The River Severn in Worcestershire

Marina Duffell


The River Severn (named "Sabrina" by the Romans) rises on Plynlimon in Wales, and passes through the counties of Powys, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire before it reaches the sea. The longest river in Great Britain, over 200 miles in length, only a relatively short stretch of about 45 miles actually passes through Worcestershire. In order to relate this stretch to the whole, it is important to have an overall picture of the entire river from its source to the sea. In Worcestershire the course of the Severn runs with little deviation from North to South, giving Worcestershire, as David Lloyd wrote: "... a cohesion which is rare among English counties. Except for the far north-east, which now belongs to Birmingham and which ultimately drains into the North Sea, every part of the county is in the Severn basin". The main tributaries of the Severn are the Stour, Teme and Avon. On its long journey, the Severn encounters a variety of landscapes, mostly picturesque and very green, at times flowing past cliffs scoured out of sandstone. In its upper reaches the river has cut a winding passage of exaggerated twists and turns, at times bending back on itself almost completely, making it impossible to navigate. Although Daniel Defoe claimed that in past years barges did navigate the upper reaches, this has been proved to have been impossible.) The Severn is now navigable only between Stourport and Gloucester. Due to the contortions of the River Severn, navigation has always been difficult. The construction in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire , and Worcester and Birmingham Canals, amongst others, had a profound effect on the riverside population, the former being largely responsible for the establishment and growth of Stourport in the transportation of goods. In the past, before the construction of locks, laden boats could be delayed for weeks at a time, in some cases months. However, in a parliamentary act passed in 1842, locks were authorised on the River Severn. Those at Bevere, Diglis, Holt and others were swiftly constructed to speed up the passage of goods. It was at the Tontine Inn in Stourport in fact that protection against river hazards began in the form of the Mutual Insurance Club

On either bank there is lush meadowland where farming has been carried on for hundreds of years. The forests lining its banks have provided timber not only for the building of the Severn trows, the flat-bottomed, two-masted, open-sided boats, weighing upwards of 100 tons, but frigates, barges and wherries, as well as the narrowboats worked and lived on by whole families who endured hard and cramped lives aboard as they tried to make ends meet shifting merchandise up and down the rivers and canals. The trows, built mainly in Ironbridge and operated from Bewdley , were built for transporting coal, china clay, timber, charcoal, salt and many other basic raw materials as well as finished goods such as ironstone, pottery, bricks and machinery the length of the Severn and further. Vast amounts of cargo were sent abroad and much of this was loaded onto seagoing vessels at Bristol . Although capable of travelling under sail, the Severn trows were mostly hauled by gangs of men. The trowmen had to be tough, and were said to be hard-drinking, hence the number of riverside pubs. Handling the trows could be dangerous. Although sturdily built (the "William" was 130 years old when she sank in the 1930s), the low sides could easily ship water causing many boats to sink,and it was not unknown for a cargo of quicklime to be ignited when rough water washed over it.

Stone used in the construction of Worcester Cathedral was said to have been transported from Highley by river, and much later, in 1850, stone was carried by trow as far as Bristol for use in the construction of the Clifton Bridge. Chepstow Bridge, designed by Brunel, was manufactured and its sections transported by trow from Bridgnorth . Salt from the mines in Droitwich was loaded onto the boats not in sacks but by the barrowload. Rumour had it that such loads of salt were delivered as far afield as France by sailing barge. It is also said that in the 19th century special steam engines were built to order at Ironbridge and transported via the Severn, the canal system and across the seas to Martinique specifically for threshing sugar cane. In earlier centuries the River Severn was one of the busiest commercial routes, well known not only in this country but also throughout Europe. Severn clay was used for the production of the famous chinaware at places such as Coalport .

Ironbridge, as its name implies, was known throughout the world for the massive constructions in iron carried out there by some of the worlds most famous engineers, two of whom, Richard Trevithick and John Urpeth Rastrick are commemorated on a clocktower in Bridgnorth. It is ironic that these two collaborated to build the first passenger locomotive engine in 1808, since it was the introduction of the railways and the construction of the Severn Valley Railway that marked the decline of river trade on the River Severn. The earlier advent of the canal however made Stourport world-renowned for its boatbuilding, and the riverboats built in Stourport were operated to all parts from Bewdley.

The bridges over the River Severn are of immense variety; some have been rebuilt or replaced many times over the centuries. Some were designed by world-famous bridge builders such as Brunel ( Chepstow ) or John Gwynne ( Worcester ), Thomas Telford ( Bewdley and Holt Fleet ), others are of far more modest construction. Always a fast-flowing river prone to flooding, the Severn has been responsible for washing away several of its bridges over the centuries. In fact in the floods of l872, all the Severn bridges were supposed to have been damaged.

In recent times the riverbank was undermined to such an extent that sections of the Severn Valley Railway track near Coalport were washed into the river. Measures have since been taken to prevent flooding by building up embankments. In the 1960s the Clywedog dam was constructed on the upper reaches of the river in Wales in an effort to regulate the flow, and to relieve the flooding in Shrewsbury, with gauging station just above Bewdley . However, due to changing world weather conditions, the volume of water is ever-increasing and there is still severe flooding not only in Shrewsbury but at Bewdley , which suffers badly when the water rises high enough to flood the riverside dwellings. In Worcester, too, the New Road Cricket Ground is still frequently under several feet of water. Excessively high river levels are recorded on the wall by the watergate below Worcester Cathedral, the highest in more recent times being in March 1947, but with flood levels still being recorded in the l980/90s.

The large colony of swans that inhabits the area around Worcester's South Quay take great delight in swimming on the flooded banks below the cathedral at such times. The number of swans dwindled to single figures in the 1990s, but thanks to the action of the swan rescue group in Droitwich, many swans who had been injured by flying into power cables or swallowing fishing weights or hooks were nursed back to health and released into the river below Worcester Cathedral, where their numbers have increased enormously.

The River Severn abounds with wildlife, the experts saying the water is cleaner than it has ever been, and many species of birds, fish, and small mammals as well as trees, flowers and grasses can be seen, including rare species thought to be lost; Red Kites and Kingfishers, Otters and Fritillaries, have all been seen

Architecture of all periods, from the remains of a Roman town to stately homes, ancient inns to well-loved churches and chapels, all are to be found when seeking reminders of the River Severn's glorious past. The Severn Way makes it possible to walk the whole length of the river on designated footpaths. There are even traces to be found by the observant walker of ancient feuds between the English on one bank and the Welsh on the other, of the hard lives of the trowmen and records of the many lives claimed by the river.

It is an irony that the railway that robbed the river of much of its trade, itself became extinct when it ceased to carry passengers and freight in the infamous cuts made by Dr. Beeching in the 1960s of vast stretches of branch lines. The track and stations deteriorated rapidly for want of upkeep. In the 1960s however a group of steam enthusiasts joined together and formed a society dedicated to restoring the railway to its original glory. This began in 1970 and thirty years later the preserved Severn Valley Line is flourishing, its stations clean and busy, its engines sparkling and in excellent condition, carrying hundreds of passengers on pleasure trips between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth.

The River Severn in Worcestershire


After crossing the border from Shropshire into Worcestershire, the first Severn Valley Railway Station is Highley, in relatively recent times an important centre of coalmining. There are still some who can remember coal being carried on the Severn Valley Line for a considerable time after passenger carrying became uneconomic. From here to Bewdley, the railway runs alongside the River Severn, hence its name. The Severn Way runs between the railway line and the river on the stretch from Highley Station to Bewdley, on the west bank of the river. Adjoining the station is the Severn Valley Country Park, on the edge of the Wyre Forest, a large wooded area conserved for people to enjoy the countryside.


The next station down the line from Highley on the Severn Valley Railway is Arley, used frequently in film and television programmes such as "Oh, Dr. Beeching". Again the station is close to the riverbank, and Upper Arley can be reached by a footbridge opened in 1972 to replace a former ferry crossing. As its name implies, Upper Arley is on a hill and the village, a castellated manor house, and the church can be clearly seen from the train. Just out of Arley Station the railway crosses the river by means of the magnificent Victoria Railway Bridge, built in 1861, the only point at which the railway actually crosses the River Severn. In the 1960s the Trimpley Reservoir was built on the east side in order to supply water to Birmingham. This also attracts water fowl and provides excellent facilities for sailing.


The River Severn has always been at the heart of Bewdley, which began to establish itself in the fourteenth century at the site of the river crossing. It has had several bridges, the existing one designed by Thomas Telford two hundred years ago. The former bridge had a Gate House built on it in which there was a prison and a toll-gathering booth. The present bridge also had a tollhouse, but this was taken down in the 1960s. When the canal was built, expanding the importance of Stourport , so Bewdley declined as a trading port. Stanley Baldwin, former prime minister was born here, and his cousin Rudyard Kipling lived nearby as a child. There are some very elegant Georgian houses in Bewdley , and it was at one time considered a fashionable place to live. Travelling south out of Bewdley, a country Park (Blackstone Country Park) has been laid out on either side of the river. From this site a range of cliffs can be seen rising above the river. There used to be a hermit's cell and chapel carved out of the rock, as well as a ford.


A short distance from Bewdley is the small parish of Ribbesford. There are very few houses apart from the striking manor house with cupolas on the eastern side of the river. Once owned by Sir Henry Herbert, a courtier of Charles I and Lord of the Manor in the early seventeenth century. Next door is Ribbesford Church with a large, steep churchyard sloping down to the church, where 1593 there was an exceptionally high number of burials (188), many of whom were victims of the the plague, perhaps accounting for the picture of a weeping angel in the east window of the church.


The status brought to Stourport by the introduction of the canals caused it to grow rapidly in the eighteenth century, and it remains a busy riverside town, although nowadays the river traffic consists more of pleasure craft than trade. One of the three principal tributaries of the River Severn in Worcestershire joins it here, the River Stour, hence the name Stourport.The town itself is always busy, particularly at weekends in the summer months when it turns into an inland seaside resort attracting daytrippers from Birmingham and further afield. The bridge is 130 years old and was originally a toll bridge. Below Stourport there is Redstone Rock where there was once an important river crossing, and the road from Wales to London passed through Redstone. Yet another hermitage was cut out of the sandstone rock. Another bridge across the Severn was built in 1828 at Holt Fleet , the last toll bridge in Worcestershire. Before reaching Bevere Lock, the smaller tributary, the Salwarpe, joins the main river. The name derives from the salt from Droitwich, which was once transported by river. This is a well known birdwatching area.


Although a very small riverside village, Grimley is important in history as it has been the site of camping armies and is close to Bevere Island and Bevere Lock. The banks of the Severn are wooded here, and it is a pleasant place to walk. The Camp Inn, which occasionally becomes isolated by flooding when the river is high, is an attractive Georgian riverside inn, named after an army encampment. Nearby Bevere Island is said to have been used as a refuge in times of war and plague. Many pleasure craft pass up and down the river through Bevere Lock en route for Stourport or Upon-upon-Severn. Between Grimley and Worcester the River Severn passes through a residential and industrial area. It flows under the modern Sabrina Footbridge, linking the "West Side" to the City of Worcester via the Racecourse, and then beneath the rail bridge carrying the line from Hereford to Paddington.


The City of Worcester has a long history dating back to the seventh century. The present cathedral comes into full view from the river as it passes under its main bridge designed in the late eighteenth century by John Gwynne. Although other churches have existed on the site, the present cathedral was rebuilt by St. Wulstan in 1084. From various viewing points, many spires can be counted rising up from Worcester, including the Glover's Needle, on the east bank of the river, close to the cathedral. Many historic buildings have been demolished in the name of "progress", leaving Worcester in the year 2000 a traffic-bound, fume-laden centre of commerce and tourism. At one time a fort stood in Britannia Square, facing the river in order to protect the English side of the River Severn from the invading Welsh. The Guildhall in the centre of the city is a magnificent civic building and, sandwiched in between shops, offices and eating places, can be found many venerable gems that have escaped demolition. Going out of Worcester, the Commandery stands above the canal network, a museum dedicated to the "faithfulness" of the City of Worcester during the English Civil War. Famous for producing Royal Worcester Porcelain, Lea and Perrins Sauce and elegant gloves, Worcester, on the banks of a once-thriving port, now relies heavily on the tourist trade, its riverside warehouses now converted to select restaurants and desirable residences.

Sir Edward Elgar is one of the best known of Worcester's former residents, both as England's most famous composer, a musician deeply involved with Three Choirs Festival, a rotating music festival held in Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford cathedrals, where his own compositions were, and still are frequently played.. Elgar was never happier than when he could sit by "Severnside" and watch the river, and this was translated into many of his compositions. In the Enigma Variations is incorporated a passage representing a friend's bulldog (named Dan) retrieving sticks thrown for him into the river.

The Worcestershire cricket ground has to be in one of the most picturesque situations in the country, with a background of the Malvern Hills in one direction and the River Severn and Worcester Cathedral in another. Set in the flood plain of the river, the winter season frequently sees the pitch under several feet of water, but it appears to thrive on these adverse conditions, and the cricketing tradition draws vast crowds every summer.

A short way along the riverside footpath, past the cathedral, is Diglis Lock where the Worcester to Birmingham Canal branches off. Boats wanting to change to the River Avon continue on along the Severn as far as Tewkesbury where the Severn and Avon merge. There is also a weir, much-loved by fishermen, which was constructed in 1844 at the same time as the lock.


Powick, although only a small hamlet, is no longer peaceful since it is bisected and disrupted by heavy traffic from Worcester, Malvern, Hereford and elsewhere which travels over the Southern Link Bridge (opened in 1985) crossing the River River Severn close to its confluence with the River Teme, much of it joining the M5 Motorway. In the late 1990s the southern section of the Worcester Bypass was constructed to carry even more traffic over the flood plain, which still remains green and pleasant and undeveloped, with cattle and sheep grazing. It also puts some distance between Powick Church, which can be seen on a slight rise, and the traffic.

The records show strong historical activity here during the English Civil War, and adjacent to the road bridge over the Teme, there is still the very old Powick Bridge, where the first action of the Civil War between the King's troops under the command of Prince Rupert and the Parliamentary Army. There are marks on Powick Church Tower, said to be the result of musket balls fired during the last action of the war in 1651. Another landmark is the tower of what is claimed to be the oldest Hydro-Electric Power Station in the country, converted in the year 2000 to luxury flats


Another village bisected by a main Road is Kempsey on the east bank of the River Severn, the church standing at a point by the river where once there was a ford and nearby stood a bishop's palace. The river's course now flows past the Malvern Hills running approximately from north to south.


This is a "picture book" Worcestershire village with black-and-white houses, a black-and-white pub, and a village green with a well-tended village pond complete with ducks. The "castle" of its title refers to one built by King John at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Part of its grammar school dates back to the sixteenth century.


In earlier times, the inhabitants of Upton relied heavily on river trade for employment, and most were engaged in loading and hauling and allied river trades. Coal was transported by road to Upton from the Forest of Dean for on-shipment and it was a thriving port. The advent first of the canals and then the railway, plus the unhealthy location of the dwellings, caused the rapid decline in its importance. The cupola added to the much older church in the eighteenth century still provides a landmark for road and river travellers. The present bridge replaced the Victorian construction in 1940, and in the 1970s the Marina was constructed, restoring the town's importance on the river, again for pleasure craft rather than trade. Upton's main street still has several well-maintained black-and-white buildings, including the White Lion Hotel, and is always crowded with visitors, especially for its annual Jazz Festival.

Beyond Upton are the riverside meadows called " Upton Hams " where so many species of wild flowers grow, they have been designated a "Site of Special Scientific Interest". Unfortunately the remaining bridge over the Severn in Severn is the M50 Bridge. There is still, however, a great deal of interest and beauty to be proud of and explore along the River Severn as it passes through the County of Worcestershire.


David Lloyd, A History of Worcestershire, pub. Phillimore and Co. Ltd., 1993

Copyright © 2000 Marina Duffell

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