Ever heard of Sharpness? No, me neither, but friends who had visited the area told me it would be worth a look, so out came the map. From what I could see, Sharpness is an old port on the eastern bank of the River Severn, between Berkeley and Gloucester (but rather closer to the former), well upstream of the Severn Bridges. When the tide’s in, the Severn is a very broad expanse of water, well over a mile wide in places; when it’s out, a pattern of vast sandbanks emerges. And what a tide – I am told that the Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world. This strikes me a particularly British boast – we’re rather good, without being anything so showy as the best. (Pole position goes to the Bay of Fundy in Canada).
Here’s a visual – an hour after high tide
and four hours later.
Just above Sharpness, the Severn carves out a series of broad meanders and what with these, the tidal range and the sandbanks, it is not surprising that some enterprising, not to mention creative, Victorian engineers hit upon the idea of building a canal from Sharpness right up to the docks at Gloucester to make life easier for all concerned. Around 16 miles as the seagull flies. But they didn’t just make a Kennet & Avon size waterway for narrow boats, just a hop, skip and a jump wide. Oh no, they went for a full blown, ocean going vessel size canal – a proper ship canal.
It’s enormous. And very deep. Apparently.
So it’ll be no surprise to hear that Sharpness at the start of this canal is anything but a quaint old harbour. Not a bijou cottage, fishermen’s inn or shop selling wooden seagulls in sight. Gloucester’s merchant marine past may be far behind it but down here there are all the indicators of a working port – big trucks dashing about, constant noise and lots of signs saying Keep Out.
The high tide had just brought in the Groningen-registered Ijselldijk from Santander, laden with cement, according to a helpful notice and the Westewind from Riga and the Beaumare from Ravenna are expected in the next couple of weeks (animal feed, both). Everything about the place was on a giant scale, making for a rather surreal sight in the middle of Gloucestershire.
To the walk. For the first couple of miles the Gloucester and Sharpness canal sticks pretty close to the Severn, meaning that there’s not much dry land between the two – just room for a towpath and then, over the wall, the saltmarshes. I was soon out of earshot of Sharpness and the only noises were the birds, the rippling of the falling tide out in the river and, across the Severn the whining of a chainsaw and the occasional hoots of a passing train bizarrely loud given the distance and the distorting effects of sound passing over water.
Round the corner and then there was this.
Turns out it’s the remnants of a railway bridge that once crossed the Severn at this point.
Here it is back in the day
and here’s the vista today.
I’m going to refer you to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severn_Railway_Bridge if you want to know more about the series of worst case scenarios which built up and up and led to its inevitable destruction, because I want to focus – yet again – on the creativity of the Victorian engineers who so often made things both useful and beautiful.
Doesn’t this remnant of the bridge remind you of Rapunzel’s tower?
Creativity – actual or inspired – turned out to be quite a theme of this walk, to the extent that I’ll come back to much more of what I saw in another post. But here’s some more engineering ingenuity to end with…
Hidden away on the river side of the unassuming village of Purton is a graveyard. A ships’ graveyard to be precise. It turns out that back in 1909 the extreme closeness of canal and river was causing concern. The sliver of land which separated the two – and thus kept the canal operational – was in danger of being eroded away. In an elegantly imaginative bit of repurposing, old vessels were towed up river, run aground where required, then scuttled and left to fill with silt and form part of the palimpsest of the riverbank. The resulting array of hulks features wartime concrete barges somehow piled up on each other,
the bare ribs of nineteenth century schooners,
the remnants of something more workaday,
and even the carefully recorded fragment of a ship reclaimed by the sea.
The Purton Hulks are an extraordinary sight, fascinating on a sunny day and undoubtedly gloriously atmospheric on a foggy one. Well worth another visit – but maybe I’ll wait until the pub’s open next time.
Over to you – do you enjoy poking around industrial relics when you’re out and about? Or do you prefer to keep it strictly rural?