Time and Tide

In which The Author witnesses a wonder of the natural world

At about 8.30 on the evening of 19 September, I was standing in a churchyard in Gloucestershire, a stone’s throw from the A48, trying to photograph some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I’ve seen for a long time. Here’s one of them:

Stained Glass 3

These magnificent lanterns were illuminated from behind, throwing kaleidoscopic rays over the gravestones and memorials to the south of the church. Unusually for a Saturday night, St Peter’s Church in the parish of Minsterworth had its doors open and people were drifting in and out.
I wasn’t alone in my pilgrimage to this place. I was accompanied by two old pals, Huw F. and Gaz. We’d driven up from Aberdare to witness one of the wonders of the natural world – the Severn Bore. I’ve wanted to see it for years, but it hadn’t occurred to me to try and make the journey for myself until a couple of weeks ago.
Shanara and I were chatting online, and she mentioned that she’d be glad when Ramadan was over. (She likes her food!) It got me thinking about the coming new moon, and its proximity to the autumn equinox. I checked a couple of websites about the Severn Bore, and found that one of the highest tides of the year was due in about ten days.
I decided to try and organise a trip from Aberdare, and asked a number of friends if they’d like to come. Initially we had enough people interested to make a minibus trip a possibility. Unfortunately, it became a typical Aberdare trip, so in the event only the three of us set off.
It was getting dark as we drove through Chepstow, and even armed with Ordnance Survey maps and my pretty decent sense of direction, we managed to take a couple of wrong turnings on the way. We passed through some beautiful villages, but it was too dark to appreciate them properly. I’m going to go back some time soon and explore them in the daytime.
We drove into Minsterworth, not really sure where we were going until I spotted a sign for Church Lane. While filming the BBC series Coast, Nicholas Crane had made his way to Minsterworth Church to watch the Bore for himself, so that was what I’d suggested. I’d been looking out for a spire or tower, but the church was tucked away off the main road – we’d never have found it without the signpost.
By the time we arrived, the car park was pretty full. Huw managed to tuck in at the end of a line of cars, and we set off to explore. On the way, we met some more people who’d come up to witness the spectacle for themselves. I’d noticed a footpath signposted off Church Lane as we drove down, so we made our way down and were greeted by a chap in a high-visibility jacket. He was handing out information leaflets about the Severn Bore, and told us that we could expect to see it at about 9.21 pm. We had plenty of time to explore, so I went off to have a closer look at the church.
St Peter’s Church has an ancient foundation, but the present building only dates from 1870. It was too dark for a proper examination of the exterior architecture, but there was no chance of missing the late Victorian visual interpretation of the scriptures. I managed to take a couple of pictures of carvings around the north door.

Bishop of Gloucester

Charles John Ellicott, D.D, Bishop of Gloucester & Bristol

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria

St Peter

St Peter, statue commissioned for the millennium celebrations

I had a look at a Minsterworth community website when we got back. Apparently the church was rebuilt on higher ground, after the previous building kept flooding at high tide. And it was this same high tide which had attracted us, and all the other visitors, to this village.
I went into the church and found a couple of dozen people of all ages sitting around. Several villagers were serving tea and biscuits from the tower room. The Severn Bore was featured on the local news and in the newspapers that weekend, so people had driven from far and wide to see it for themselves. It’s quite a tourist attraction, and brings large numbers of people into the village. It’s no wonder that the locals go out of their way to make them feel at home.
I made my way back to the riverbank, where probably a hundred or so people had assembled to await the arrival of the tidal wave. By now, according to my reckoning, the sea would have started funnelling up the estuary, several miles downstream. It was pitch dark, and I wandered along the path until I heard a couple of familiar voices and spotted Huw’s red jacket. The chap we’d spoken to earlier had mentioned the possibility of the river being floodlit as the wave passed, but there was no sign of any floodlighting. We all began to wish we’d brought torches. Some people were better prepared than others, with torches, portable stools, and even picnics.
A few yards away, the waters of the Severn drifted slowly past, the surface undisturbed by the slightest breeze. It had been a pretty dry couple of weeks, so the river was low. The arrival time and size of the wave are affected by a number of factors, including the amount of water in the river and the prevailing wind.
More out of hope than any real expectation of a decent recording, I set up my camcorder near the shoreline and tried a quick shot over the water. It was hopeless – there was no light at all. Meanwhile, Gaz and Huw were talking to a local chap who’d come along to see the Bore in the morning. He told them that just ahead of the wavefront, three powerboats had come racing up the river, churning up the surface and spoiling the spectacle for everyone on the riverbank. Maybe we’d made the right decision. After all, we weren’t here to see surfers and powerboaters strutting their stuff. We were here to watch the incredible power of Nature in the raw.
At about 9.30 or so, an object drifted slowly past, half-submerged in the water. It was on the far side, and looked like a box, but it was hard to tell. Further down the bank, some people were checking their watches. The minutes ticked by, and the floating object moved slowly out of sight. That’s part of the enduring mystery of the Severn Bore. It’s an entirely predictable part of the calendar. The Environment Agency even produces a brochure telling people when the best tides will occur throughout the year. However, Mother Nature keeps her own schedule, and it’s a woman’s privilege to be late.
At about 9.40 I heard a faint rushing sound coming from the west. People standing downstream started to raise their voices as the sea approached. Even in the darkness, my eyes made out the oncoming wave. The noise grew louder as the seconds ticked by.
In less than thirty seconds, the river was totally transformed. The slow clear westbound water of the Severn was obliterated by a yellowish-grey wave, thrusting its way towards Gloucester. The Bore wasn’t as high as it might have been, but there’s no denying the awesome power of the phenomenon as it tears up the tranquil river and throws the accepted order of things into complete reverse. A few seconds later, the object I’d seen bobbing gently downstream came past again, borne rapidly eastwards by an onrushing current of sediment-rich seawater.
By day, this long straight stretch of the Severn is a slow, idyllic lowland English river. In less than two minutes it had been transformed into a seething, uninviting brownish arm of the Atlantic Ocean. In the wake of the Bore came empty plastic bottles and other riverside detritus. Behind them were larger objects – household rubbish, rotting branches, and even entire trees – which had lain by the riverside before being swept up by the tide.
The ancient Celtic people knew this phenomenon as ‘The Roaring Wave.’ Apparently the first Roman soldiers to witness it were so terrified by its sudden appearance that they turned tail and fled. Two millennia later, even though we understand the mechanics of the solar system, and our computer programs enable us to predict its appearance to within a narrow margin of error, it still stirs something primitive within the souls of the people who come to see it.
We waited for a few minutes before returning to the car. The other onlookers were drifting away too, satisfied with having seen this strange sight for themselves. We drove back down the A48 to the appropriately named Severn Bore Inn, a mile or so away, and stopped in there for a pint. The beer garden overlooks a broad stretch of the river, so we sat by the fence and watched the churning waters, as fallen trees and other debris continued to flow upstream.
A light drizzle started to fall, so we went back inside. I got out the OS map to show the boys exactly where we’d been, and where we were in relation to it. A local chap stopped at our table and had a look at the map as well. He told us that he’s seen the Bore several times, and every time it’s different.
We stayed in the pub until nearly 11.00, but before we left we went back into the beer garden to see whether the tide had turned. The sea was still making its way towards Gloucester, but with less force than previously. It was approaching its equilibrium point, at which point the waters of the Severn wrest control of their territory from the sea, and force the salt water back down to the Bristol Channel. This uneasy conflict takes place with clockwork regularity, and the outcome is always certain – but the dynamic of the battle is never the same twice.
From our point of view as casual observers, Huw, Gaz and I can’t wait for the new Arrowsmith’s Tide Tables to be published, so that we can plan our next expedition. And this time, we’re taking a busload …
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