Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Caged Beast That Is The River Severn

These aren’t the worst floods I’ve seen here in Shrewsbury.  In the autumn of the year 2000, the river broke its banks, filled Smithfield Road and went half way up Roushill, filling the basement of the Riverside Shopping Centre and rendering the entrance to the town via Frankwell inaccessible except by duckboard, and the area from the English Bridge up to the Abbey inaccessible except by boat. In fact that year the town was flooded three times in six weeks. The TV cameras and news presenters had scarcely packed their outside broadcast vans before they were back again. And those weren’t the worst floods either.  Bad years included 1960, 1964, 1965 and 1968.  The Sixties might have swung, but it seems they also rained.  Funny that - I remember sunshine all the way.

The worst year in living memory though was 1947 when a combination of rainfall, freezing temperatures, snow and thaw caused a catastrophic breaking of the River Severn’s banks, closing down Shrewsbury as a commercial centre, cutting it off from the rest of the world. Then the waters around the Abbey made it up the aisle, reaching a record river level rise of eighteen feet.

But not even that was the worst flood of all.  That title goes to the Great Flood of 1795, a terrifying event on a somewhat Biblical scale, when quays, warehouses and timber yards were stripped of their contents and, in some cases, completely destroyed, and many of the graves in the Abbey graveyard collapsed inwards, setting their contents free.

And that, of course [you’ll be getting the picture by now] was small fry compared to the Great Flood of 1620, or the string of other great floods going back to 1348 when, courtesy of violent rainfall from midsummer through to Christmas, records tell us that ‘a constant swell of the river was occasioned.’

Shrewsbury’s curse and joy is the River Severn.  Built into a horse-shoe loop in the river, its inhabitants can’t get away from water.  Entering or leaving the town involves crossing bridges [unless entering beneath the watchful eye of Shrewsbury Castle]. Because growth is constrained by the river, Shrewsbury’s street plan is much the same now as it was in medieval times. 

Some things have changed, of course. But flooding’s most definitely not one of them. This morning, when I headed down St Mary’s Water Lane but could get no further than Traitor’s Gate, I felt a strange sense of connection to the town’s past.  How many floods, I wondered, had beaten like this one against the town’s old walls?  I stood there at one of its most historic entrances watching a vast expanse of wild brown water swirling past me.  Yesterday, fresh from the rains, it was foaming and raging, strong enough to carry whole trees under the arches of the railway bridge and down towards the weir. And today it still was a thing of immense power, but watching its silvery waters in the early morning light I found myself strangely glad - despite the havoc it sometimes wreaks - that we in Shrewsbury have this force of nature at the heart of our town.  

Most of the time the River Severn looks tame, pretty and subdued; a caged animal in a zoo.  But come the autumn and winter rains, the animal breaks free and goes on the rampage – and apart from erecting million pound flood defences to protect a few lucky buildings and  access roads, there’s little anyone can do.

I’ve been down to the river again tonight and it’s as high as ever, a vast expanse, as black as ink, surging beneath the arches of the English Bridge.  Beyond the bridge the Abbey stands high and dry.  The houses on Marine Terrace aren’t flooded this time. And down at the Welsh Bridge, Frankwell isn’t flooded either. The town looks safe. That is unless more rain comes pouring off Plynlimon Mountain, where the Severn has its source...  

What’s the forecast looking like?  I check my phone. ‘No severe weather warnings have been issued for the next few days’.   Tonight from Shrewsbury, let's hope they've got it right.    


  1. Lovely post - at home in England I live with the rise and fall of a big river and know that in autumn and winter it will come into the house at some point. Often the house is an island. I love it - scary but exciting. I think it's the sheer power of the water surging past.
    But I feel truly sorry for all those who've had the misery of flooding and losing possessions and their homes.

  2. Me too. I felt a bit guilty confessing to a sense of gladness, but pleased to find that someone knew what I meant. Into your house sounds pretty thorough-going though. I'd like to think I'd find it exciting to have my house turned into an island, but deep down inside I know I'm glad to live on top of a hill.

  3. Hi, great pictures keep meaning to take my camer to town...see this afternoon if it is still as high