1886: A CRUISE IN FLOOD-LAND.

These days TV reporters are often criticised for going waist deep into flood water to do live reports giving health and safety bods a heart attack. But go back to Victorian times and reporters would go to extraordinary and dangerous lengths to get to the heart of the story. As you’ll read now – this unnamed correspondent took his life in his hands and decided to take a boat out on high water.

SHREWSBURY INUNDATED EXTRAORDINARY SCENES.

A CRUISE IN FLOOD-LAND. (SPECIAL.)

It is half-past six, on Friday evening, by St Chad’s we amble into the Quarry and rouse the genial charge d’affairs at the Pengwern Boathouse. The evening is fine but cold; the sunset is a delicate little thing in red and grey that would have delighted the heart of Turner; and Nature, generally speaking, looks sorry for herself. The lower ground in the Quarry on both sides of the central avenue is converted into a mere ; the lower waterside pathway has disappeared altogether, and the bottom avenue towards Murivance, is just simply a charming little linden bordered canal.

The Severn, delightfully murky, is hurrying along at twelve knots an hour, and looks about wide as the Thames off Woolwich, only a great deal dirtier and a great deal more ill-tempered. On the other side of the river the ex-champion sculler whom the Pengwerners love like a brother, is having a high old time of it with a big iron hand-basin, baling out boats. A shout across the brawling torrent brings him to his feet again, and in the twinkling of bed-post is wrestling with the stream in one of the club’s neatest gigs. We cross back together; I leave Tom to resume his boat-bailing, and then my voyage begins. I haven’t been out on a flood before, and I begin to enjoy it. I have a constitutional objection to hard work, however, and accordingly I pull to the Quarry side of the river and scull up under the overhanging boughs of the lime trees, where the current is weakest.

Five minutes’ pull, a struggle with Christian’s ferry rope, and the Honeysuckle is breasting the current again. On the way we pass a street lamp still garishly burning, and looking rather sheepish and dissolute in the daylight. The water within two feet of the glass, and before morning it will have reached the burner. A little further on a summer-house, partially overturned, trembles under the pressure of the swift flowing stream, which is playing the dickens with its centre of gravity. The Honeysuckle and its gallant crew (which is Me) are now “in the thick of it.” Cross-currents and back-turns, the swollen stream rushes headlong against the piers of the Welsh Bridge, make miniature maelstroms in which the Honeysuckle is whirled round like a match box in a churn.

Welsh Bridge feb 2020

We try the middle arch—the Honeysuckle and I—and again and again are thrust back into the stream till it begins to dawn upon us that we are a bald-headed old idiot for attempting to do it at all. The bridge by this time is thronged with people, who watch with breathless anxiety.

To fail were terrible; we feel, so to speak, that the eyes of Europe are upon us, and make one grand final effort. It is vain; and we finesse and diplomatise and eventually pull over to the Frankwell side, and try the last arch. The stream is steadier here, and after a hard stroke or two, we succeed in getting through. The crowd on the bridge gives a little cheer, and we pull out into the stream again and pursue the distinctly uneven and serpentine tenour of our way up stream. A small colony of children reveling in the thousand mysterious joys of the parish dust heap gives a shout as we go by, and a deputation of half a dozen feminine sans-culottes begs to be taken on board. It is not our day for receiving boarders, however, and pass on, regardless. Beyond the dust-heap the scene is something to remember. Water as far as the eye can reach; a bit of a hedge starting through it here and there—here and there a tree; and yonder, looking like some queer specimen of craft intended for the “Shipperies,” the Cricket Pavilion. It is Water, Water, Everywhere, as that irrepressible old bore Coleridge’s puts it. Over the cricket field the water is placid as a lake. Scarcely a ripple disturbs its glassy surface. We take soundings with a scull, and our log subsequently registers a depth of two feet four inches.

On the steps of the Cricket Pavilion we cast anchor, and load a pipe. An observation taken 7-30 p.m. shows all the meadows within eye-reach deep under water, nothing remaining but an occasional tree and the isolated house of Farmer Evans behind the Isle of Poplars to remind the crew of the Honeysuckle that this vast expanse of water is anything abnormal. Five minutes rest, and we pull once more into the stream. In the Coton Hill quarter the current rushes along at speed. We “put our back into it” and just gain upon it about one inch per stroke. We pull to the side, but the stream here is as strong as ever.

Illustrated London News – Saturday 24 January 1948

Opposite Admiral Benbow’s house we take a passenger aboard, and making a fresh start amid the altogether disrespectful and uncalled-for remarks of a group of unregenerate small boys, and the encouraging smiles of a trio of feminine loveliness, we cut once more across the river-line and make for the once green and lovely Isle of Poplars. We pull across it serenely, and the soundings register twenty-three inches. The ground here, however, is high; for the water is obviously still rising, and rising rapidly. On a small green patch beyond us that in twelve hours will have totally disappeared, browse half a score of Farmer Evans’ cows—which he’ll probably have to stow away for the night in his back drawing-room. The wind is rising, and the river rushes fiercely and wildly through the low branches of the willows. Westward the sun has sunk, and the red glow of the evening sky has given place to a steel grey glitter, yellow-tinged at the horizon, and blue above.

Coton Hill Shrewsbury from Coton-Hill.
C.W. Radclyffe. del. et lith. Day & Hague, lith.rs to the Queen.
Published by Sandford & Howell, Shrewsbury [1844].
Tinted lithograph with hand colour and large margins. Printed area 215 x 295mm (8½ x 11½”). Rare.
A view looking up at Shrewsbury and Shrewsbury School from the banks of the Severn. From Charles Walter Radclyffe’s ‘Memorials of Shrewsbury School.’

In the south-west a black storm cloud is gathering and the storm-breath is the air. A moaning sound reaches us from the tall poplars, swaying sadly in the breeze like the weeping Daughters of the Sun that the Greek poet swore they were. Ominous signs and portents warn us to return if we would get home with dry skins, and, accordingly pulling dead-on to the current, swept hither and thither by the resistless force of the flood, thrust against trees this side and hedges that, we at length make our way into the river track again, and are carried gaily along towards the Welsh Bridge. Warned by our experience coming up, we make charily for the Frankwell side, and note by the way that our water mark registers a rise of 11 inches during the past hour. For a moment the swirling current has us at its mercy. If we don’t “mind our eye,” as Tertullian says, we shall be just quietly dashed against arch of the bridge, and the Honeysuckle will be floating down stream towards the Bristol Channel bottom-upwards. We turn sharply, however, and pulling a stroke or two up-stream, regain our course, and floating down with dropped sculls, shoot the arch in safety. The rest of the voyage is uneventful enough. We drop quietly down stream, and, pulling between the trees opposite the Pengwern Boat-house, scull gently down the Quarry avenue and into the Quarry itself.

Pengwern Boat Club in flood Feb. 2020

By this time the moon is up, and the scene is one of fairy-like beauty. Over the swift-rushing Severn the dusk of evening is gathering, and where water ends and land begins the eye cannot distinguish. The storm-wind is soughing weirdly through the lime trees, and the quivering branches rustle strangely and ominously in the moonlight. A big drop or two of rain begins to fall, the wind grows colder and colder, and darkness comes suddenly upon us. We pull silently across the turbid stream once more, and, landing at the Pengwern, hasten homewards. We have had a good time, and henceforth, when we want to synchronise our experiences we shall adopt the cheerful egoism of the Romans, and date them from the Cruise over Floodlands.

TO HENCOT RANGE BY WATER.

On Saturday we revelled some more. By three o’clock in the afternoon the water had reached its highest, and as it only left a space of about twenty-four inches between the surface of the water and the keystone of the centre arch of the Welsh Bridge we deemed it prudent, on the whole, to escape the perils of the Welsh ford altogether and make a start from Smithfield Road instead of the Pengwern Boat Club.

Accordingly we called upon the courteous ’bove-bridge boatbuilder, Mr. Hudson, and after a struggle with a corner-swirl got bravely away, and pulled gaily across the meadows in the direction of Mountflelds. Four fifths of juvenile Shrewsbury—very hilarious and slightly grimy—saw us off, and beamed on us approvingly. Out in mid-ocean (at the back of the cricket pavilion) soundings register three feet of water. A strong breeze is blowing from the north-east, and the water which was so placid twenty-four hours ago is blown into angry waves. We put on another pair of skulls and manipulate the rudder-lines with our feet; and as our bows cut through the water the spray is dashed into our faces for all the world as though we were crossing the herring-pond. Once more we pull over the Isle of Poplars, and turning off into the meadow behind the homestead of Farmer Evans, we cast anchor in a charming little grass-bordered bay—a miniature Llandudno with greensward in place of glacial drift. Five minutes rest mid a meditative pipe, and the Athlete and I drag our  taut little craft across the jutting promontory of grass-land which blocks our way, and, launching her again on the other side, make laterally across the current towards Berwick Road.

On our way we cross the mossy lane where we gathered wild violets on Sunday last, and ride easily over the five-barred gate which on that same delightful day was opened for us by a small baby who gave us daisies and wild hyacinths and a huge smile.—Careful steering now, if you please, my gay and festive helmsman, for the trees are getting thicker and the hawthorn higher, and if we don’t keep our weather-eye open we shall be wrecked on a bramble-bush. Gently through that hedge; a pull, a push, a struggle, and we are crossing Berwick Road, and wrestling with a gate on the other side, what time the wagonettes pressed into fording service, wait for us to clear the way. The gate gives at last and we pull merrily over the meadows and through the interlacing boughs of cropped and stunted willows, which are looking intensely and miserable in the midst of the element they are supposed to love so well. Over another hedge or two and slowly over a stake-fence which prods us remonstratively we cross it, and are face to face with the iron targets at Hencote range.

Illustrated London News – Saturday 24 January 1948

Once more rest for spell –we’re good at resting, the Athlete and I—and satisfying ourselves on the subject of Hencote butts and markers huts we made across the fields for the river again. Another little tussle with the gate and we cross Berwick road once more, and strike a bee line for the Severn. It is at this point that it dawns upon us that the low ground our boat has been travelling over is the old bed of the river, and we make mental memorandum to come down there in the autumn and dig for fossils. While our oars rest idly on the rowlocks and the rippling tide makes merry music against our prow as we drift for a while with the stream, it occurs to us that the fall of four inches, which the trees around us register, will soon be fourteen, and that if we intend doing the Flooderies as the Flooderies ought to be done, we had better buckle to it and pull up hard. So, over the fields and the hedges, through a broken fence here and over a low one there, tying the boat to a tree in mid-ocean, and lying down to recuperate when we feel that rest is a necessary portion of our outing—striking now and again into the river course and battling manfully with swift-rushing stream, we at length reach Berwick. By the water’s edge the sandmartins are twittering mournfully over their wrecked nests, and the melancholy plover hovers sadly over the flooded fields and “pee-wits” in sympathy.

Northern lapwing or Pee-wit

Pulling heedlessly on we find ourselves imprisoned by tall fence. We hold council of war on the subject: shall we pull back a quarter of a mile or so or shall remove the fence? About two feet of it above the water, and eighteen inches or so underneath -which shall it be? We discuss the matter calmly, and eventually agree to compromise—we will sit on that fence and lift the boat over it. We do. We sit perilously balanced on shaky top-rail with our feet dangling gracefully in the water, and lift her on to the fence and balance her there for a while. The situation is full of gravity. We want to laugh but we daren’t do it. The Athlete beams at me across the boat and it nearly kills him. I smile back at him and we escape falling off our perch into the raging ocean by a miracle. Presently we buckle to it again, and with prodigious effort slide the boat over the top rail, and launch her gracefully on a floating log the other side. Five minutes later we find that we have escaped Scylla only to come full tilt upon Charybdis, and the fence on this occasion is too many for us. There is an alternative, however, and embrace we it. We run the boat ashore, and, dragging her across fifty yards or so of wet grass, push her off once more into the river by the lovely glade of Rossall, where last summer saw us picnicking.

Then to Berwick, and then, not without some amount of reluctance, we turn the boat drift homewards. The wind, boisterous enough when we started, has calmed down ; the evening is bright and pleasant, and ruddy glory of the setting sun invests Floodland with a chastened beauty, good for tired eyes to gaze upon. The cuckoo calls from the distant woodlands—(you know what they say here- abuts – the Cuckoo comes in April, he sings a song in May, in the middle of June whistles tone, then merrily flies away),—the pee-wit flutters over our heads and the corn-crake rattles his evening hymn from places unseen and remote. There is a tender and subtle charm about the whole scene, and we begin to believe that it’s a good thing to be alive. Anon, we get home to tea; and then we know that it is.

Eddowes’s Journal, and General Advertiser for Shropshire, and the Principality of Wales – Wednesday 19 May 1886

Edwardian gig
Eddowes’s Journal, and General Advertiser for Shropshire, and the Principality of Wales – Wednesday 19 May 1886

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