Canopy & Stars Logo

The longest ride

The churning chaos of surfing the Severn bore

"There's a fear to sitting in a river, waiting for a wave to arrive from downstream, with what might be your one and only chance of the longest ride of your life. The adrenalin, the buzz and camaraderie amongst surfers, the thrill of the ride. It's intense. Then you get out, drive like a mad man to get ahead of the wave, get back in and do it all over again. Only this time there's the glassiest monster lurking round the corner and the shrieks of the expectant crowd to test your nerve!" Jeremy Lea is describing the rush of surfing the Severn bore, a tidal surge that flows upstream along the Severn as waters are forced into the narrow channel at the estuary just north of Bristol.

The estuary has the second largest tidal range in the world, a shift of over 15m and the wave can reach heights of 6ft and move at up to 15mph, peaking, troughing and rebounding off the banks as it goes. It occurs once in spring and again in winter, with a remarkable predictability that has helped turn it into a cultural oddity. At some of the more popular points, crowds do gather and cheer, but while surfing the bore has gained in popularity in recent years, it retains the feel of a curious Victorian pastime, kept alive by an eccentric few.

In reality, surfing the bore doesn’t go quite that far back, but observation of it certainly does. A surviving written account from 1764 involves discussions of its cause and notes its ferocity as, “a foaming crest, dashing up the two steep banks and fretting against the willow trees planted thereon, rushed furiously by.” Many spectators in boats were probably carried along with the tide, but the first deliberate surfing of the bore wasn’t until 1955.

It was then that Colonel Jack Churchill, a soldier who had picked up surfing during his time at an Australian military academy, paddled out at Stonebench on a homemade board and picked up the bore as it rushed past. Decades later, hundreds of people gather to follow in his wake and there’s even a world record, currently held by Steve King, who travelled 9.25 miles on the foam of the bore, which runs for about twenty miles in total, until it crashes back off Maisemore Weir.

Jeremy describes the experience, jokingly, as a nightmare. Riders jostle for space in a complete abandonment of normal surfing etiquette and the river itself throws up complications. "There are shopping trollies and sinking sand to avoid. Even church pews and fridges in the water". Eddies up ahead have to be spotted and dodged, and the riverbanks and curvature shape and change the wave as you go. It’s an experience that fosters a deep sense of connection, which makes the small community of regular bore surfers protective of the water and the communities around it.

Over the years, many proposals have been put forward for harnessing the power of the bore’s tidal surge and each has been protested by surfers alongside wildlife groups and other activists. A festival was even held in 2010, with the river itself billed as a headline act, to draw attention to the importance of preserving the habitat. The fear is that barrages or lagoons would alter not just the force and shape of the bore, but the whole landscape, harming wildlife and communities.
Jeremy surfs the bore every year without fail and you get the sense that even though the surfers might only come together infrequently, they represent a tradition, a cultural oddity, that should be preserved and protected along with the beautiful river itself.

Surfing the bore is not the sort of thing you hire a board for the weekend and have a go at. It’s a unique technical challenge presented by a long-lasting, crowded wave, that can all too easily end with a collision or a close encounter with a tree branch. We’ve always thought the best way to take it in was from a good vantage point, with a good vantage pint. Three favoured spots are, from west to east, The Old Passage Inn near Arlingham, The Anchor Inn at Epney and The Severn Bore Inn at Minsterworth. If you have your bike with you, you can follow the surfers between the three, racing surfers desperate for a second shot at the bore as you go.

River collections

Why we're one of the highest scoring travel B Corps in the world