alder catkins, Alder tree, Berkeley, Church of St Mary the Virgin at Shepperdine, Edward Jenner, Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, mistletoe, Oldbury Nuclear Power Station, Purton Ships Graveyard, Sharpness Dock, South Gloucestershire, Tin Tabernacle
The Severn Way is a long distance walk of around 337km (210 miles) that follows the river from its source at Plynlimon in the mountains of Wales to its mouth in the Severn Estuary. A 21km (12.5 mile) section of the Severn Way lies in South Gloucestershire, exploring the estuary and lower reaches of the River Severn from Severn Beach to Hill, just north of Oldbury Power Station. The Thornbury Link is a route joining the Severn Way. The following post describes a route from Oldbury to Purton. Although we only walked from Sheerness Dock to Purton, it would have been possible to have followed the trail all the way from Bristol city centre or indeed from Severn Beach.
I spent the recent school half-term week in Bristol and was treated to a trip I have been keen to make for ages to the ‘Ships Graveyard’ at Purton, near Sharpness, located on the banks of the River Severn in Gloucestershire. The car journey there could have been straightforward, but in the time-honoured tradition of family days out, we chose to make it more interesting by take a scenic route, hoping to follow the river.
We turned off the busy A38 dual carriageway and onto the network of narrow ‘B’ roads and lanes that cut through this beautiful and historic part of the county of Gloucestershire. We knew we were somewhere around Oldbury-on-Severn, but not expecting to be confronted by the bulk of the decommissioned Oldbury Nuclear Power Station. Unable to proceed any further we turned around and headed back the way we had come and tried another turn, again a dead-end, this time terminating in a steep upward sloping concrete ramp. We got out of the car and walked up the ramp to get our bearings. We were on the river bank and the view was expansive and informative: to our left was the Nuclear Power Station again and in the far distance the ‘old’, original Severn Bridge crossing from England to South Wales. We could see we needed to be some way further up in the other direction, following the river inland, but was there a road that we could follow?
Back into the car and heading in what seemed to be the right direction, we came upon an unusual little building, close to a farm, the church of St. Mary the Virgin at the tiny hamlet of Shepperdine which lies a little north of Oldbury-on-Severn.
St. Mary’s is a tiny missionary church dating from c. 1914 and is a rare example of a Tin Tabernacle. Built of corrugated galvanised iron, not actual tin, Tin Tabernacles were developed in the 19th century to serve fast-growing urban areas and the upsurge of non-conformists as well as to be used in the colonies. Quickly assembled places of worship, the structures were designed to be temporary until more permanent stone or brick structures could be built. There are few Tin Tabernacles remaining today and the completeness of the original features of St. Mary’s, inside and out make it a particularly special place.
The farm has an orchard and many of the fruit trees were green, not with leaves though – they were laden with mistletoe.
A more unusual sight gave ‘phonebooks’ a whole new meaning… and also informed us that we were near to the village of Hill, so although slightly inland from the river we were travelling in the right direction.
HILL is a village and civil parish, midway between the towns of Thornbury and Berkeley in Gloucestershire. The parish stretches from the banks of the River Severn to an outcrop of the Cotswold escarpment. At the 2001 census, it had a population of 114, which increased to 117 according to the 2011 census. Hill has four working farms.
In the Domesday Book, Hill is recorded as ‘Hilla’ , then later between the years of 1250 to 1455 is referred to frequently as ‘Hulla’. It wasn’t until after 1773 until it was more commonly known as Hill.
A little further along the road we were met with another less-than-usual sight: two llamas in a small muddy paddock that delighted the girls, that is until the larger one reared up at the gate, placing its two front hooves on the top rail and, sending them skittering back to the safety of the car. It was surprisingly tall when standing on its back legs.
Everyone was getting hungry, so we headed into the small town of Berkeley to find lunch. The town is built on a small hill and lies on the Little Avon river which is tidal and was navigable to Berkeley and the Sea Mills at Ham until a tidal reservoir was implemented at Berkeley Pill in the late 1960s.
Berkeley was first recorded in 824 as Berclea, from the old English for ‘birch-wood tree or clearing’ and was a significant place in medieval times as a port and a market town.
THE FATHER OF VACCINATION
Berkeley was the birthplace of Edward Jenner, the originator of vaccination. Born on 17 May 1749, he was the son of the local vicar. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a local surgeon and then trained in London. In 1772, he returned to Berkeley and spent most the rest of his career as a doctor in his native town. In 1796, he carried out his now famous experiment on eight-year-old James Phipps, inserting pus taken from a cowpox pustule into an incision on the boy’s arm. His theory was based on country folklore that milkmaids who suffered the mild disease of cowpox never contracted smallpox, one of the greatest killers of the period, particularly among children. Jenner subsequently proved that having been inoculated with cowpox Phipps was immune to smallpox. He submitted a paper to the Royal Society in 1797 describing his experiment, but was told that his ideas were too revolutionary and that he needed more proof. Undaunted, Jenner experimented on several other children, including his own 11-month-old son. In 1798, the results were finally published and Jenner coined the word vaccine from the Latin ‘vacca’ for cow. The Chantry, Jenner’s home in Berkeley for 38 years is now a museum.
In recent times the town is known for Berkeley Nuclear Power Station Construction began in 1956 and electricity generation in 1962, running for 27 years. Reactor 2 was shut down in October 1988 followed by Reactor 1 in March 1989. Although now decommissioned, cleaning up will be complex and take somewhat longer until radioactive decay allows for demolition allowing the site completely to be cleared between 2070 and 2080.
Berkeley and the afore-mentioned Oldbury are two of four Nuclear Power Stations located close to the mouth of the River Severn and the Bristol Channel. The other two are Hinckley Point A and Hinckley Point B.
The town is known for Berkeley Castle, where the imprisoned Edward 11 was murdered. We thought we would take our fish and chip lunch there, hoping to have a quick look around after we had eaten. Unfortunately the castle was not to be opened to the public until April, but there was a pleasant spot with picnic tables located in the grounds outside the walled garden which did very nicely. (There was no view of the castle from this angle, so no photo. We’ll try again later in the year.)
There was more mistletoe here too, some growing low in an oak tree, so easy to see closely.
There was a whimsical topiary hedge clipped into the shape of a giant caterpillar.
And views to the distant Cotswold hills.
Refreshed, we returned to the car and opted to take a more direct route on to Sharpness in the hope of reaching our destination while it was still light.
Sharpness (pronounced Sharpness, with emphasis on the second syllable) is one of the most inland ports in Britain, and the eighth largest in the South West. It is on the River Severn at a point where the tidal range, though less than at Avonmouth downstream (14m typical spring tide), is still large (10m typical spring). Sharpness docks began as a basin giving access to the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal.There were no port facilities at Sharpness itself and all traffic proceeded up the canal to Gloucester. The original Old Dock opened, with the canal, in 1827.
We drove past the dock and parked in the car park belonging to the Sharpness Docker’s Club.
From the higher ground here there are stunning views along the river in the direction we were to be walking. On the opposite bank is the area around the villages of Lydney and Blakeney, still in Gloucestershire, with the Forest of Dean behind them.
There are steps down to the level of the banks of the river and the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal.
The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal was once the broadest and deepest in the world. Even today, it stands out from other navigations because of its sheer scale and impressive engineering. The River Severn was especially treacherous below Gloucester. In 1793 Midlands industrialists together with merchants and other influential residents of Gloucester obtained an Act to construct a ship canal between Gloucester and Berkeley to bypass this bottleneck. Sea-going ships would be able to reach Gloucester and raw materials could more easily be imported to the Midlands and finished goods exported, reducing costs. After many delays the canal was finally opened in 1827 – at 86ft 6in wide and 18ft deep, taking craft of 600 tons (with maximum dimensions 190ft long and 29ft wide), it was the biggest canal in England, a true ship canal. The docks and canal continued to be busy through to the 1960s, an important new cargo being oil and petroleum. However, as had always been the case, imports considerably exceeded exports and today Sharpness docks are still active, but there is now little commercial traffic on the canal itself.
There is little by way of vegetation that thrives on the exposed river bank, but there were a few alder trees.
Reaching the stone structures on either side of the canal, a narrative board explains the disaster that caused the destruction of the railway bridge, built to span the river and transport coal from the Welsh mines to Sharpness dock. It had been opened on 18th October 1879 and the incident that destroyed it occurred on 25th October 1960, almost 81 years to the day later. Two tanker barges and five men were lost in the tragedy, which is referred to as The Severn Bridge Disaster
The tankers concerned were the ARKENDALE H, loaded with 300 tons of black oil, bound from Swansea to Worcester and the WASTDALE H, loaded with 350 tons of petroleum spirit, bound from Avonmouth to Worcester.
A short way past the railway supports we cut through onto the riverbank and continued our walk to the Ship Graveyard through the reedbeds.
To be continued ……