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Crossing the Severn

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April 2018

At the April meeting of the Thornbury History and Archaeological Society, Pete Strong came to talk to us about ‘Crossing the Severn’, and was introduced as ‘coming from the other side’. Does this reflect our perception of the river Severn as a boundary between 2 distinct regions? Do the Severn bridges symbolize our connection or our separation? Luckily, neither of these philosophical propositions was tackled by Pete, but he did highlight how in the past the river Severn was the vital link between 2 very similar areas and a superhighway for trade and travel.

Legends in the ancient Welsh book, the Mabinogion, tell of a Cornish relative of King Arthur who tried to kill a wild boar which escaped across the Bristol Channel to Wales. Apparently, the story reflects the booming trade across the Severn estuary when Gwent was famous for exporting wheat and honey, with a major iron-age trading port in the Sudbrook area. Archaeologists highlight the similarity of the remains of forts and stone circles from this period on both sides of the estuary. Immigrant Celts had crossed the river and installed their culture on the South Wales levels, trading and associating with their neighbours on the English side more than with the inland Welsh, as river travel was much easier that overland travel.

The development of the roman towns of Gloucester, Caerwent, Caerleon and Bath dramatically increased river traffic, and just like today there were 2 main crossings of the Severn estuary; Aust to Beachley (old passage) and New Passage to Portskewett. The river then was narrower and most of the evidence from roman times has been washed away by coastal erosion and the turbulent Severn tides, but in 1994 the wreck of a roman boat was found at Magor. It is typical of the boats that would have sailed across the Severn with a crew of 2 transporting up to 90 sacks of grain or other goods.

With the coming of Christianity there was much monastic traffic across the river. Tradition has it that in 603 AD St. Augustine and leaders of the Anglo Saxon church met with welsh bishops at Aust to discuss some differences of opinion on how the church should be run. The welsh bishops had decided that if on landing at Aust St. Augustine rose politely to greet them they would bow to his wishes. He didn’t, so they didn’t. In the 12th century free passage across the river was granted to monks (relations had obviously improved). Cross river trade in iron, leather, fish, and seaweed for making soap (don’t ask) was handled at the Welsh Back quay in Bristol, and timber, lead and coal was transported back across the river (coal to Wales?)

Severnside, a term coined by John Leyland in the 16th century, was a cultural province covering both sides of the river. In his time 20% of the Bristol apprentices came from South Wales, though they probably didn’t commute every day. However, not all traffic crossing the Severn was legit. Smugglers and robbers from South Wales became such a problem that Henry VIII banned all night-time crossings, and passed Acts of Union between England and Wales to tighten his control over the Welsh side.

Although the old passage had been in use from ancient times, the New Passage Ferry Co., founded in 1630, had gone out of business by 1718, when Thomas Lewis opened his New Passage ferry. The Duke of Beaufort, who had interests in the old passage, sued Thomas, who won his case by saying that he was merely maintaining a pre-existing service. Some famous people used the ferry services. Daniel Defoe described it as ‘ugly, dangerous and inconvenient’. Charles Wesley was swept downriver in 1742 when the wind failed, and in 1748 having waited 5 hours for the new passage ferry, walked to the old passage to find the ferry had just left. Courageous admiral Lord Nelson took one look and turned back, declaring that he didn’t wish to be drowned in a ditch.

Reverend Gilpin, originator of the ‘picturesque’ and Wye valley tourism was similarly unimpressed. Victorian tourists had to share the ferry with cows, horses, pigs, sheep, poultry, and even farmers, swearing in both English and Welsh. Although steam boats were introduced in the 1820’s to take the lucrative mail contract, passengers described them as ‘lumbering, cumbrous beasts, waddling on the waves’, preferring the sailing boats. The railways eventually put the ferries out of business, but the motorcar brought them back again. The Aust car ferry crossed the river from 1931 until in 1966 the ‘old’ Severn bridge opened (cost 20p), Bob Dylan being one of the last ferry passengers.

Our thanks to Pete, who leads the Caldicot history society, for his interesting and stimulating talk. We now consider him an honorary Thornbury member, even if he does come from ‘the other side’.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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