I've long wanted to see the Severn Bore, the 'tidal wave' that occasionally funnels up the lower reaches of the River Severn. The strongest bores occur around the spring tides in late winter and early autumn, with waves graded on a five point scale according to predicted height. There haven't been any five star bores since 2010, so this weekend's 5* seemed the ideal time to head down to Gloucestershire and enjoy a particularly rare spectacle.
Well, that was the plan, anyway. Unfortunately it's rained so much this year that the Severn is much higher than usual, which means there's not so much space in the channel for a bore to form. What should have been a rollicking wave turned out to be rather lower than predicted, a 'roller' rather than a 'breaker', and didn't extend as far inland from the estuary as it normally might. But I managed to see enough, in a variety of locations, to get a good idea of what the bore involves. And by being in the wrong place at the right time, I managed to get my foot on television.
There are only a limited number of places along the lower Severn from which the bore is visible. Most of the banks are privately owned, any public footpaths are at risk of overtopping, and parking is often very difficult. So one of the best spots, along what's usually the best stretch of river, is a pub near Minsterworth - the appropriately named Severn Bore Inn. Most of the year this is a quiet cosy pub on the Chepstow road, but when bores are predicted the place springs into action with its own bespoke catering plan. In February and March the highest bores are on the morning tide, so are accompanied by a serve-it-yourself breakfast option with sausages, bacon, the lot. You have to book in advance or you don't get in, but allcomers can grab a pre-9am drink at the bar and wander through into the pub garden.
A raised bank at the foot of the garden forms part of the levée that protects the people of Minsterworth from tidal flooding. Upon this is some decking overlooking a bend in the river, with a pair of floodlights installed to permit viewing of any after-dark bores. Arriving early proved a bonus because there was plenty of opportunity to grab a prime spot by the railings before the breakfasters finished eating. But several of the best locations had been already been taken by various media crews, who'd pinpointed Minsterworth as Sunday's most likely epicentre of bore/flooding news and had parked up their vans outside in number. Sky News were here, and the lady from BBC Gloucestershire, plus the Channel 4 team who'd been here the previous evening and were back for an update. Also present was the journalist Sophie Long, striding through the mud in high length boots, preparing for her live slot later on the BBC News channel.
Slowly the water filled with kayakers and paddleboarders, intrepid souls willing to clamber into wintry water in wetsuits for the opportunity to ride an inland wave. One had his dog aboard and a camera on his helmet, presumably hoping for YouTube fame. The Severn flowed by, with the occasional branch or larger chunk of tree heading downstream, as people waited patiently for the appointed time. The bore was late. Apparently it's rarely bang on schedule, and the later it arrives the less powerful it's likely to be. And so it proved, as a semi-perceptible hump slowly appeared around the bend. The rowers and boarders bobbed in the water but weren't propelled forwards, not unless they'd positioned themselves by the banks where the wave front broke. Those standing on the lower banks outside the pub garden got splashed, while the rest of watched the wobble with mounting sense of "oh, was that it?"
Many left at this point, or returned to the pub for more drinks or breakfast. But many stayed to watch what happened next - the tidal surge. After the bore has passed the river changes direction, flowing fast and ever higher upstream. It's the fastest rise in river level I've ever seen, more than ten feet in less than an hour, creeping up the banks at an inexorable pace. First the water reached the foot of the neighbouring banks, then it rose steadily higher towards the top of the embankment. Several Environment Agency officials were ready with a big pump, a severe flood warning having been issued earlier, and warned spectators to leave as the tidal surge continued. We felt comfortably safe on our high raised decking, and watched as Sophie started her first live piece to camera with all the action behind.
But the Severn continued to rise. It smothered the top of the metal railings you can see in the photo above, then overtopped the levée where the EA pumpers were busy, trickling down the lane beyond and flooding three of the houses beyond. Dave Nash's house had only flooded once in 100 years before 2014, but Sunday brought yet another inundation, and this time as the national media watched. And then the water lapped over the grass in front of our high vantage point, before seeping through the fence to create a long puddle where people had previously been standing. We watched as it rose to one end of the inclined decking and continued to edge ever closer. As Sophie began her full eight minute report the Environment Agency chief she was about to interview suggested that the the rest of us abandon our riverside hump and take refuge down the bank on the other side of the pub garden. So we did.
And then the pub garden flooded. Water had crept round from the other breach and flowed in through the fence, creating a small lake between the embankment and the back of the pub. Sophie continued her piece, pointing out the evacuated decking and interviewing intrepid surfers in padded thongs, as late stragglers waded through the freshly appeared pool of water. Those attempting to exit the pub then found that the car park out front had also flooded - an easy escape for those in wellies, but less straight-forward for those less well prepared. I watched a Sky News cameraman striding back from Dave's house through the flood, and discovered later he'd been taking pictures of my feet as a yellow 4×4 drove by.
During the last big bore on 3rd January the pub had nearly flooded, but on this occasion the water stopped 9cm lower before receding, and no major clean-up operation was required. And yet while catching up with the media later that evening I realised I'd been stood right at the epicentre of Sunday's UK Flood News. Sophie's report entitled "River rises 'in two minutes' as BBC team watches", was one of the most watched videos on the BBC News website that day, second only to an overdosed American actor. And yet the bore had been a major disappointment, a bit of a car park and a pub garden had flooded, and a handful of houses had endured temporary low level inundation. This wasn't really news, but had become news because that's where all the media organisations had sent their journalists, and because the TV cameras had a few good shots of rising flood water. I apologise for not being in any genuine danger.
An after dark bore is a completely different beast. In the autumn these are the highest bores but in February lower than their daytime counterparts, so this was a mere three star compared to the morning's five. A much smaller crowd had turned up, many of them local youth rather than long distance travellers, and there was no planned food option in the pub, just a friendly fireside atmosphere. It was very cold out on the decking, long since drained after the tide receded, as we waited for the bore to arrive. The pub's floodlights sort-of picked out the wave's approach, as it kersploshed like a strong sea breaker against the river wall. But again January's excess rainfall meant there wasn't room in the channel for the bore to develop properly and the spectacle was more of a damp squib.
Monday 3rd February, 9.17am (4* bore, 10.2m) Riverside car park, Newnham-on-Severn
Newnham's only a six minute drive from Minsterworth but a lot further down the Severn thanks to some extremely winding meanders. The river's much wider here, roughly Thames-at-Westminster width, so this isn't usually the optimum viewing point. The rules change during times of flood, however, so Newnham's the site for any surf-the-borephotos you may have seen in your newspaper recently. Not so many brave souls turned up yesterday, it no longer being the weekend, but a hard core dozen were out in their wetsuits with paddles aloft. Newnham's on a huge bend so spectators get five minutes advance warning of the bore's arrival, plus five further minutes to watch as it rushes upstream. This time, I was delighted to see, the bore was actuallya wave, breaking in a V-shape in the centre of the river. Nothing enormous, nothing to propel watersporters a mile forward, but a proper breaker all the same. I felt like I'd finally seen the phenomenon I'd come so far to view, but floody February had certainly conspired to diminish the experience. Ah well, maybe the 5* on Monday 3rd March will be a proper corker.