The river does not “swell by degrees, but rolls in with a head...foaming and roaring as though it were enraged by the opposition which it encounters”. So wrote Thomas Harrel, a local man, in 1824, of the bizarre Severn Bore.
In Harrel’s wake have come plenty of tales, some apocryphal, some fact. There is talk of dead cows floating upriver, along with fridges, dustbins, empty coffins and other inland flotsam and jetsam.
The Bore is one of Britain’s most spectacular natural phenomena. Underlying its mystery is the moon, whose gravitational pull controls all tides on the planet. As the tide from the Atlantic enters the Bristol Channel and continues into the Severn estuary, the huge volume of water funnelled into the narrow channel creates a wave up to 6ft high. Bores occur year-round, several times a month — the next is due on May 16 — but are at their highest around the spring and autumn equinoxes.
The wave — the Bore — surges inland at about 10mph and surfing it has become a springtime rite of passage for many surfers. The first was Colonel “Mad” Jack Churchill in 1955, whose ride on a homemade 16ft board was witnessed by a local farmer. The feat was not repeated until 1962, when travelling Australian lifeguards surfed the Bore. Today it attracts a band of locals every spring, seduced by the possibility of an uninterrupted ride of five miles or more.
Many gather early in the morning at Newnham-on-Severn, and this is the best place for Bore virgins to try their luck. With its array of antique, porcelain, pottery and bookshops, the village is the epitome of middle England. Its ancient church stands serene, there are listed buildings galore, and lush woodland that hints at the nearby Forest of Dean.
As you slip down the muddy riverbank and enter the viscous water of the Severn, your sense of anticipation swells. Other surfers are already sitting on their boards, waiting. One of them says “First time?” and you nod and exchange pleasantries, all the while keeping an eye downriver. Suddenly a flock of birds on an exposed mudflat takes flight, and you know the Severn Bore is on its way.
The frothing crest hoves into view, you paddle, catch the wave and jump to your feet. This is surfing, but with a twist. You’re upright, riding a wave, yet you’re inland, cruising past fields, houses and trees, and next to you, bubbling in the foam, are the oil cans, window frames and branches of folklore (but not, unless you’re really unlucky, the dead cows and coffins).
Miles from the ocean, you’re whizzing upriver, driven by the pull of the moon, in one of the most surreal experiences you’ll ever have.
That night, traditionally spent in a tent on the riverbank swapping Bore stories with fellow surfers, you catch yourself staring at the moon in hushed reverence. You have harnessed its power and belong to an exclusive club of lunar surfers.
How to do it
What Surfing the Severn Bore
Why Where else can you ride a wave inland?
When Bores occur year-round, but the biggest are in February, March, April and August, September, October. See times at tinyurl.com/39yzdx
How Surfers chase the Bore, ride it for a while, then get in their cars and rejoin the river further upstream for another go
Be warned The Bore is not for novice surfers. Once you’ve lost the wave the current makes your exit perilous. Talk to locals and carefully plan your exit
Info www.severn-bore.co.uk; www.stillstoked.co.uk; www.boreriders.com. World records for the longest wave surfed have been regularly set on the Severn, particularly by local Bore surfers Steve King and Dave Lawson, with rides exceeding five miles
Viewpoint The Severn Bore Inn at Minsterworth is most popular