County Limits- The Severn Bore

Now I know what you’re thinking… but no, just no. I thought the same thing once upon a time.

I mean, yes, what we have here is a pretty spectacularly perfect little A-frame, more glassy than a fight in Wetherspoons. Yes, no-one is on it and do you know what? Next time it breaks it will most likely be empty again. And yes, this is the very same Severn Bore that you’re used to seeing on TV as a foot high surge of white water slowly advancing an army of longboarders and kayakers who have no issues with personal space. There was nothing freakishly special about this day in Gloucestershire, so if you’re in any way surprised by the freshwater river ripability of the Bore, don’t be, because yes, it breaks like this every time.

But no, you shouldn’t grab your 5’11” and camp out on the river bank waiting to score this peak all to yourself next time the tide is big enough. I mean you could I suppose, but if all you’re going to think about now is dropping in and doing a massive layback on that section, then I might as well finish the story here. If this wave has seduced you into thinking the Severn Bore is a shortboard destination, you’re missing the point. Let me explain…

There have been several notable attempts to shred the Bore over the years. Motivated by the novelty of getting a turn shot on a wave with cows grazing in the background, Californian surfer Jon Rose scoured the river on a boat, looking for banks and meandering bends that might coax a clean face out of the Bore. More recently, Russ Winter demolished the face of the wave, this time using a ski to make sure he got to the best peak. A handful of others have tried to introduce high performance surfing to the River Severn with varying degrees of success. All of them have missed the point.

It’s a misty, silent break of dawn. At a small car park in the sleepy village of Newnham, the river races past towards the sea as a burger van backs into its prime retail space for the morning. Mmm… bacon rolls. It’s still early, the Bore isn’t due here for another hour, but people are starting to arrive. The tide times are known down to the exact minute, but as everyone tells me, the river is mysterious and unpredictable, sometimes sending the Bore half an hour early or late for no obvious reason. Severn Bore surfers don’t make a habit of turning up late.

At almost 50 feet, the tidal range of the Severn Estuary is one of the largest in the world, second only to that of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. During the highest tides of the year, the water pouring in from the Bristol Channel funnels upstream forming a wave that pushes against the river current, and depending on the nuances in the river bed can be a line of white water from bank to bank, an unbroken swell, or a filthy A-frame.

Ten minutes down the road, but another hour by river, a middle-class riot is threatening to erupt if the Severn Bore Inn doesn’t open its doors for breakfast soon. The car park is full of hungry surfers who have spent the night in their vans, crowds of curious spectators, and the Gloucestershire Hells Angels faction. There’s still three quarters of an hour before the Bore is due, but equipment is being unloaded and surfers are mingling with kayakers like everything is forgotten and we are all friends again. It makes me feel dirty. I guess I still haven’t forgiven that goatboater that put me in casualty five years ago.

Around the time I was getting my skull x-rayed, the Severn saw one of its busiest days ever, with hundreds of surfers turning up to celebrate 50 years since the Bore was first ridden. As the pioneer of surfing the Severn, Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, or ‘Mad Jack’, set the bar for ‘Bore eccentricity’ pretty high. He fought throughout World War II armed with a longbow and a sword, becoming the only English soldier to kill the enemy by arrow during the war. He went on to receive the Military Cross by leading a charge against a German garrison, throwing a grenade at them and chasing it whilst playing the bagpipes. After developing a passion for surfing whilst instructing at a land-air warfare school in Australia, Mad Jack returned to Britain and designed his own 16ft surfboard specifically to ride the Bore, becoming the first person to do so in 1955. Later in life he was known for randomly throwing his briefcase out of the train window every evening. On his deathbed he explained he was flinging it into his garden so he didn’t have to carry it home from the station.

A bright blue Skoda bumps to a halt on the verge of the main road, and a lad in a bright blue wetsuit jumps out and grabs a bright blue bodyboard from the boot. His rock-pooling shoes are black, but they have blue details. He crosses the busy road and joins a surfer on the other side who is adjusting his ginger afro wig. Today, the eccentricity continues. Mad Jack would be proud.

I push my way through the on-lookers assembled on the bank of the river and walk downstream at the same speed that surfers allow the current to take them towards their take off point. Perhaps half a mile down from the crowd, I notice people paddle towards the east bank and either grab a tree branch or stand up in the mud, to stop themselves from being taken any further. Apart from the current, the river is placid, flat, silent.

A group of first-timers from London gather further upstream across from the spectators, shouting over to them as if they’re the warm up act before the main event. National Director for Christian Surfers, Phil Williams, jogs up to where I am perched, along with welsh author Tom Anderson and his girlfriend Breige Lawrence. My watch says it is only five minutes away, but the three of them look relaxed, Phil has surfed the Bore many times before. “We had it pretty good down at Newnham, but it’s running a bit late,” Phil explains before paddling across and joining the patient surfers on the other side. Less patient, perhaps even nervous, one of the Londoners shouts out to the crowd, “This is boring!” The pun seems to be missed by everyone including him, but this waiting around and being prepared seems to be a big part of the Severn Bore experience… he’s right, this IS boring.

A yell comes from someone on a SUP way down river, the mirror-like water in the distance is bending and moving. As a wave, it looks small at first, but as it hits the east bank where Phil, Tom and Breige are waiting, it jacks up and starts breaking. They push off from the side, start paddling, and the wave bears down on them. I stop watching. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice something so surreal, so unexpected that I almost forget I’m there to take photos. From the middle of the river, a lump of glassy water has risen out of nowhere and broken as a perfect A-frame, with a hollow right peeling off it into the east bank crowd. After a few seconds, it’s gone, and a line of whooping watercraft wobbles past me ungraciously. Ever since Mad Jack demonstrated the potential for surfing greater distances than would be possible at a beach or even a point break, bore surfers have become obsessed with pushing their rides further, either to break personal bests or world records. The untrained eye would see a lineup full of battered kook boards instead of carefully chosen workhorses that have enough volume to glide through flats and over flotsam. In 2006, railway engineer Steve King set an unofficial record when he rode for an estimated 7.6 miles, staying on the same wave for almost an hour. But the difficulties in verifying the distance prevented his achievement from entering the Guinness Book of Records.

Out of the water, Phil is stoked. His ride went on for almost two and a half minutes, which with the Bore running at around 10mph means he surfed just short of half a mile. I’m happy for him of course, but I’m more interested in the wave that he and everyone else missed. “Oh yeah, that right. It’s pretty sweet looking isn’t it? I reckon if someone took a fish out there they might even get a sneaky barrel on one of the better days,” Phil tells me. I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing, “So you’ve seen that wave there before Phil?” He laughs and replies, “It does that every time!” I’m starting to feel a bit mental, I just don’t get why everyone ignores what is a sick, peeling wave and instead opts for straight-handing with 30 other people on a never-ending wall of white water. Phil sees my frustration and smiles. “Greg, you’re missing the point… Let me explain…”

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