The Severn Way is a long distance trail running 224 miles from the source of the River Severn, high on the slopes of Plynlimon in Powys to the centre of Bristol and for this walk I am going to sample a short stretch of it between Purton and Berkeley in Gloucestershire.
I’m setting out from home early on a dark December morning and being a Sunday I should get a clear run down the M6 and M5 despite all the road works which is currently going on. Dawn breaks as I get south of Birmingham and through Worcestershire and the northern half of Gloucestershire brings the promise of a fine winters day but alas, further south, that mild and moist south westerly air flow is funnelling a lot of murky low cloud well up the Severn Estuary.
It’s 08.50am and I am setting out from the large village of Berkeley and I leave the car parked in the free Marybrook Street Car Park. The blue skies of earlier have been replaced by a fine drizzle as I head north out of the village along Station Road but I have high hopes that the weather will improve.
After a half mile I leave the road and head along a drive leading to the former Berkeley Railway Station. Nothing is left of the station but there is still a single track railway line. The station opened in 1876 but services came to an abrupt halt when the Severn Railway Bridge was destroyed in 1960 and the reason for this I shall come to later. To reach Purton I stay on field paths via Butler’s Farm and Ironwells Grove which involves crossing several slippery wooden stiles. Paths tend to follow field boundaries rather than cross fields and signposting is rather poor but at least the paths do exist. It is turning out a ragged morning with fine drizzle blowing in the brisk wind, fleeting glimpses of the sun and often a faint rainbow is visible. Nearing Purton I have good views towards the Severn Estuary but the Cotswold Hills to the east remain firmly into the cloud.
In Purton I cross the Sharpness Canal via the Purton Upper Swing Bridge to join the good towpath towards Sharpness. I shall now stay with the Severn Way for most of the remainder of my walk. The canal was built to connect the tidal River Severn at Sharpness with Gloucester, a distance of sixteen and a half miles. Shortages of funds meant that the canal took much longer to build than originally planned and it was only finally completed in 1827.
Heading southwest I soon make a diversion to view the Purton Hulks. This location is the site of the largest ship graveyard in the British Isles. During the 1950’s and 60’s small ships and barges were deliberately beached beside the River Severn in an effort to reinforce the river bank where it runs parallel and close to the Sharpness Canal. These ships are in various states of decay and some have almost disappeared altogether. Each site is now marked with a small plaque identifying each vessel. In all, there are around 68 such wrecks and many date from the 19th century. After a morning break on a seat overlooking the Severn I set off along the canal towpath towards Sharpness.
The next point of interest is the remains of old Severn Railway Bridge. Built in the 1870’s this was for many years the lowest bridging point on the River Severn and was built to exploit the coalfields of the Forest of Dean. The bridge cut off thirty miles for the journey between Bristol and Cardiff and rail services no longer needed to go via Gloucester. With coal trade from the Forest of Dean not being exploited in the volumes anticipated, and the later opening of the Severn Railway Tunnel, the owner, the Severn Bridge Railway Company eventually ran into financial difficulties. During World War II there were several instances where spitfire pilots flew under the bridge but this dare devil stunt eventually resulted in court martial’s and the practice stopped. The fate of the bridge met an abrupt end on the 25th of October in 1960. Two barges named the Arkendale H and Wastdale H loaded with fuel oil overshot Sharpness Docks entrance, and in thick fog and a strong incoming tide was swept upstream and collided with the bridge resulting in a massive explosion destroying two spans of the bridge. There was so much damage to the structure that the rebuilding costs were considered just too high, so it was decided to demolish the bridge later in the 1960’s which itself proved more of a challenge than anticipated. Today, just two abutments remain on the Sharpness side of the River Severn. The substantial round tower on the seaward side of the Sharpness Canal was once the tower which supported the swing bridge over the canal. Below the tower is a scale model reconstruction of the swing bridge.
Further south I reach the southern end of the Sharpness Canal and continue out to the former harbour master’s house which commands unhindered views up and down the Severn Estuary. Downstream the weather is now looking bleak and murky. I next press onto walk around the Sharpness Docks passing on the way a new memorial to the former training ship Vindicatrix. The ship was moored on the Old Arm of the Sharpness Canal between 1939 and 1966 and served as a base for training boys as deck hands and stewards for the merchant navy and during this time around 70,000 boys received their basic training here. As for Sharpness Docks, it was a depressing looking place on this dull drizzly Sunday morning. For awhile, Sharpness Docks were quite prosperous, but today sees little shipping traffic and the place is generally run down and forlorn with abandoned warehouses and rusting cranes.
After walking along some dismal service roads I return to the estuary and head south on the bleak and open riverside embankment. I am now walking into a stiff headwind with the fine rain now setting in. The Forest of Dean side of the estuary is gradually misting away and downstream, Oldbury Power Station has disappeared into the gloom. With my rain hood up and head bowed I press on. I am pleased when the path veers inland and soon I have the weather beating more into my side and back. Thankfully it isn’t too long before this particular bout of fine rain passes through and with it comes some fleeting glimpses of sunshine lasting no more than a few seconds so I have my camera ready to capture the moment.
After passing some trees laden with mistletoe, I cross a road and continue with the path beside Berkeley Pill. My plan is to head back to the car for lunch but I find a new south facing seat and opt to stop for lunch as the rain has gone off. It is blowing a bit of a gale and so I don’t stop too long for lunch and soon head into a rather deserted Berkeley. Over to the south the skyline is dominated by the abandoned Sea Mills Corn Mills complete with mill chimney which looks like a scene from a century ago. In Berkeley I head up along High Street. There is hardly anyone around but the tea rooms are open and doing absolutely no trade. In the centre of the village, a couple of shops are trading but on this drab Sunday in December virtually everyone has opted to stay indoors. It is now just a short walk back to the car but it has been an enjoyable walk and full of some fascinating history and a good day to blow away those cobwebs.