had brought good luck as well as a hangover. It was a deep privilege to become a tiny part in this ancient tradition that goes back maybe 4,000 years.

All these amazing discoveries on a river that most turn their back on! Traveling to other estuaries one thing that really struck me was that China, the Amazon and France all celebrate their rivers and bores. In China ancient temples are dedicated to the tides and thousands of people line the banks to see the arrival of the ‘Black Dragon’. In France, hundreds both surf and watch the ‘Mascaret’ progress upstream. The roads are closed and parking is organised. The towns benefit from it and the crowds are well catered for, including plumbing in showers on the slip way for surfers to wash the mud off. In the Amazon, the streets are alive with music and dancing as everyone welcomes the ‘Pororoca’. It was this and the discoveries made during my time in and around the river that inspired me to organize a little event called ‘The Magnificent Severn’. This was held near Over last August and we brought the best of the river to one place to show what an amazing asset we have in the heart of Gloucestershire. There was music and story telling all day, salmon men gave talks and demonstrations, the surfers told of Severn and travels to distant bores, there was cutting edge tidal power technology which could give the river a living future as well as generating electricity and drinks flowed from the local cider bar. My ambition is for a river wide festival with events triggered by the tide. This year we will be running the event for three days to coincide with a ‘4 star’ bore.

One day, I would like to drive into Gloucester and see a sign that reads, ‘Welcome to Gloucester, home of the Severn Bore’.

Stuart Ballard.

August 26–29th

On the Awre Peninsula

Four days celebrating the River Severn

The River, music, surf, ecology, talks, heritage, food, film, art, camping.

Bar and bands till 2am

Kindly supported by: Severn Cider, Ballard Creative.





The Severn BoreThe_Severn_bore.html
Last year’s eventSee_what_we_did_last_year.html
Bore TimesTide_times.html
The Severn BoreThe_Severn_bore.html
Apples and ciderApples_and_cider.html
About usAbout_us.html
Why - an essay
Latest NewsThe_Magnificent_Severn.html