Low and slow
The Severn, in its middle reaches, can be a turbulent river; rising and falling many times over the course of a year and, although the origins may vary, the underlying cause is always the same – rapid, uncontainable accumulation of water. The river rises in an area of high rainfall and, along its route, collects the input from many other watercourses: some of them substantial rivers in their own right; others relatively minor; some probably unknown to most of us.
Over the years I’ve probably seen the river – particularly the stretch between Bridgnorth and its confluence with the Teme – in all of its moods: from meandering and benign all the way to torrent and flash flood. In spate it can be irresistible and horribly destructive: given the choice, my preference is for low and slow.
Swollen and fast, the river runs a cloudy and unattractive brown – the colour of tea with not enough milk – and carries all manner of debris, plenty of which is deposited in waterside meadows as the volume abates.
Worcester (left) is always susceptible to flooding. To the immediate left of the road bridge in the picture is New Road county cricket ground; arguably one of the most visually attractive of all the county grounds, it is frequently under water and inaccessible in the weeks leading up to the start of a new season.
By contrast, when levels are at their lowest, the Severn can run clear and shallow, sparkling over gravel beds with the bottom clearly visible. Not quite comparable with the Tay at its finest, but a far cry from the deluge which regularly threatens towns and villages along the flood plain.
This was how we found it on today’s walk and – with the increased activity from an assortment of birds – there was generally a feeling of ‘the coming of spring’, albeit slightly tempered by the clinging, muddy clay underfoot, which made the going harder than expected.
A few weeks back, the roar from the rushing water had been loud enough to drown out the noise of the trains passing by on the Severn Valley Railway, which runs alongside the river for most of its 16 miles. Today the long-tailed tits could be heard clicking away in the undergrowth. There are times when it’s scarcely possible to believe it’s the same stretch of water.
Talking of the railway: from Bewdley – where it swings alongside the river and shadows its route north all the way to Bridgnorth – it is rarely out of sight, other than a few sections when the trees are in summer foliage. The line crosses from the east bank to the west by means of an engineering masterwork – the Victoria Bridge, near to the village of Arley.
Today, one of the old diesel multiple units was in service and I was reminded of the old, and long gone, Dudley to Snow Hill route. Snow Hill station, as it was in those days, was another engineering masterwork; if only we’d had digital cameras back then.
The forecast is saying rain for the midlands and west; for elsewhere as well. Tributaries of the Severn will be gathering water: hopefully not too much – some of them are susceptible to flooding issues of their own, before they add to the volume of the Severn. The Teme, the Vyrnwy – both with their sources in the Welsh hills – even our own smaller local river, the Stour, are all prone to gathering water and rising quickly, before they join the Severn on its meandering journey – east, south, then finally back towards the west, and with many other deviations along the route.
That’s not forgetting the Avon – the one we call the ‘Warwickshire’ Avon (presumably because of Stratford), even though it rises near to Naseby in Northamptonshire and has a pretty meandering journey of its own – Northants, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, finally Gloucestershire where it joins the Severn at Tewkesbury.
If the predictions turn out to be correct, and the next band of rain proves to be persistent and widespread, the goosanders won’t be drifting downstream on gentle currents as they were today. If the pattern of recent years is any guide, there will probably be, before spring is over, at least one major ‘event’ affecting any number of vulnerable areas from Shrewsbury all the way to the final outflow into the Severn estuary. If that should happen, I won’t be the only one looking forward to an extended dry spell and the return of low and slow.