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The Severn Bore has a legendary reputation among surfers. James Briggs discovers what all the fuss is about

“It’s Double Gloucester time!” my surf coach Spence yells excitedly. But he’s not talking about cheese. It turns out that we are the crackers about to get creamed by a colossal wall of white water; a rapidly approaching tidal wave surging inland up the otherwise tranquil River Severn.

The Severn Bore is one of Britain’s spectacular natural phenomena and we are getting a taste of its incredible power near the Gloucestershire village of Newnham-on-Severn. The river’s unique funnel shape allows a wall of water to sweep up its estuary, along the West Country peninsula and down the Welsh coastline. Put surreally, imagine a tube of toothpaste being jumped on by an elephant. The massive pressure exerted upon the tube squeezes out the toothpaste at high velocity, resulting in an explosion of white minty liquid across your hands, toothbrush and quite possibly up your nostrils. Minus the minty elephants, surfing the Severn Bore is much the same, except the liquid is mud brown, icy cold and relentlessly tries to displace you from eight feet of fibreglass.

Surf paradise

The legendary tidal bore has attracted surfers from all over the world since 1955 when eccentric Commando officer Colonel Jack Churchill rode the wave for the first time on a home-made 16ft board. His ride was – not so quickly – followed up in 1962 when a bunch of visiting Aussie lifeguards surfed the bore for a mile. In the past few decades, surfers have flocked to the legendary river to catch this challenging wave.


Although bore tides take place twice-daily year-round, the larger, rideable waves occur in spring and autumn when the tide is at its highest – occasionally reaching up to two metres – especially around the full moon. 


For those with skill, the wave can be surfed all the way to Gloucester – past houses, trees and rolling pastures, giving England’s mid-west infamy alongside other Bore destinations such as the rivers Seine in France, the Amazon in Brazil and the Hooghly in India. The current record for the longest ride was achieved in 1996 by local legend Dave Lawson who covered 5.7 miles in 35 minutes. For those lacking surfing talent, and a tidal wave imminently upon them, you quickly need to develop a penchant for paddling if you’re not to get dumped and then giggled at by the gaggles of geese on the river. Not that I’m speaking from experience.

Wipe out

Spence continues to bellow constructive encouragement, screaming: “Paddle, bloody paddle”, as the swell ghosts under my board and lifts me on to the wave. In between mouthfuls of river water, I am conscious we are being watched. Not just by curious locals who are enjoying the view from the riverbank, but by a herd of suspicious cows. Spence pops up for a better view of our bovine buddies and the bucolic green of Gloucestershire, as the wave paints elegant strokes along the river bank, licking at the cows’ hooves. I foolishly attempt the same – standing up, not licking the cows’ hooves – and for the merest hint of a moment, the river’s majesty and England’s lush pastures converge in perfect harmony.


So joyous is it, I try yelling “Severn up”, but the words are, probably for the best, washed from my mouth by the muddy brown water that now fills it. Falling from my river heaven, I crash face first into the Severn. Surfacing from the icy depths, I dredge my befuddled senses to see Spence cruising onwards, still standing, still being eyed suspiciously by cows. Although cold and sporting river reeds as headwear, my mouth is so dry I feel like I’ve eaten the sun.

Surf's up

Clambering up the muddy banks for an ale, I ask Spence: “What was all that cheesy babble about Double Gloucester?”

“The bore forms on consecutive days,” he replies.

“No cheese then, but still pretty emmental!” I say.

Spence looks at me as if I am some Dairylea short of a dunker as tomorrow’s tide draws tantalisingly close again.

James Briggs surfed the Severn Bore with Falmouth and Porthtowan Surf School. Courses from £25pp. The next surfable wave is due on Sept 28.  01326 212144,  falmouthsurfschool.co.uk, riversevernbore.co.uk

Where to eat

Grab a Bore breakfast of bacon rolls and coffee at Severn Bank Farm, with all proceeds going to the Severn Area Rescue Association and other Rotary charities (Elmore Back, Gloucester, GL2 3ST; 01452 883450).

The Ship Inn is a contemporary establishment serving energy replenishing locally-sourced food in Newnham-on-Severn (theshipatnewnham.com).

Where to drink

The Severn Bore Inn is a popular meeting point. Surfers can be found here getting togged, rather than tanked, up in the mornings, then returning for a leisurely ale and swapping surf stories in the late of the day (Main Street, Minsterworth, GL2 8JX).

The CAMRA-awarded Railway Inn in Newnham-on-Severn has more than 60 ciders on tap (Station Road, GL14 1DA).

Where to sleep

Grove Farm B&B offers bracing views over the glorious Severn Vale towards the Cotswolds, from £35pppn including breakfast (grovefarm-uk.com).

Tythe House B&B, in Frampton-on-Severn, is good for several Bore jumping-off points and serves a special early breakfast to get arms and adrenaline pumping. Doubles from £75 (tythehousebandb.co.uk).


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Magnificent Severn: surfing the Severn Bore
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