Monday, 8 June 2009
Riding the Severn Bore
Before the wave there’s a stillness that even the traffic behind us on the A48 can’t disturb. Three figures in the water, two very cold surfers and a canoeist, are suddenly alert. Safe on the bank beside the Severn Bore pub, we perk up. There’s a chap from Australia who’s been dragged along on this freezing February morning to see a very English marvel of nature, and a small team from Radio 4 who are apparently trying to record the bore. Intrepid Folio photographer Paul Groom is peering into the murk.
Suddenly an inflatable comes roaring upstream, laden with surfboards: Steve King, a legend among riders of the bore, racing to his favourite stretch of river. Right behind him comes a wave that would not be out of place in a Cornish bay, a beautiful curling roller about three feet high that swoops round the bend and scoops up the surfers (but not, alas, the canoeist). They’re up! Our photographer leaps into action. The radiomen brandish their furry microphone. The wave rolls on, breaking and reforming as the river’s depth varies, up towards Gloucester.
Surfer Mike Clement emerges from the now churning, rising river, having enjoyed a run of a few hundred yards. He is cold and unhappy about having the wrong board, but he bravely smiles for the camera. An experienced surfer from South Africa, Clements recently moved to the Gloucestershire village of Quedgely and discovered the joys of bore surfing last year. He is not alone.
In recent years the Severn bore, a wave that forms when big high tides funnel huge volumes of water up the estuary, has attracted surfers from all over the world. A local bore riders’ club was formed ten years ago and a new DVD, ‘Longwave’, by club founder Donny Wright, shows the exploits of its members and friends here and around the world.
The beauty of this kind of surfing is that, with experience, you can ride the same wave for a mile or more. And if you miss it, there is always the option of climbing in the car and racing the tide to a convenient jumping-off point up-river. This March we’ll see some big tides and what the pros call ‘four star’ waves, and the surfers will be out in their hundreds.
So too will the tourists. Jason Clarke, landlord of the Minsterworth pub that bears the wave’s name, estimates that six hundred people will turn up to watch the biggest waves. That’s a lot of bodies on a hundred yards of muddy riverbank. Nine years ago the pub, which used to be called The Bird in the Hand, was flooded during the Spring tides, but the banks have been raised since. The only kind of flood Clarke expects is of cold wave-watchers needing breakfast.
“People come from all over now,” he says. “America. Australia. Everyone wants to see something new.”
After all bore surfing started here, fifty or so years ago, and until recently the world record for distance surfing was set and beaten over and over again between the river’s banks. Last summer, however, a Brazilian rode the Pororoca, the Amazon’s bore, for more than six miles and stole the Severn riders’ crown. It’s potentially feasible for a surfer to ride the Severn bore for ten. Steve King and his fellow bore riders have some serious work to do.