Gloucester: 23rd April 2010
England isn’t exactly the first country that comes to mind when taking about river cruising. The River Severn is only about 220 miles long, and only navigable by larger vessels as far as Stourport, in Worcestershire. It can’t really be claimed as the longest river in England, as much of it is in Wales. But, it can safely be claimed as the longest river in Britain.
Multi-day cruises on the Severn are operated by English Holiday Cruises (www.englishholidaycruises.co.uk) with whom I recently travelled as a guest. Formerly, they used one of the few paddle-wheelers on British waters, the Oliver Cromwell. She wasn’t originally built as a paddle-boat, but converted from a Dutch barge.
.Sadly, Oliver Cromwell will cruise the Severn no more. Some years ago, it was found that the cost of the inspections required to renew her passenger licenses made the cruising business unprofitable, so she remains moored at Alexandra Quay in Gloucester Docks as a floating hotel and restaurant.
She was replaced in 2000 with the Edward Elgar, an 80-tonne vessel with a length of 88 feet, which was purpose-built for cruising on the Severn. She can accommodate 22 passengers, and is the largest inland cruise boat which can provide overnight accommodation in the United Kingdom.
But, we didn’t cruise the Severn itself, but along the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. Since the Severn Estuary is tidal, and therefore not always available to larger shipping, it was by-passed by the canal. Ships would sail into it through the Sharpness Lock, to be man-hauled up to Gloucester.
They did, eventually, use draught horses for this task, but only after considerable opposition from the haulage gangs who had to seek work elsewhere.
Since the Gloucester and Sharpness was a ship canal, it’s much wider than the usual English narrow-boat canal, and therefore presents no obstacle to the 18-foot-wide Edward Elgar. Neither are there any locks, except at either end of the canal. There are swing bridges, but these are operated by professional bridge-keepers. Indeed, each bridge has a notice threatening dire penalties for unauthorised people attempting to operate it.