The tidal bore that periodically rolls up the River Severn as it winds its way through the countryside on the English/Welsh border is one wave that’s definitely on the periphery of the surfing world. More likely to be featured on BBC Points West than in a surf mag, the Severn bore has for decades been argued over by environmentalists, politicians and alternative energy providers as they try to agree on proposals to harness the estuary’s tidal power, which, according to the recent Severn Tidal Power Feasibility Study, could create up to 5% of the UK’s electricity.
The movement of the tide and its bore wave up and down the estuary and river has been described as “Gloucestershire breathing in and out”. Opponents to plans to harness this energy argue that the environmental impacts of the various suggested schemes – including flooding of protected wetlands, damage to bird habitat, and disruption to spawning salmon – far outweigh any benefits. And for anyone with a passing interest in surfing, there’s the loss of this unique wave to consider.
The largest bores occur a few days either side of the Spring high tides, but smaller waves form a couple of times a month throughout the year. When it’s on, cars stop on bridges and spectators line the river banks to watch a motley crew of surfers (and the odd kayaker) slide down the muddy, slimy bank into the water to await the surge of the tide. A friend once described his bore-surfing experience as “a small chubby wave, sheep poo and real ale…” I was intrigued enough to go see for myself, driving three hours inland against all my natural instincts – to go surfing.
Like any surf scene, the bore has its own dedicated crew of surfers, some who live on the river and others who regularly travel to surf the bore. There are only a few spots with direct and easy road access, but some of the better stretches of river or shallow stone ledges have to be accessed down winding country lanes, across fields and gardens. Often there are boats following the wave, picking up and dropping off the local surfers and their guests at the primo spots, or carrying visiting TV crews.
We were lucky enough to get an inside line on a few of the best stretches of river to catch the bore on, including sketchy mud maps drawn on scraps of paper in a pub next to the river late one evening over a few pints. At closing time we decamped to the beer garden to watch a bore wave come through in the dark, ridden by a handful of surfers with glow sticks tied to their wetsuits and only the light of the moon to help them back to the river bank.
There’s one wave every 12 hours, or near enough – sometimes two or three waves make up the head of the tide, but whichever way you look at it, if you miss it you’ve got a long wait for your next chance. This is probably one of the rare occasions when you’ll feel apprehensive as a waist-high line of whitewater approaches.
The wave itself exhibits different characteristics on different stretches of the river. Sometimes it’s just a rolling whitewater wave, and sometimes it throws up shoulders and sections to turn off where it hits shallow stone ledges or sand banks, much as waves do in the ocean.
In fact, the novelty value is probably part of the appeal. Length of ride can be several miles, the record being 11 miles on a single wave – ridden by Steve King, the local bore maestro who’s missed only a handful of tides in the past 30-odd years.
It’s no high-performance wave, granted, but it’s a charming and mildly eccentric weekend of surfing a long way removed from the regular scene back on the beaches. Everybody’s friendly and pleased to see each other, keen to share stories, a pint and a wave. When there’s only one every 12 hours, party waves become de-rigour and it’s all about distance covered and the width of smiles shared.
Many thanks to Severn bore expert Steve King for his invaluable help and advice.