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The River Severn is nowadays relegated almost to the status of attractive scenery, but it once was a major trading route. Sea-going ships brought goods into Bristol and Gloucester docks, and Severn trows carried those goods upriver to inland ports as far as Worcester. That was the limit for the 50 ton boats, so the goods were then transshipped to smaller craft for onward passage to Bewdley and Bridgnorth, and into smaller ones still for the last section to Shrewsbury, the limit of navigation.

Cargoes coming upriver during the 1600s and 1700s included various English and French alcohols, but especially Spanish wine (arriving even when Britain and Spain were at war, as the trade was regarded as too important to allow the war to interfere with it!). Major foodstuffs were imported groceries (sugar, currants, tea, spices, etc.), herrings and citrus fruits. A huge variety of cloths came in, along with skins from hunted or domesticated animals. Then there were seeds, grains, tobacco, deal boards, earthenware, pipeclay, soap, metalware, dyestuffs, coal, pitch, tar, resin, and finally train oil, a product of whale's blubber to be used as lamp oil.

Downriver cargoes were similar in type but not in detail: the main alcohol was cider; foodstuffs were bacon, cheese, confectionary, honey, and - when the trick of mass extraction was learned - salt. Cloths went downriver, but not quite of the same type as that arriving. A few animal skins went as well, but a far bigger trade was glovers shreds - the leftovers from products made in this region. Hops, wheat and malt were the major agricultural exports, while other items were timber, bricks, earthenware, paper from papermills in the Worcester area, ironware, lead and tinware, and even money as a cargo.

Not all of these imports and exports were for the local region. Many would simply use the river as a stage in a longer journey.

Navigation of the river wasn't always simple, and water movement was poorly understood. For example, there were places where the river ran dangerously quickly, so the river was narrowed to "hold the water back". In fact, with the weight of the river behind it, the narrowed flow went even faster.

Another problem was ice. From time to time the river would freeze over, imprisoning the trows for days on end (for a month on one occasion).

At high water, navigation was relatively simple, and northbound boats out of Gloucester could benefit from the Severn Bore to hasten their passage upriver. At low water, though, trows could ground and have to wait for the tide to build the river again to release them.

Low water problems got worse over time as a result of improved farming methods. Land along the river had always acted like a huge sponge, absorbing water when the river was high, and only slowly releasing it afterwards. This pattern kept water levels up when there was a drought, allowing navigation to continue. But improved drainage put the water back more quickly, leaving little to counteract the droughts and stranding the trows more frequently. Then as the railway network spread from the 1840s, rivers and canals were outclassed in speed and reliability, and began their decline.

Scenery the river may now be, but no-one who lives by it is lulled by its apparent tranquility. In rainy seasons the river can rise over its high banks and go visiting, and many homes and businesses have suffered several floodings over the years, ruining carpets, furniture and many other things that couldn't be made safe in time.

Even though it may smile today, a tiger is still a tiger.

Postscript: This description was written in early September 2000, when a moderately wet summer was drifting into autumn. But autumn became the wettest since weather-recording rain gauges were installed 300 years ago, and brought the worst flooding seen in many decades. For more on that story, read our separate section on the floods at Bewdley.
Harry Drummond.

Copyright © 2002 DudleyMall.

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