Words: Cal Major
Pics: James Appleton
It’s hard to believe that the UK’s longest river begins as a single post and a trickle of water in the Welsh Hills. From this trickle, however, the River Severn’s beauty, majesty and power very quickly becomes apparent. Steep, fast-flowing waterfalls carving through the Hafren Forest, alive with wildflowers, pine trees and insects.
The seven-mile round trip hiking up to the source and back was the start of what was to become an unexpectedly deep love for this river, an environment I had never previously felt much affinity towards.
I’m an ocean lover through and through – there’s no pill as potent as jumping into the sea, whether on a surfboard, a SUP, or my swimsuit.
I’m also a passionate ocean activist, driven by my love for this special place and what it means for my mental health. My campaigns have taken me to some great ocean environments from the Maldives to the Isle of Skye, each one teaching me more about nature and myself.
Following a journey
I had never really spent much time in or around rivers but was aware of their importance in the context of marine litter. Plastic on our beaches isn’t just stuff that’s thrown away in that coastal environment. A great deal of it originates inland where, if improperly disposed of, it can find its way into our rivers and out to sea. I wanted to follow this journey on the River Severn, which at 354km, flows through Powys, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire before emptying into the Bristol Channel.
Having seen just a glimpse of the beauty that was to come in the Hafren Forest, I was grinning with excitement to get onto the water as I drove to Crew Green on the Welsh/English border, the first navigable point on a SUP. And I wasn’t disappointed. My first 20km that evening in the setting sun was glorious, stopping along the way to pull plastic sheeting out of the trees lining the river. Most of the sheeting was plastic, used to wrap bales of hay and silage.
The second day of paddling was even more beautiful, and it’s then I began to appreciate how special this river is. She changed every few miles, from winding oxbows, narrow and faster flowing, to broad long straight sections, sided by enormous trees. The pace of life slowed down as I became increasingly aware of the sound of the wind in the trees, or the chorus of birds settling into them for the night. I felt like I was in a nature documentary, miles from civilisation!
I also began to see an extraordinary bird – the Kingfisher. I’ve never seen one in the flesh before, and almost fell off my board the first time I did! Tiny and so fast, darting across the river in front of me, a flash of metallic blue preceded by a high pitched shriek. I also paddled past herons, buzzards watching over the river from their treetops, and several species of ducks. I was in awe of this place, in love with the amount of wildlife I was amongst, and the energy that the flowing water and ecosystem exuded. This wasn’t just a connection to the ocean, but an important and beautiful place in its own right, home to so many animals and capable of inspiring awe and wonder. I paddled 46km that day, mostly with a smile on my face.
The river continued to wind its way towards the sea, and I was soon in the town of Shrewsbury. Instantly I felt my smile falter. I became conscious of onlookers and aware that I was no longer alone with nature but enclosed by tall walls protecting the town and our meaningful lives from this body of water. No more kingfishers or herons, but plenty of plastic bottles as I paddled through the canalised river. Shrewsbury is beautiful, and it was a pleasure to see from the water. However, it felt very different from the previous couple of days.
Approaching Ironbridge, Dave, Duncan, Duncan and Craig join me, four local paddlers, who gave me a great insight into the area. Ironbridge was once the heart of the industrial revolution, and photographs from then depict a dirty, polluted, heavily damaged river. Our devastation of nature has been tempered, and it was reassuring to see just how well nature had been able to regenerate here as I paddled past beautiful forests and through fun rapids and fast flowing sections. I was also thrilled to hear that these paddlers found similar solace here as I was experiencing.
As I approached Stourport, I was hit by the first sense that something was wrong. An enormous boat with just a handful of passengers on chugging up and down the river on a sightseeing tour, clouds of smoke left in its wake; massive yachts and speed boats buzzing up and down the river; loud, noisy, polluting. And no birds to be seen.
The banks of the river were increasingly concreted, taming her and stopping the naturally ever-changing banks. Then the first of several locks on the river, constructed for ease of boat passage up and down this once wild place. Enormous concrete structures and gates impeded the water’s flow, and the feeling was no longer of a complete and precious ecosystem but a boat motorway, a resource for us to extract from and use and take. It feels like a challenging thing to write about because I don’t wish to shame anybody’s individual choices, and am grateful that there are ways for all of us to enjoy the water.
This is by no means an attack on the individuals or groups using the river in this way, more an observation of how disconnected we are from the value of a river, or any other ecosystem for that matter, as something more than just an economically or hedonistically useful place. I came into this journey to look at how plastic enters the ocean where it can cause harm, and yet I’d overlooked how vital our rivers are in their own right. I’d been touched by the utter beauty, peace and wildness upstream; I felt real grief for where all of this was destroyed at our hands.
This isn’t just crucial from an enjoyment point of view either. We’ve all heard about the crises facing our planet – climate change, pollution and particularly recently with the David Attenborough Extinction programme, biodiversity loss. Wildlife and wild places are not just crucial because they are pretty or pleasant to be around; they are the linchpin of our survival on this planet. The loss of wild plants and animals is not just tragic but creates a world which is incredibly vulnerable to rising temperatures and increasingly uninhabitable by those left on it.
So what can we do about this? How do we protect wild places and ensure that these critical ecosystems are left intact for wildlife to thrive?
We need a mass reconnection to our natural world and what it means to be a part of it. Before this trip, I never had my connection to rivers. Just a few days into being on this river and already I became aware and outraged at the damage we are causing it. I firmly believe that a personal connection to our wild places is the only way we can expect people to care about them. Whether or not you’re spiritual, you think there are more significant forces at work, or even if it’s a recognition that being somewhere wild makes you feel amazing, improves your mental health and tops up your nature batteries, we need to address the disconnect in our society. Hence, protecting nature is fundamentally more embedded in our values and at the forefront of our thinking.
Because without wild places we won’t have a planet to live on, and I feel it wouldn’t be a planet worth living on.
My journey finished with a couple of days paddling down the tidal section of the Severn, from Gloucester to Sharpness. It was so incredible to be back onto moving water beyond the city, with its shifting sandbanks and deep, unforgiving mud. It felt like an adventure once more – I was mesmerised by the different paths the river took to varying states of the tide, and upon approaching Sharpness enjoyed the standing waves and mini whirlpools caused by such massive amounts of water flooding in and out of the channel. This place felt alive again.
Having found a small freezer floating in the water, dragging it onto my board along with all the plastic I had seen that day, I was helped out at Sharpness by the Severn Area Rescue Association. After wading through thick mud, which felt surprisingly lovely on my bare feet, being hosed down by these guys felt like a fitting end to what had been an unexpectedly eye-opening trip. 260km of paddling over seven days, more than my bodyweight of litter picked up out of the river, including heaps of baby wipes and menstrual products stuck in trees along the banks after being flushed down the loo. I came here to explore plastic but left with a fire in my belly to help other people to realise just how perfect, and worthy of protection, our rivers are.
Just 1% of rivers in Europe are still free-flowing. The rest have been dammed, canalised, and devastatingly altered. We need rivers. We need them untouched to act as the crucial ecosystems they genuinely are. Great organisations doing this are Save Our Rivers and the Rivers Trust – please support their work and learn from their passion and expertise.
I want to thank the Midcounties Co-operative for supporting this trip – I work with the Midcounties Co-op on their 1Change campaign, tackling single-use plastic at source. My daily blogs from the trip and the film we made about it are available at http://www.calmajor.com/river-severn