The Severn River rises in mid Wales, close to the ancient town of Llanidloes in the Cambrian Mountains. To trace its path to the Severn Estuary is to follow the course of British history, through county towns, Shrewsbury, Worcester and Gloucester, past such monuments as Gloucester Cathedral where King Edward II of England is interred.
Until 1879 Gloucester marked the lowest bridging point of the river. To travel from Bristol to the Wye Valley by road involved a ferry crossing from Aust to Beachley (the ferry terminal features on the Dylan album cover for the No Direction Home soundtrack, also showing the first Severn Crossing in the background), or a 70 mile road journey.
Before the Severn becomes the Severn Estuary, generally considered to be at the second Severn Crossing (the M4 bridge), and just north of Sharpness Docks it is possible to find the remains of the original Severn Bridge. Finished in 1879 it carried the railway, until its demise in the 1960’s. The better known first Severn Crossing is the road bridge, opened on 8 September 1966, linking Chepstow and Aust. It is this bridge that holds the Bristol cyclist in its thrall.
Head out from Bristol any morning of the week, in all but, or maybe including, the most absurd conditions and you’ll come across two wheeled adventurers heading over the watery abyss to another country. This is engineering embracing romanticism, bringing fiction to life, soaring into open air, where no man has previously trod, exposed in mythical form above the void.
Crossing borders is a symbolic act in many contexts, showing commitment by those undertaking it. So it is with the cyclist. And although the crossing may become more familiar, it never becomes mundane!
The Severn Estuary has a ferocious and well deserved reputation, and crossing high above it, exposed to the elements is an experience to be savoured. The proximity of the water seems to devise a self-contained ecosystem. It’s possible to leave one shore in bright sunshine, and make landfall in pouring rain.
From Bristol and on to the bridge abruptly opens up the astonishing scenario of the river. Golden sandbanks, rocks and channels at low tide, and white washed currents when the water moves. On a clear day the second crossing and Devonshire Hills are visible downstream, and the Forest of Dean and the edge of the Cotswold Hills upstream. A still day shows a vast millpond of incomparable beauty, reflecting the clear blue of the sky. On a rough day the water is brown and choppy, churning mud and water. In winter the wind is channelled down to the bridge as a wall of freezing air, forcing the cyclist to fight to keep the bike upright. Yet all of these conditions are welcome for their challenge or beauty.
This life, as so often with cycling, is unavailable elsewhere, this man-made viewing platform which marks the end of the beginning of a ride, or the beginning of the end of a ride.
This is the gateway which opens up to quiet Welsh lanes, castles, abbeys, hills, and coffee stops! Whether the weather punishes or blesses you this is cycling nirvana, a pleasure ground for the committed pedaller, and when it’s done, it’s also the direction home.