When amber means go

All photos by Gill Pearson

Rivers aren’t ideal places for narrow boats because they move about too much and mooring opportunities are scarce. When I say they move about, I don’t mean that they may not be where they were yesterday, I mean that the water in them is always moving and when it’s flowing quickly handling a narrow boat can get a bit tricky. The river authorities have a traffic light system to guide would be adventurers along the lines of: Green; everything is tickety boo and you can go and have a nice time messing about on the river. Amber means, if you are experienced and confident or stupid and foolhardy go ahead and don’t blame us if you drown. Red means, have you written a will and if not can I have your boat when you do drown? We had spent eight days repeatedly checking the river Severn condition during our enforced stay in Stourport and it was always red. Red for stop, red for danger, red for death.

Level checking in Stourport basin

We had all agreed that we were definitely not going to go on the river until conditions were green because there was little point in taking risks and Gill and I had no experience of moving waters so it would be stupid to take the chance. Patience was the key to survival we all said, so why we left Stourport on Saturday with the river condition on amber I will never know. It certainly wasn’t the ‘experienced and confident’ factor.

Taking advice from Greg, the man who knows.

We talked at length to Greg the lock keeper who said we could proceed with caution but we wouldn’t be allowed to go past Worcester bridge because of a massive build up of debris against two of the arches. I am a little bit ashamed to say that we ignored his advice and moored up later that day, just beyond Worcester bridge, a little frazzled but very much not drowned.

Here we go. Be gentle with us river.

Stourport basin is about fifty feet higher than the river so you have to descend through two pairs of staircase locks to get down and I got more apprehensive with each successive lock. When the gates of the final one opened and I saw the river speeding past it felt as if I was about to launch the boat, Gill, myself and pretty much everything we own into to the hands of a wild and irresponsible parent. I edged cautiously out into the flow and to my surprise and relief I was gently picked up and taken along on the current and it was actually rather nice. We were speeding along at about six miles an hour which is fast for a narrow boat, certainly faster than we had ever been before, but the width of the river masked any sense of speed and I found myself quite enjoying the sensation. Then I thought, what if I want to stop? The banks are all lined with trees and bushes and I knew that it was necessary to make a U turn before trying to bring the boat to a halt and suddenly I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. Then we saw a kingfisher and the sun was shining and it was all lovely again and so it went on. The constant to and fro of serenity and fear gradually settled on the side of calm, enabling us to take in the beauty of the river and our surroundings and to respectfully enjoy the power of the water.

First big lock on the Severn

We moored up before the forbidden bridge at Worcester and debated our options. Gill and I went to take a closer look at the debris and it was obvious that the sixty foot tree spanning the left arch was why the trouble had started. There was an interesting collection of natural and man made artefacts wedged firmly against the tree and there were going to be quite a few people upstream wondering where their ladders or garden shed had gone. We overheard a couple of locals point out that at least there wasn’t a dead cow amongst it like the last time. Yuk. We watched with our hearts in our mouths as a couple of boats appeared and approached the bridge at speed, one went through the middle arch and the other through the one to the right and that was all we needed to make up our minds. We untied the boats and after a quick U turn I approached the bridge feeling very much like a naughty schoolboy who had been told very clearly where the boundaries were but I was going outside them anyway. It was less than a mile to the place we wanted to moor for the night and I was feeling pretty chuffed with my first day on the river. We had to moor three abreast because of the limited spaces but it made for a very sociable evening and a rather remarkable coincidence.

Going for it at Worcester Bridge

The boat immediately behind us looked kind of familiar but it was only when we got chatting with Phillip and Pamela, the owners, that I put two and two together and realised it was Grace from Kinver. Grace had featured in the blog! She was the internationally recognised narrow boat, star of the Steak pies and Aston Martins post from a couple of weeks ago no less. We have since met Phillip and Pamela again and over a glass or two of wine I confessed to having sneakily photographed their boat to feature it in a blog.

The next day I fell foul of over confidence and nearly lost the boat to a fast flowing weir as we approached a lock. There was a lot of panicked over revving of the engine and extreme tiller action before I wrestled it back on course and safely into the lock and it was a short sharp lesson in becoming complacent and loosing respect for the power of the water. We moored for the second night at Upton upon Severn on a floating pontoon, so called because it can rise and fall with the water levels and we could clearly see that it had been ten feet higher just a few days ago. The status of the river was still amber but things were clearly settling down and we went to sleep without at care in the world and feeling quite at home in our new environment. That was, until about 4.30am.

Steering well clear of the weir

I’m used to the sound of birds running about on the roof of the boat so when I first woke up that’s what I assumed I could hear but then I thought; hang on, birds don’t wear clogs and I’m pretty sure they don’t dance and make the boat rock. Bleary eyed I peeped out of the window half expecting to see that we were being swept to our death by the currents but what I saw was what appeared to be the remains of a thousand beaver’s dams floating by, interspersed with the occasional tree or piece of riverside infrastructure. In front of the boats debris was rapidly building up to form a new dam whilst behind us was the source of the terrible racket we had heard. A full set of landing steps complete with accessories had come under the boat and lodged behind us. The whole scene was quite surreal but I realised what had happened. The Environment Agency had been scheduled to clear the debris at Worcester bridge overnight and twelve hours later we were directly in the path of everything that had been released as it made it’s way down the river. At least we weren’t going with it.

Laden and unladen sand barges
Floating pontoon mooring

We took a day off in Upton upon Severn to catch up on chores and sleep and to take a closer look at the small town and it’s interesting buildings and history. Further entertainment was provided by a procession of sand barges that use this section of the Severn to move thousands of tons of material about two miles down stream one boatload at a time. They passed us by empty and towering above us and then, half an hour later they returned fully laden and looking like they were about to sink under their load. We bobbed about in their wake but were otherwise undisturbed by them. The barges and a huge passenger trip boat both contributed to the new and fascinating experience of being on ‘big’ water, quite a contrast to the sleepy canals we were used to. The final leg to Gloucester was uneventful with all the manned locks opening as we approached like the magical doors to a new enchanted world and the exceptionally friendly lock keepers handing out much appreciated tips and advice as Bob handed them equally appreciated bottles of beer. There were multiple sightings of kingfishers, cormorants and many other birds along the way and the occasional tempting riverside pub which were all duly noted for further exploration. The last lock just before the docks is approached along a channel parallel to the river and where the river re-joins it there is a strong eddy that we had been warned about. After the earlier experience at the weir I gave it my full concentration and we passed into the giant lock without a problem and from there into the docks themselves and a relative haven of calm.

Cormorant

My first river experience had a bit of everything but mostly I would describe it as amber.

Entering Gloucester docks

Not on the river Severn

If you have ever sat in your car at the junction between a quiet side road and busy thundering A road watching a never ending flow of speeding cars and racing juggernauts going by, and wondered if you were ever going to get out into the traffic, you will have a pretty good image of where we are right now. Having drifted at a ridiculously leisurely pace down the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal (side road) we have now been sitting patiently watching the millions of gallons of water and thousands of tons of debris speeding past us on the river Severn (A road) with no possibility of us joining the fray.

Tree on its way to Bristol

We have been informed by the Canal and River Trust volunteers that they don’t actually have the authority to prevent us from going on the river when it is in flood but then again we don’t have the desire to drown in the Bristol Channel having broken the narrow boat equivalent of the sound barrier to get there, so here we remain, in Stourport.

That’s a lot of water

We arrived here on Friday after spending the previous week sitting out ominous rain storms in between making delightful progress south through some very pretty countryside. There was an abundance of wildlife, historic churches and tempting pubs to occupy us during the wet spells and when the sun did come out we made short relaxed journeys south.

St. John the Baptist, Wolverley
I wonder what is around that corner?

This particular stretch of canal is made more interesting by the sandstone outcrop that frequently tries to bully the water aside, creating narrow gorges and torturous blind bends to navigate. There is nothing more exciting than rounding one of these bends, even at two miles per hour and finding two double width canoes full of terror stricken children in your path. Once the screaming had subsided, some from the children but more from a Beta Marine 3.8 engine at 2000 revs in reverse, the instructor, yes I did say INSTRUCTOR, asked us which side of an oncoming craft they were supposed to pass on! Having avoided featuring in all the national newspapers for accidentally killing twenty small children and intentionally murdering their instructor we plodded on via a surfeit of locks to reach Stourport.

Stourport is a bit like a bacon and Marmite sandwich, some bits are lovely and I can’t get enough of them and other bits are best left untouched. The town consists largely of a rather tired main shopping street culminating by the river in a loud, brash, gaudy fun fair in contrast to the beautifully maintained area containing the historic basins and buildings that were constructed to link the canal to the river Severn.

Stourport funfair

It also has great pubs with a thriving live music scene so perhaps I’m being hard on it because overall it’s not a bad place to be marooned. We arrived on Friday knowing that the river was high and we might not be able to go on it straight away but what we hadn’t anticipated was the delight with which the many helpful locals informed us that they had lived here for “ten years, twenty years” or “all my life” and “this is the highest the river has ever been”. (It isn’t, as any brief search of the internet will confirm) They went on to speculate as to whether we might be stuck for three, four, five days, or maybe even a week and that the best pub was The Black Star, The Swan, The Bridge etc. etc. The people of Stourport are unquestionably friendly but there isn’t much they agree on. Fishermen and lock keepers informed us that the river was still rising, had peaked or was falling all on the same afternoon and mentioned a couple more pubs we might like to try.

That James Brindley bloke that I have mentioned before built the Stourport Basins when he began the construction of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal. Before he came along there was just one pub by the mouth of the river Stour but like all developers he saw an opportunity and as a Worcestershire historian named Nash put it in the late eighteenth century, “Near this Brindley has caused a town to be erected, made a port and dockyards, built a new and elegant bridge, established markets and made it a wonder not only of this county but of the nation at large.” Oh well, it doesn’t look like we can blame him for the fun fair then.

Stourport basin

I have studiously been watching the river levels via an excellent web site that actually uses science to measure the rise and fall and reports it to the millimetre once every hour. So far it has proven to be totally reliable and agrees with the old fisherman who pulled a small perch from the river, waved it around his head three times whilst walking in an anti-clockwise circle, looked to the sky and declared: “Yow should be all royt by Fridoy”. We’ll see, there are plenty more pubs we haven’t tried yet.

Science in action

Photos mostly by Gill Pearson

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